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.


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


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.)

Shout-Out to My First Surf Instructor

This is a shout-out to my first surf instructor, Court Snider.

At the beginning of 2001, I moved to Tamarindo beach. Everything before that is a long story involving marriage and divorce and coming here a lot for work, but in 2001 all of that was in the past. I decided that I wanted to learn to surf. I’ve always loved water so I had to at least try. Unfortunately, I’ve never been terribly athletic—but lucky for me, surfing is not a team sport so nobody has to pick you. Anybody can play, if you suck you don’t ruin it for anyone else, and as long as you’re having fun, you’re winning. What’s not to love?

You cannot just guess how to surf (unless you’re very young or very athletic—which I wasn’t); somebody has to teach you. Court was in his early 50s then, or at least that’s how I remember it, an American expat with that slow calm that people get after a lifetime of surfing. He borrowed a big foam board from the surf shop where he wife worked and one terribly windy day in February when the there was no swell at all, only flat frothy chop, he took me out in front of the Capitan Suizo Hotel. If I remember right, he didn’t push me into waves—from day one he made me paddle.

It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t as fun as I’d hoped, either. Court kept grumbling about the “conditions” which meant nothing at all to me—my problem was staying on the board. And I’m not talking about standing up. I’m talking about staying on it lying down. Then you’re supposed to look at what’s coming up behind you while you paddle forward, and the wind is blowing water in your face and you can’t see anything. And then all of the sudden the wave picks up the back of the board and everything goes to hell in a handbasket. I scraped my eyebrow open on the sand on the bottom.

It gets better if you don’t quit.

Anybody who has figured out how to ride a surfboard, even if they screw up a lot, is not a quitter.

Court told me two things I’ll always remember. One, he told me years later as we sat on our boards watching the horizon. It didn’t mean much to me at the time. In fact, to be honest, I thought it seemed a little lame. But I’m closer, now, to his age then. I’ve been surfing longer. I’ve been more places and done more things. Maybe that’s the difference. “Life only makes sense when I’m surfing,” is what he said.

I think about that every single time I’m on a board.  “Life only makes sense when I’m surfing.” Or: my life only makes sense to me when I’m surfing. I have to say, I find it true. When I’m surfing, it’s very clear how everything has converged to bring me right here (right there, in the line-up with the tide coming in). And how everything has converged to bring the sets of waves across thousands of miles of ocean to the shore where one girl has traveled thousands of miles and given up everything to meet them. If we were sitting on surf boards together right now gazing into the horizon and I said that to you, it would make all the sense in the world. Guaranteed.

The other thing I got from Court, not about surfing although it has its applications: “Everything works if you let it.” Not applicable to things like deceased machinery and abusive relationships, but within the realm of the reasonable—everything works if you let it. In one way or another. Maybe in the way you had in mind, maybe not. If It doesn’t work, maybe you aren’t letting it.  Maybe.

Thank you, Court. For taking me out in the water and showing me how to stay calm. You were right about everything.

River of Tears

a love poem for a brackish body of water

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O lovely river of tears,
your crocodiles have grown
long and fat on your
plenty of small fish.
Your mangroves have leafed
green through the parched
summers of dread.
How like you are to
my blood; how you
taste of it.
How you called to me
in my dreams when
I was nowhere near
and I woke
crying for you.