in this sun
i am left with
only strong trees
in my landscape
in this sun
i am left with
only strong trees
in my landscape
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.)
Now that I’m back in Tamarindo Costa Rica, every day I bump into someone I haven’t seen for years. Part of me still half-expects to bump into Bill Ulmer and Barbara Struncova—they were here when I left. I should find her walking along with the dog, or spot Bill on his long board in the sunset lineup, or walk up behind them in the grocery line at Automercado. Of course it’s not going to happen.
I think about Barbara all the time—and Bill, too. How did everything go so horribly wrong for both of them? Good God. In the back of my mind, I am actively wondering, no matter what else I am doing, where she is. As I sit here at my kitchen table with my computer, how close am I to Barbara right now?
People ask me, “Where do you think he put her?” I say, “I don’t know.” I have some ideas, but they are all shots in the dark. I’m up for a drive to a few places I have in mind, though, if anyone who has a car and a few hours wants to go. Yes, that is an invitation. I’m not expecting miracles, but I never rule them out.
“Where would I go if I had a body to get rid of?” I ask myself. But I’m not the right person to ask. I put myself in a borrowed car with expired plates and a body in an enormous board bag. I give myself about 20 hours. Would I go north? South? East?? Would I have to get a shovel? Or something to weight the bag like cement blocks or a lot of rocks or something? Would I be heading toward an estuary? A forest? A bridge? A dump? I don’t know. Would I put the board and the body in the same place? I should have studied criminal psychology.
She can’t be far. Ten minutes? Thirty? Could he have driven for a whole hour?
Costa Rica’s Guanacaste province is a maze of back roads through fields, forests and small towns. Brackish ocean inlets called estuaries punctuate the coast line like long, squirrely commas, surrounded by dense, marshy lowlands. Estuaries, on one hand, are populated with crocodiles—which could be an attractive idea for a terrified expat with a body in the back of an illegal vehicle. But estuaries lead directly to the ocean where unmentionable things could wash up on the beach in the morning or 10 years later. So, I don’t know. But I think about it. If you needed to dig a hole big enough for the board bag and the body—that would be one enormous hole! But it could be done if you were ridiculously strong and had all night. And were desperate. In early December, the ground is not completely dried out yet. It’s been suggested to me that maybe Bill burned the bag. I think that a burning board bag in the night, no matter where it is, would run the risk of drawing way too much unwanted attention, so I personally don’t vote for that. Which means nothing.
If a perfectly normal human being can disappear in to thin air the way Barbara did, then what is impossible?
I’d like to look for her, but there is no place to start. I ask her to tell me in a dream where she is, but my only dreams are happy dreams about meeting again, even though Barbara and I are both aware, in the dream, that she is not alive. I think that she isn’t asking me to find her bones; she is asking me to remember her. She is asking me to help you to remember her. She is asking all of us that Bill not hurt anyone else.
Bill Ulmer is, today, being held in the custody of the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office in North Carolina. He was arrested on May 28, 2015 and is presently awaiting sentencing for passport fraud. At this rate, he may have served a significant portion of his sentence by the time he receives it. And any woman he approaches in the future, if she has enough sense to Google her suitors, will discover Barbara’s disappearance. Which may, when it comes to keeping potential victims out of harm’s way, be just as meaningful as any macabre discovery you or I could make on a solitary hillside or in the sand.
o my pirate,
where is your ship?
the compass points
to water and
there is gold
calling me from
Last Monday, November 9, Crime Watch Daily dedicated three segments of their programming to the story of Barbara Struncova and Bill Ulmer. They called the story:
LOST IN PARADISE: INTRIGUE AT A TROPICAL SURF RETREAT.
Click to watch it.
I am very happy with their presentation of the story. All of Barbara’s friends, as far as I know, are pleased with the piece. Some of the minor details—like which roommates lived where when, and who started what websites—are confusing or incorrect, but there are no mistakes in anything that matters. Endless thanks to everyone who put themselves out there and shared their piece of the puzzle!
The story is not over. Five years is a long time, but five years is not forever. The earth and the climate in the tropics quickly devour things, but they also spit them up. Crocodiles do not eat board bags, and neither do worms. Earthquake happen and erosion is constant. We may never know what happened to Barbara. Then again, time may be on her side.
If you wish to participate in the effort to create justice for Barbara Struncova, here is a small list of things you can do:
–Like the facebook page Where Is Barbara Struncova?
–Share the video or posts about her disappearance on your timeline (put the audience setting to “public” on those posts, please!)
–Type #justiceforbarbara into the comment box on facebook posts about Barbara or about Bill
–Use #justiceforbarbara if you are a twitter user (I try but it’s so not my thing)
–Send the link to Crime Watch Daily’s report to news stations and news papers
–Write a letter to the North Carolina governor, Pat McCrory (http://governor.nc.gov/contact)
I don’t know exactly what you or I can expect any of those things to accomplish. But you can do them all from your chair. The other option is to do nothing. We all know exactly what that will accomplish.
We have an elephant in the room. I’ve been talking around the elephant for almost a year, hoping that it will leave, shrink, turn into a frog—something. It hasn’t. It’s standing patiently right there in the middle of the room while we talk over and under it.
The elephant is the question of Barbara Struncova’s family. Eventually, everyone asks me about Barbara’s family, about what they say, about what they are doing, about where they are in all this. I am so loath to address this publicly that it has gotten to be a bit ridiculous. But let’s do it. Your questions are reasonable and rightly asked.
Yes, I have attempted to contact Barbara’s family. No, I have not been successful.
That’s what I can say for sure. Beyond that, all I can offer is “I heard…” and “someone (but I’ve promised not to say who!) told me…” I have not wanted to throw so much conjecture into this public conversation, but I believe it’s time for me to honor your questions. I will tell you what I know and what I don’t know.
I know almost nothing.
Somebody in Czech Republic is reading my blog. The posts about Barbara get a hit or two from Czech, sometimes up to 10. I have no idea who is there on the other end of the line. No one from Czech Republic has ever contacted me—neither to thank me, to correct me, nor to ask me to be quiet. I sometimes tell myself that their silence is their tacit approval, although, honestly, a silence so deep and so long sounds like something else.
When I began to talk about Barbara last December, I was afraid her family would ask or order me to stop, as they did with Barbara’s friends in Costa Rica 5 years ago. They haven’t. Whether because they don’t feel I pose the same kind of threat as the other friends or because they are afraid I will tell the entire universe if they ask me to be silent, I don’t know. I don’t want to know. It’s true: asking me to be quiet would be a very bad idea.
Barbara’s sister lives in Czech Republic. She did not respond to my attempt to contact her. I realize that English is not her first language, but it wasn’t Barbara’s either. Barbara and her sister were very close, from what Barbara’s roommates say, and the sisters talked frequently on skype. Of course they spoke in Czech, but the conversations sounded happy and contained lots of laughter.
During the Spanish lessons I gave Barbara, she and I talked some about our families. Both of us have a sister who chose a path in life that is more what our parents would have wanted for us than the one we each chose. We talked about how our parents don’t understand our decisions and how much we hate the pain and worry we cause them. Another thing we had in common is wealthy grandparents. Neither of our sets of parents were especially wealthy, and nobody was sending either of us money, but I remember speculating with her about whether we had inheritances that would one day come to us. That’s the conversation as I remember it, anyway. It was 5 years ago. And it’s not like we hammered on this every day.
After Barbara disappeared, I started asking questions. All put together, the answers make no sense, so I do not assume that any one of them is true, although each of them was told to me by someone who earnestly believes his/her story. I’m not going to dissect them. They involve a possible inheritance from a grandmother, and a rich uncle in Prague who, Bill seemed to think, was going to give them money.
On the flip side, many people (including Barbara herself) told me that no one sent Barbara money, and that she worked hard for what she had. There are lots of stories, lots of rumors, lots of very active imaginations (including mine!) and no Barbara to clear it up for us. In the end, all of that intrigue is beside the point.
Some things I do know:
On the day Barbara disappeared, no one suspected that anything had happened to her. There was no immediate reason to suppose she had not left the house to travel as Bill said she did. No one instantly suspected that he was lying. He’s very good at what he does. Red flags popped up one by one as the days passed.
Foul play was first mentioned when Bill left Tamarindo, Costa Rica on December 23, 2010, AND SIMULTANEOUSLY money was discovered to have been charged to Barbara’s credit card at the surf shop where he worked, and then withdrawn by the company ATM card that he carried. In the interim of 18 days, Barbara’s worried friends contacted her family and everyone was on the look-out for the first sign of where she had gone.
When the news of Barbara being a “missing person” and a suspicious connection to the actions of Bill Ulmer reached Czech Republic, (early 2011) what happened is not what I personally would have anticipated. Barbara’s family asked that the all contact with the news media be suspended, that the “Find Barbara” blog and Facebook page cease to be active and that the fliers containing information about her disappearance should please not be distributed. Barbara’s sister was aware of the facts surrounding Barbara’s disappearance, and yet for some reason Barbara’s mother learned of it from the newspaper. (That part of the story trips me, and I land flat on my face every time I get to it.) The blog degenerated into gossip and the family, deeming it unhelpful, requested that it be closed. Barbara’s friends and housemates complied with the family’s requests.
Investigators, which I’m told were hired by Barbara’s uncle, went first to Costa Rica to scope things out, and then they traveled to the USA where I heard they watched the house where Bill was living. I do not know if they attempted to contact him. That is all. The investigators went home. The end.
I wrote to one of the investigators, but he did not reply. I understand (second-hand reported conversation) that after the initial investigation, the family asked for him to leave the case alone. No requests for action on the part of the Struncova family have produced any that I am aware of.
I’ve heard it said that Barbara’s mother is not well and that this is the reason the family is unwilling to further discuss Barbara’s disappearance—that they do not want to re-open old wounds in the interest of protecting the fragile health and well-being of her mother. I do not know if this is true or false. I have very strong feelings about it, and no information. So the less I say about that possibility, the better.
What I do have is a I wild imagination, and in a situation like this, how am I supposed to control it? I can’t. I have gone through a million scenarios about the family’s (lack of) response and the reasons for it. I have imagined unspeakable possibilities that I would never dare to describe. But I must acknowledge that I have NO basis for these fabrications other than my own confused frustration.
I don’t know what’s going on in the lives or the hearts of Barbara’s family. I imagine that I never will. I have been very vocal about a heart-break that belongs to them, so I am sure that in their minds I am a loud-mouth American who is not to be trusted. I get that.
The world is big and cultures are different. Language barriers are just the beginning.
There are more things that I don’t know than what I do, and more things I can’t imagine than what I can.
It’s alright. I’m trying to be at peace, and live with my lack of comprehension. Sometimes my imagination shapes gargoyles in the blank spots that the silence of Barbara’s family leaves. I try to own the monsters as mine and not theirs. There is enough confusion and pain without me creating more by speculating. They are responsible for their choices; I am responsible for mine.
All of this is what I know and what I don’t.