Crocodiles: The Ugly Side

I don’t know what, unless I was simply supposed to be there, possessed me to get up at the crack of dawn and go down to surf the outgoing tide. I never do that. I don’t like surfing the outgoing tide in Tamarindo now, with the estuary dumping out its murky water practically at the Pico Grande reef. You can see from the beach why it would be better to wait a few days until the early tide is coming in, which is what I usually do.  I live here.  I can afford to be picky.  But on Friday morning, I went anyway. In fact, it was late on Thursday afternoon when, for some reason, I decided to get up early and surf the outgoing tide in the morning, which I know perfectly well I don’t like. And as I might have expected–I didn’t like it. There were plenty of waves, but all swirly and weird, breaking funny like I’m not used to, and the murky water and smelled of the brackish estuary.  The current was pushing me around, and I got a little freaked out about crocodiles.  I know that the estuary is where they live, and I know that some of them are huge and tame.  I tell myself all the time that crocodiles don’t eat people, but  I declare I could feel their beady eyes on me.  So I rode the second wave I caught all the way in to the beach and decided to go home for breakfast.

The last thing in the world I expected was to end up assisting the victim of a crocodile attack.

As I walked down the beach toward the path to the street, I saw something that didn’t make sense. My friend Edgar pulling somebody out of the estuary on the board. A child? No, not a child. A very big person.  Something wasn’t right about the person’s face.  Was that blood on it? And he wasn’t acting right. Edgar wasn’t acting right, either. I put my board down and asked, “Do you need help?” because something was wrong, but I couldn’t tell what.  That’s when Edgar told me that a crocodile had just attacked the man as they attempted to across the estuary.  They fought it until it let him go.

Edgar ran for help and I went to the man. He was lying on a small surfboard, floating in a about a foot of swirling water.  The was conscious and there were holes in his face. Big holes. He looked up at me and I knew there was no way on God’s green earth I could get a man this big out of the water by myself.  I asked him if he could walk. He told me his right leg was pretty f*’d up. I asked him if he could crawl. He said he thought so. So I tried to help this large, terribly injured man crawl from the sea onto the land. His hands and arms were full of bites from crocodile teeth, already starting to swell. Then I saw his leg.

It wasn’t a leg anymore. There was a foot, but it was no longer his foot. It was a foot with an ankle, floating, still attached to various types of flesh and a bare, jagged bone.  I told myself not to look at it.

As soon as he was completely out of the water, I told him to lie down. The tide was going out, like I said, and I knew the water would soon be far away. He rolled onto his back. And there I was on the beach with a mutilated man that I do not know, somewhere between life and death, sometime before 7 AM on a beautiful morning.

I held his head in my hands and he breathed.  I pulled Edgar’s board toward me and propped the man’s head on it. Then I took off the long-sleeved rashguard (which I only wear when I am trying to avoid sunburn, but for some reason put on that day at 5:30 in the morning), and tied it as tightly as I could above his right knee. I knew that the mess below it was not going to be of use to him anymore, but I also knew that he would bleed to death right there in the sand if someone didn’t stop him. Then I did the only other thing you can do at a time like that: I put my hands on either side of his head, held it lightly so he would feel there was someone with him, and prayed to God that he would not feel too much fear or too much pain.

I thought he might die. I know that the human body is amazingly strong, but I didn’t know how much blood he’d lost or how long it would take for an ambulance to come.  Or if they would have what he needed when they got there.  I had a flashback of the man who died on the beach in Tamarindo years ago after a drowning incident because when the emergency team arrived to resuscitate him, no one had charged the defibrillator.

Lots of guys arrived and started running around cursing, exclaiming, bring bandages and ice.  I got up and walked quietly away. There was nothing more I could offer as more capable help began to arrive. That’s when I had to sit, for a minute, with my head between my knees and tell myself not to faint.  I’m choosing not to describe in detail the mutilation that this man suffered.  Even the nastiest pictures the media posted do not do it justice.  Fortunately.

He’s alive. His name is Jon. He is in the hospital fighting for his life as I write this, and winning. Of course–he beat the croc.  He lost most of his right leg below the knee, but the rest will heal as long as infection is held at bay. Crocodiles are dirty creatures with dirty mouths and dirty teeth.

What’s Normal/What’s Not:

I’m no authority on crocodiles, but do know it is normal for large reptiles to live in estuaries, where fresh and salt water mix.  I do know that crocodiles swim in the ocean.  I do not think they generally live in the ocean, but they certainly go out for a swim once in a while.  I know that this crocodile (or these crocodiles, because they all look alike to me) lives in the Tamarindo estuary.  I know that normally crocodiles live on fish, dead things, and small birds/animals that they catch.  What is NOT normal is that this crocodile, or he and his cousins, like to hang out by the boats where people are.  I’ve heard the boat drivers throw food to them so tourists can watch them eat.  I have not seen them do that myself, so I am not saying it is a fact–although people I trust say that it is.  This crocodile will let you walk near as it suns itself on the beach.  I’ve seen people do it.  It will come up out of the water onto the land where people are standing.  In essence, it is not afraid of people, and that is NOT normal.  And it is also not normal for a crocodile to attack a large grown man.  I don’t understand why it would do that. We are not supposed to look like food to them. A dog, yes.  A child, unfortunately, yes.  A man the size of Jon?  No.  How many times have I joked that a crocodile wouldn’t want me because I’m too old and too tough to chew?  Wrong.

Taking risks:

Every surfer in the world is aware that crocodiles live in estuaries, just as we know that sharks lives in oceans and stingrays sleep in the sand. It is a risk, big or small, that we knowingly take, at least to some degree. I used to cross the estuary on my board all the time, but since I’ve been back in Tamarindo I haven’t done it even once. I took one look at that croc when I got back into town and decided that the waves on this side will do just fine for a girl like me. Color me satisfied.  Even that doesn’t make me safe, and that’s exactly my point:  suffers make choices and are aware of at least dangers that fall within the realm of normal.

That crocodile, in my opinion, is not normal.

I worry about visitors. Tourists. People from San Jose or Santa Cruz. People from places like Kansas and Manitoba. People who have no idea. Children.  I hear the authorities are putting up signs.  Is that good enough?

Jon and Edgar are big, strong men. They are both much bigger and far stronger than I am, and they were together as they fought this creature. I’ll be honest: I am full of fear. And this time it’s not fear of something I saw in a movie or dreamed in the night–it is fear of something I held in my hands.

The Ugly Side:

I know I will surf again, but not today. Today I will stand by the water and think about the ugly side of Mother Nature’s beautiful face. I will think about the necessity of a body full of warm blood, and how perfect it is to have two arms, two legs, one head.

Today, that alone is enough of a thrill.

help 2The Man The Crocodile Didn’t Eat
Photo by Leonardo Pinolero

Bill Ulmer Sentenced to Three Years in Prision

Two things happened yesterday—one rather blah, and one completely amazing. Blah is that Bill was sentenced to 36 months in prison for using Wayne’s passport. I’m not happy with that, but I’m also not surprised. It’s more or less what I was coached to expect for the charges that were filed. Could be better, could be worse—no matter who you are. Except Barbara. For her, everything could only be better.

The completely amazing thing is that the USA (who is the one bringing charges against Bill Ulmer) filed a “Motion for Departure” with the court, asking for an INCREASE in the level of Bill’s sentencing range. In this document, they laid out the entire story of why Bill stole Wayne’s passport and fled to Costa Rica in 2009 (I hadn’t written about that, so get ready for another surprise), and all of the evidence pointing to the presumable murder of Barbara Struncova. It tells the whole story pretty much as we already know it, complete with quotes from the OIJ and the investigation report from the house where Bill and Barbara lived. As the document is considered “public information,” I am sharing it with the public. I urge you to do the same.

MOTION FOR DEPARTURE FILED BY THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

The document concludes: “The facts of this case clearly demonstrate that, using his brother’s identity and stolen passport, Ulmer quickly fled Costa Rica to avoid questioning by Costa Rican law enforcement authorities regarding the disappearance and suspected murder of his then live-in girlfriend Barbara Strunkova.”

The judge chose not to take the increase recommendation, and gave Bill a rather blah sentence for stealing and using a passport that didn’t belong to him.

PRESS RELEASE FROM THE DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE

Is that justice? Not for Barbara. For identity fraud, probably yes.

No sentence, no matter how long or how severe, will bring Barbara back. And very few sentences will keep other women out of harm’s way forever. What I really want—me, personally—is exactly that. NO MORE VICTIMS. My number one priority is not vengeance for a life taken. That life is gone. I want him to STOP LYING. STOP CHEATING. STOP HURTING PEOPLE. If I thought he would walk out of that jail cell a reformed man who would not lie to people, cheat or cheat on people who trust him, who would never again hurt a women emotionally or physically or financially or spiritually, I think I would be satisfied. I would have gotten what I most want in exchange for the life of my friend that I will never get back.

I’m not holding my breath. But I would love him to prove me wrong.  Just this once.

Bill Ulmer’s Passport Problems and His Miraculous Journey

I was in the San Jose, Costa Rica airport last week accompanying a friend who took someone to catch a flight. Being in that building gave me the heebie-jeebies, which I don’t get very often. Thinking about Bill Ulmer standing in that line, going through that security check point, knowing the truth about Barbara Struncova, having gotten away with whatever he did, having lied to everyone in the presence of whom he opened his mouth, and running away. It gives me the bad kind of shivers.

On Wednesday, July 6, Bill is scheduled to receive his sentence for Identity Theft and Possession of an Identity Document with Intent to Defraud. The stolen/fraudulent identity document in question is a passport belonging to his brother Wayne Ulmer, Jr.

Today, let’s talk about passports. Bill had trouble with his—trouble, as in he didn’t have one. It’s lucky he liked to grumble about it while having a few drinks with his and Barbara’s friends. If he hadn’t, no one would have known to contact the US authorities when Barbara Struncova disappeared, her credit card charged several thousand dollars at the surf shop where Bill worked, and he turned up at his parents’ house in North Carolina the next day. In that order. Without having mentioned to anyone that he was leaving.

PASSPORT PROBLEMS

So what happened to Bill Ulmer’s passport? I gather that he’s done some creative story-telling to folks who ask. These are the main points of the story I’ve been able to pull it together: Bill arrived in Costa Rica with his own passport in the spring of 2008, intending to start a tour company. At some time near the end of the year, he was deported back to the USA. My understanding is that he was deported for “working” illegally. I’ve got to hand it to him—that is one crappy stroke of bad luck. Lots of foreigners work illegally in Costa Rica because there is no way to earn a dollar legally unless you are Costa Rican, have a resident visa, or obtain some type of practically-unheard-of work permit. It is my understanding that the authorities observed Bill receiving money from tourists for a surf trip, mistook it for a drug deal, stepped in, and discovered he was breaking a different law. I don’t know if that’s how it happened, but I do know that if the Costa Rican immigration officials catch you working illegally, you get deported. Period.

(O THE IRONIES of being deported for working illegally, only to walk away Scott free from a trail of blood that the authorities saw with their own eyes…)

Being deported does not mean you lose your passport. The country that deported you might not want you back right away, but you’re still allowed to go other places. But Bill wasn’t. Why? Because there are amounts of child support that a person can owe which disqualify him from being eligible to leave the country. And Bill owed that much. I don’t know exactly how much he owed at that time, but it was well over the magic number. That’s all I’m going to say about child support because I don’t want to discuss Bill’s children/family. None of this is their fault, and yet they can never disconnect from it.

The next thing we know is that Bill Ulmer re-entered Costa Rica in March 2009 as Wayne Ulmer. Whether Bill stole Wayne’s passport, or Bill “stole” Wayne’s passport, I cannot know. I’ve heard that during the 3 months between the time he was deported and the time he returned, Bill lived with Wayne. I have two sisters, both of whom own passports, both of whom I’ve lived with at one time or another. If I wanted to steal either of their passports, I wouldn’t have the foggiest notion of where to look. Maybe Bill spent three months stealthily searching? Maybe he convinced Wayne to show or lend it to him? I don’t know. If the story happened any other way, we have two felons instead of one.

Wayne immediately noticed that his passport was stolen. Or he immediately “noticed” that it was “stolen.” And what do you do if your passport is stolen? You report it to the authorities. If you give your passport to someone and plan to say it was stolen, what do you do? You report it to the authorities! You have to, or you could be charged with a felony as well. Wayne also phoned some friends, which is how we can be sure that he discovered it missing right away. My understanding is that Wayne reported Bill to the authorities for having stolen his passport right away. I can’t say anything for sure, but that is a story that came to me. The more I think on it, the less sense it makes.

Bill, then, could never go back to the United States. I remember that. I remember him never, ever wanting to go back, rolling his eyes and grumbling about how he had some trouble there. He needed fly under the radar in Costa Rica, not get in trouble with the cops, not get caught by immigration, not get stopped for speeding, stay out of bar fights.

THE QUESTION

What I want to know, what I cannot fathom, and what leaves even my imagination standing speechless is this question: HOW IN THE DEVIL DO YOU FLY FROM COSTA RICA TO THE USA ON A PASSPORT THAT HAS BEEN REPORTED AS STOLEN AND NOT GET NAILED BY TSA?

How?

That is nothing short of a miracle.

Was the passport really reported stolen? Or was it only reported after Bill came back?

Am I missing something? They practically make you walk through security checkpoints in your underwear, and Bill got both OUT of Costa Rica and INTO the USA on a passport that was reported as STOLEN? My God, my head is exploding. I hope there is a piece of this puzzle that is still missing, because BOY does it ever not fit together well.

CLOSELY WATCHING

On Wednesday, the judge will rule on how much more time Bill needs to spend in jail for traveling with Wayne’s passport. There are no charges regarding the disappearance of Barbara Struncova, but the judge is well aware of the close connection to a missing person case in Costa Rica. I am sure she is right over our shoulders, closely watching.

B and B hand over his mouth

Bill Ulmer Sentencing, July 6

Next Wednesday, July 6, 2016, Bill Ulmer is scheduled to be sentenced by a judge for the felonies involving the use of a passport that did not belong to him.  The sentencing is set for 3:30 PM, Eastern Time.  I’m preparing to share some thoughts about Bill’s passport situation next week—this is just a newsflash.

It’s also a “thank you” to the person who was brave enough to anonymously reach out and share this sentencing information.  I was already aware of it, but I am so thankful for every voice that reaches out to me, anonymous or not.  I just want you to know that you are heard.  And your secret is safe, because I don’t know who you are.  And I, too, am praying that he will not be released on time served.

More thoughts next week about traveling with a stolen passport…

What I Know in the Ocean / The Good Kind of Zero

There are some things that I think about/feel/know when I’m in the ocean that don’t come to me in the same way any other time.  It’s not about surfing.  I step into the water and stand there with it swirling around my knees, or I lie on my back and float.  And things come to me.

Lo Que Es La Orilla del Mar:

It’s the end of the world and the beginning of what is after/before.   Es donde la vida eterna se toca con la vida mortal.  It is the place where now meets forever.  Right here.  Right where my feet are.  This is the place.  It’s the end.

It’s also the beginning.  It is the amniotic fluid that carries our planet which is constantly being born.

Skin:

I like to float on my back and look up at the sky.  I think about how only a thin layer of skin separates the salt water I am made of from the salt water that holds me up.  It’s those few millimeters that keep me from blending in with Everything.  On land, I am an individual.  In the ocean, I am molecules of salt water among the others.  It’s not a bad feeling.  I tried to write a poem about it but there wasn’t anything else to say.

The Feeling of Zero:

I step into the ocean and what comes to me is the feeling of zero.  Not in a bad way; in a good way.  You might call it “peace” or “balance” or something, but for me that’s those aren’t the right words.  I feel zero.  My Mennonite upbringing would probably say I am feeling “forgiveness”—but there’s no sense of relief associated with it, and no guilt.  It’s quieter.  Like zero is what I owe and zero is what is owed to me.  Like I’ve done, or am doing, what I have to do, and nothing more is required of me than to be what I am.  Zero doesn’t mean that everything is going to be alright, or the way I like it.  It means that the world was here before me, and it will be here after me, and THAT is what is alright.  I don’t need to do or become or accomplish anything in order to make things different than what they are.  Like I do not owe a debt to the Universe and It does not owe me a paycheck.  Zero.  A good zero.

And one more thing.

I walk in to the ocean, past the breakers when the tide is low.  I lie on my back and float, looking up at the clouds.  I think, “This is where I will go when I die.”  Right there.  In the ocean, past the breakers.  It’s not a major item of concern for me what happens to my body after I die—my main concern is that it happens a really long time from now.  But who are we kidding?  I don’t have children or grandchildren who will want to visit my grave.  Got knows I haven’t got a red cent to leave behind, so I don’t imagine anyone will feel possessed to bury me.

I used to think about that in the States.   “Please, when I die, take me and pour me into warm salt water.  Don’t leave me here.  If I can’t live where I belong, at least take my ashes there.”

So I float in the ocean, miro el cielo, and I wonder if this is not in some ways like lying in my grave for a while on a sunny afternoon.  Just floating.  Checking out the scenery.  Watching some hunting birds glide by now and again.   Sometimes you can see the moon. Feeling the good kind of zero.

Does that seem morbid?  I hope not.  If it does, I did a bad job of describing it.  It’s very peaceful.  Then I have to trudge back onto the sand, pedal my bike up the hill, and decide what to make for dinner.

Bill Ulmer: One Year Behind Bars and Still Waiting For a Sentence

A year ago today I was at work in the clinic in Washington State trying to focus on the tasks in front of me, but I was having a hard time. Bill was leaving for Hawaii that day with his new wife on a belated honeymoon. A lot of us were worried about her. Certain circumstances surrounding the trip made me very nervous—and I’m not the only one. A lot of people were having trouble getting their work done at their desks a year ago today, and a lot of prayers for safety were being said for the new Mrs. Ulmer.

Then something crazy blipped through my Facebook messenger: Bill has been detained at the airport.

What?

Yes. The cops detained him at the airport. He isn’t allowed to fly.

What?!

It took the whole day for details to fill in and confusion to untie itself. All day long, my hands shook. My phone went crazy with messages. At 4:45 PM, as I gathered my things to leave work, my phone rang and the person who called me said words to me that I had not ever been able to dream of hearing. “Bill was arrested. He’s being held in custody. The feds mentioned Barbara’s name in open court.”

I made it past the time clock, out the door and into the car before I burst into tears. Happy tears, because Barbara deserves at least that acknowledgement. Happy tears, because I am not a crazy liar like Bill told everyone who read the story on my website. Happy tears, because I know he laughed when he thought he got away what he did. Happy tears, because Mrs. Ulmer is safe and I will not be looking for her body or listening to lies about false tragedies.

I kept saying, “Oh my God, he killed her,” over and over. Not like that was news to me. Not that murder is among the charges—it isn’t. But it became real to me in a new way when I heard that Bill Ulmer was behind bars and that federal officials know perfectly well that there is every reason to believe he could tell us what happened to Barbara Struncova.

A year has passed. Bill pleaded guilty to the counts of Misuse of Passport and Aggravated Identity Theft. I’ve listened to lots of voices speculate on how long his sentence will be, and I’ve heard numbers ranging from one year to fifteen. I personally have no idea what to expect.

The thing I did not expect—that no one expected—is that one year after being taken into custody, Bill is still awaiting sentencing. If there is any further investigation going on, I am unaware of it. I hear that this is the court system being pokey or backed-up. Hmmm. The longer Bill waits for his sentence, the more obvious is the possibility that by the time he receives it, he may have served a significant portion of its time. I guess I don’t much care why it’s taking so long or how much longer it takes. I only care that he is not done being punished yet.

Barbara, by now, is a fish or a small tree with greening leaves or a bird or all of these things. She is hermit crabs and raindrops and cicadas. We all turn into new creatures, someday.

And Bill, I am sorry you are reading this in a jail cell. I am sorry you didn’t just break up and walk away. I am sorry you aren’t surfing and that Barbara isn’t in Czech Republic with a handsome husband, chasing her toddlers around a park.  But what’s done is done.  And you can’t fool everybody indefinitely no matter how good of a liar you are.

(P.S.  Your friend James Henrickson got two life sentences for his shenanigans, so don’t feel sorry for yourself.)