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409: Held Hostage

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Prologue

Ira Glass

Probably the strangest thing about the K&R business-- K&R, that's Kidnap and Ransom-- is that it's a business at all, that there are enough kidnappings in the world that a whole industry issues kidnap insurance and there's responders who will help your family through the kidnapping and ransom process. And it's also workaday, like any other business.

Daniel Johnson

My name is Daniel Johnson. I oversee Kidnap Response operations for a company called ASI Global. We do a lot of prevention work, which is training of Americans or executives.

Ira Glass

ASI Global is one of the big American companies in the K&R business. And perhaps this just comes with the job, but Daniel Johnson is capable of a kind of understatement that's sort of breathtaking. For instance, he was telling me how K&R insurance works.

Daniel Johnson

So if you were to have a Kidnap Response policy with traveler's insurance and something goes bump in the night, it's our company that gets that call.

Ira Glass

By bump in the night, Dan means what you or I might call a violent, life-threatening, life-changing abduction. See? Understatement. Another interesting fact about kidnapping insurance with this company-- one condition of having the policy is that you don't tell anybody you have the policy. It's like the first rule of Fight Club.

Ira Glass

OK, so let's say that I'm thinking about moving my radio show to a country where there are lots of kidnappings. You consult with people who are moving to those areas about what to do if you are kidnapped. If I'm kidnapped, give me advice. What should I do?

Daniel Johnson

Well, most of the advice is going to be somewhat region or geographic specific. Some of the steps that we'd recommend for Mexico are obviously not the same steps you'd recommend for the Middle East or even Nigeria. Because of the Catholic culture in Mexico, we do recommend that the victims personalize themselves. Ask for a Bible.

Ira Glass

In the Mideast, he says, don't do this or talk about religion. But in Mexico, where there are lots of kidnappings these days--

Daniel Johnson

It helps personalize you as some-- it's a basis of relation between you and the abductors.

Ira Glass

And it's to my advantage if they see me as a person, why?

Daniel Johnson

Contrary to popular belief and some of the myths, kidnappers, in most cases, don't wantonly, with no reason whatsoever, go in and abuse the victims. Unfortunately, it does happen in some instances. Well, the more personal you are to them, the more that they can relate to you, the less likely that's going to happen, the better care that they're going to give.

Ira Glass

The other advantage of a Bible, Dan says, is that you might be captive for a long time. And one of the big problems in that situation is it's really, really boring. People get depressed. They stop taking care of themselves. Some of them think about suicide. So it's important to keep your mind active, to create a routine of things that you do every day, not to sleep all day, which lots of people end up doing. And if you have a Bible, you can read, which is huge.

Other tips-- eat what they give you because it's probably the same food that they're eating. Drink the water. Don't try to escape. Don't look your captors in the eye.

Daniel Johnson

Sometimes it's viewed as being confrontational with the captors. And you want to be somewhat non-confrontational.

Ira Glass

Are there counterintuitive things that you tell people to do?

Daniel Johnson

Yes. Some of the recommendations we give are counterintuitive. For example, most kidnap victims-- or not most, but many kidnap victims, when they are first captured, feel that their life is in danger so they need to negotiate for themselves. So what they start to do is they start talking about my company made $10 million last year and I'm a senior manager with my company. And my wife has a half million dollars in a 401K.

That doesn't help the negotiation process. That raises the expectations of the kidnappers, so what we typically recommend is you don't have financial conversations at all with your captors.

Ira Glass

But that's hard to do, he says. Your instinct is that you want to trade away everything just to get your life back. You'll do anything. But you have to understand, if it's a kidnapping for ransom-- and one sign of that is that you're still alive-- that's like a business deal, and they need you alive to make their money.

And usually, Dan says, you're going to get out. It's just a matter of coming to a price. You have to remember that. And you have to remember that your role in that business deal is to be the hostage, to do what you need to do to survive, to avoid panic.

Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our radio show, Held Hostage. We have three stories for you of people who are forced by circumstance to be the hostage and how they cope with what that means. We're going to begin with people held in the traditional way, nabbed and taken to the jungle.

But we also have people in our show who are taken hostage in much less literal ways. One man can't get out from under the thumb of one of his neighbors. And we have a man held hostage by love, and I know that sounds really corny, but believe me, it is not what you think. Stay with us.

Act One: Captive Audience

Ira Glass

Act One, Captive Audience. So today's episode is a rerun from 2010. And at that time, nearly a decade ago, there was so much kidnapping going on in Colombia, that the country's biggest radio station had a program that was specifically for kidnapping victims. Like, it was targeted to them as an audience. And this was not the only show like this. There were several other shows like this on smaller stations, again, whose audience was kidnapping victims around the country.

Annie Correal is originally from Bogota, Colombia. And she went to the biggest radio station and visited the program.

Annie Correal

The show is called Voces del Secuestro-- Voices of Kidnapping-- and it's been on the big national station in Colombia, Caracol, since 1994.

[MUSIC - JUANES, "SUENOS"]

Starting at midnight every Saturday and running until 6:00 AM, hundreds of people call in to send messages to their kidnapped relatives. And in secret camps all through the jungle, prisoners, and sometimes even their guards, tune in to listen.

Radio Host

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Annie Correal

The host kicks off the show welcoming all the hostages in the jungles of Colombia. Most families call in with their messages.

Woman 1

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Woman 2

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Man

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Woman 3

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Annie Correal

But some people actually come into the station like Viviana. Her dad, Edgar Yasid Duarte, is a police commander who was kidnapped in 1998 and still hasn't come home.

Woman 4

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Annie Correal

Tomorrow is Viviana's 13th birthday, and rather than run the risk of not getting on the air, she and her mom are spending the night at the radio station. A dozen interns man flashing phone banks, lining up the callers from around the country who will send out their messages tonight.

Woman 5

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Annie Correal

170 will make it on the air.

Woman 4

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Annie Correal

Viviana is in a pink hoodie, drinking little cups of coffee from the vending machine to stay awake. She always sends a message to mark her birthday. It's 5:00 in the morning when she finally gets on the air.

Viviana

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Annie Correal

She says her birthday's an important day in their lives, and she just knows he's going to be there, that they're going to free him this year so he won't miss any more special dates. She says she celebrated with her friends by going to a shopping mall and to the movies and to get ice cream. She tells him she loves him, and she sends him a blessing.

I know how she feels. When I was 19, my dad was kidnapped by the FARC, the same rebel group that kidnapped Viviana's dad. The FARC is an army of leftist guerrillas that kidnaps people for political reasons, but also civilians like my dad, for money. My dad, Jaime Correal, was kidnapped on his way home from work in 1999.

Jaime Correal

There was a guy on a motorcycle back there. But I didn't think anything of it. I didn't notice I was being followed.

Annie Correal

This year when I went back to Colombia, my dad and I drove through a park, up a winding, isolated road to the spot on the highway where it happened.

Jaime Correal

And right where I'm standing, the guy came from behind that pole, and he came with a gun up, was screaming, "Police, police." I tried to get into the traffic, and I couldn't get in because it was bumper to bumper. And that's when they hit the window, and they pulled me out, and they threw me in the backseat with two guys with a weapon.

Annie Correal

Back then, Colombia was the kidnapping capital of the world. At the peak of the kidnapping craze, there were around 3,000 people kidnapped a year. That's like eight people a day. Carjackings happen in Bogota all the time and in plain view, like my dad's.

Jaime Correal

You know, I had in my mind that it was not so close to the road, but it's right there.

Annie Correal

Is that the first time you've been back to that spot?

Jaime Correal

Uh-huh. Yep.

Annie Correal

As we sat in the spot where it happened, he said if he had taken a left, it would have taken him 20 minutes to get home.

Jaime Correal

Instead it took me eight and a half months, 265 days.

Annie Correal

While my dad was kidnapped, I was in college in the States. But my stepmom Sammy used to call into the radio show, Voices of Kidnapping, to try to reach him. Six months in, when the guerrillas arranged a phone call with my dad, she learned to her amazement that some of our messages actually got through. My dad had had a radio and had listened for us obsessively.

Jaime Correal

It was a black machine. I don't know. It wasn't a brand name that everybody knows. It was something like cauliflower, OK? I mean, it was as valuable as my cigarettes, OK? And something I would wrap really well with my clothes in a plastic bag so they wouldn't get wet.

And reception was very bad. We were in the deep jungle, so we learned from the guerrillas how to make antennas. We would steal the Brillo pad, the used ones, when we went by the kitchen. The Brillo pad, you untangle it, and you make a big line of wire. You get a stone, wrap it up in one of the ends, and you throw it up into the trees. That helped tremendously.

Annie Correal

A guard snuck the radio to my dad. They're not officially allowed, but the FARC lets prisoners listen because it keeps up morale. It keeps them from killing themselves, and it keeps them marching. My dad was moved 37 times during his captivity. The radio meant everything to him because for the first six months that he was held captive by the FARC, my dad was held alone, completely alone. The radio was his only companion.

Jaime Correal

It's really an exercise of patience to be awake for 12 hours, 13 hours, and not being able to do anything. You can do anything. Sometimes you see all those movies. Like, Rambo just exercises when he's in jail. And you say, well, I'm going to start exercising, and you exercise, but you get bored. You start getting in shape, let me tell you.

But mentally, you feel you're wasting your time. I was by myself between November that I was kidnapped until May 26. I could talk to the guards very little. They're not supposed to talk to you. But then at night, then you rewind your whole life.

Annie Correal

How was that?

Jaime Correal

That was scary. Because you start judging yourself. Mostly what comes to mind is what you think you did wrong-- wrong decisions that could have made a difference in your life. But it's being alone with all those ghosts.

Annie Correal

So when he first heard my stepmom, Sammy, talking to him over the radio, it was like a miracle.

Jaime Correal

You know, it was like 6:20 in the morning. I was laying in bed with my radio. It said, "This is a message for Jaime Correal." I mean, my heart stopped. I said, "Wow." She said, "Your kids are fine. Hold up. Pray." You know, all the encouraging words they can give you. So from now on, that was my lifeline.

Annie Correal

My dad would stay up all night listening to the show every week.

Jaime Correal

A lot of times, you lose to the station because actually, you're always deep in the jungle, and there's a lot of clouds. And then you just go very softly trying to locate it again. And then you don't want to move the radio, so you end up in these awkward positions and just listening. When they call your name, when they mention your name, your heart always pounds.

Radio Host

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Annie Correal

This is a radio message from my family recorded 10 years ago when my dad was held captive. My stepmom made this tape to send to the radio station, hoping he would hear it, wherever he was. In real life, she was struggling to hold it together, losing weight, dark circles under her eyes. But on the tape, she makes a point to be cheerful. She calls him by his nickname, Lumpy.

Sammy

My Lumpy, [SPEAKING SPANISH]

[MUSIC - SHANIA TWAIN, "FROM THIS MOMENT ON"]

Annie Correal

She chose one of her favorite love songs to mix with the radio message.

Sammy

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Annie Correal

She says every time she hears it, she thinks of him intensely. She asks if he can imagine how much they're going to enjoy making up for lost time. Then she introduces my little sister.

Sister

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Annie Correal

My little sister says she hopes he comes back soon safe and sound and that he'll be very, very, very hungry because they'll have his favorite-- eggs and sausage-- waiting for him. Then my brother comes on.

Brother

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Annie Correal

He says he's the goalie on the school soccer team and he's blocked a lot of shots. Then he says he loves him and misses him. My stepmom says that she's waiting for him, that she'll always wait for him and he's the love of her life. And she can't wait to pick up where they left off in November.

Sammy

I love you. [SPEAKING SPANISH] [KISS] Ciao, ciao! [SPEAKING SPANISH]

Annie Correal

The families on Voices of Kidnapping are coached not to say anything negative or cry, so there tends to be a lot of talk of holiday parties and kids' grades at school, weddings, new babies in the family. These days, the number of new kidnappings in Colombia is way down. There are just a few hundred a year. And that's a good thing. But it conceals something basic.

The fact is that thousands of people who are kidnapped never came back. There are thousands of families who are still waiting for their relatives to be released, like Viviana, the girl who was celebrating her 13th birthday at the radio station. Viviana's dad has been gone for 11 years, almost her entire life. He's part of a small group of political prisoners that the FARC won't free unless the government agrees to a prisoner exchange. So there's nothing the family can do but wait.

Viviana

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Annie Correal

Everything Viviana knows about her dad fits easily on top of a coffee table. There's a pile of notebooks filled with his colored pencil drawings, the rusted aviator glasses he was wearing when he was kidnapped, and a few photographs and videos the FARC has sent as proof he is alive. Vienna was so young when her dad was kidnapped, that her only images of him come from these photos and videos.

Viviana

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Annie Correal

She says that he's in the jungle, but it's impossible to know where because he's posed against a sheet. I remember getting one of those pictures. They call it a [SPEAKING SPANISH] a proof of life. It's like seeing something from another world-- my dad next to a tree in sweatpants and a peasant sweater. My dad is a prisoner. I asked Viviana what her dad looked like in those proofs of life.

Annie Correal

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Viviana

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Annie Correal

She says in the older photos, he used to look normal, chubby. But in the recent videos, he's looking thin and he's going bald. She says that's hard because he used to look stronger. She says she thinks to herself, no, why is he like that? Life is hard, she says.

To cope, Viviana still talks to her dad, and not just over the radio.

Viviana

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Annie Correal

She says it's not that she feels he's here. She says she talks to him in her head.

Viviana

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Annie Correal

I talked to my dad in my head, too. I consulted him about what to major in, and I asked for his help at exam time. When my mood would plummet, I would think it was somehow connected to what he was going through. And in the worst moments, when I wouldn't feel his presence, I'd look outside and say, if he's alive, let there be a sign in the next 60 seconds. And I'd count down. And inevitably, a dog would bark, or a street light would turn on.

It's like sending the radio messages. You send these little telepathic messages, you concentrate, and you start to believe someone is out there, listening. I've met families who haven't had a proof of life for five years or a decade. Their loved ones are probably dead, but they act like they're not. They send out messages to them week after week, hoping that they're out there in the dark, holding a radio.

Ira Glass

Annie Correal, she's a staff reporter for The New York Times. You sometimes hear her on the podcast, The Daily. She originally produced a version of this show with Jay Allison for transom.org. I have to say, a lot has changed since we first aired this story in 2010. Annie's dad was rescued by the Colombian military, along with five other hostages, in August 2000. The family moved to Panama, which is where her dad, Jaime Correal, died in 2016 after a short illness. He was 63.

That girl who Annie interviewed, Viviana-- her dad, Edgar Yasid Duarte, was killed by the FARC during a failed rescue attempt in 2011. He'd been held captive for 13 years. Viviana is in college now studying international relations. The FARC disbanded in 2016 as part of a peace deal with the Colombian government. After that, the radio show Voces del Secuestro came to an end. Its final episode was in 2018. Similar programs with messages for hostages also ended.

Coming up, taken hostage by somebody whose only weapon is paperwork. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two: Misdeeds

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our show, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, Held Hostage. In this second half of our program, we move to people who get held hostage without a gun, or a knife, or any kind of traditional captor, and then they have to figure out what to do. We have arrived at Act Two of our show. Act Two, Misdeeds.

This is a kind of classic story of people who are not looking for trouble, and then the trouble came looking for them. Wayne Curtis tells the story.

Wayne Curtis

11 years ago, Tracy Poydras and her husband, Oscar, were living in New Orleans. Tracy was a nurse in her late 20s. Her husband ran a nightclub in the city. They were planning for their future, and they decided to invest in a house. They checked out a city program that seizes blighted properties and sells them cheap, and they found a rundown duplex in a decent neighborhood. It was basically just a shell with four walls and a roof and not much of a floor, and they spent something like $50,000 or $60,000 fixing it up.

For a while, they lived in one unit and rented out the other. Then they moved out and rented both. The whole process went just as they'd hoped, until 2003, when, pretty much out of the blue, Tracy Poydras got a call from her tenants.

Tracy Poydras

They get eviction notices on the upstairs portion and the down. And they're calling us, hysterical. And they're like, what is going on? We've paid our rent. I mean, do we have some kind of problem? I mean, I didn't think we had a problem.

Wayne Curtis

The eviction papers have been filed by a person who used to own the building, a guy named Nathaniel Dowl. Tracy figured it was a misunderstanding of some sort, that Dowl was probably just confused and didn't understand that the city had seized his property and sold it to somebody new.

Whatever it was, she was sure a simple explanation would clear things up with Mr. Dowl. She was wrong. And pretty soon, Tracy and her husband found themselves in court and, for the first time, came face-to-face with Dowl and his wife, Barbara.

Tracy Poydras

I don't know if they had just flown in from a Jamaican retreat or what, but Ms. Dowl had on a tie-dye shirt and jeans, just clearly not dressed for business, not dressed for court. And Mr. Dowl was reeking of marijuana. Reeking. Just to have the nerve to come in there like that, I just knew that something wasn't right, you know? Something was definitely not right.

Wayne Curtis

After a long day in court, the judge asked the Dowls for proof that they owned the building. The Dowls couldn't come up with any. The judge stopped the eviction. And for a while at least, everything was OK. A year went by. Life returned to normal.

Then Hurricane Katrina hit, and the levees failed. The house the Poydras's had fixed up was now in shambles. Flooding destroyed the first floor, and the wind ripped off the roof. Tracy and her husband hired contractors to start fixing up the place all over again. But then, not long after, the contractor said weird things started happening around the site.

Tracy Poydras

Well, and they would notice that a hammer would be missing. And then maybe the next day, the hammer would come back. I mean, just like anything like a crazy Lifetime Movie, just all kind of stuff. And then one day, someone with no rhyme or reason, just someone with, like, schizophrenia kind of had tape just all over the place, just, like, yellow caution tape. It was just everywhere. And they were like, you got to find out what's really going on here.

So the next couple of days, I went into New Orleans to try to see if maybe the code enforcement or somebody like that had something to do with it. So then when I went in to the real estate-- I forget which office it's called, but they're the ones that handle the evictions. And I told them my name and my property address, and they were, like, sighing. They were like, oh goodness. Go cross-reference your name.

Wayne Curtis

Tracy didn't know it just then, but she had company and plenty of it. Other people across the city were finding that weird things were happening, both with their properties and with the paperwork behind their properties. One of those people was a tall, fairly reserved ex-army officer named Brad Robinson. At the time all this started, he and Tracy Poydras had never met and they traveled in different worlds. But they both had decided that buying up cheap New Orleans property made good sense.

Shortly after Brad got out of the army, he and his wife, Michelle, started a business rehabbing blighted old houses and building new ones. In 2004, they'd spotted a house in the city's list of seized buildings, so Brad wrote down the address, 8633 Zimple Street, and drove over to check it out.

And that's where I recently met up with Brad. He was waiting there with a stack of photos to show me what the house looked like when he bought it. It was a mess. The grass was several feet high, and vines covered it like an ill-fitting toupee. The back part of the house was collapsing, and from what I could tell from the pictures, the only thing holding up part of it was an old refrigerator.

It was so bad that Robinson couldn't imagine anyone would possibly be living in it, much less that the owner would drive up as he stood there, slam his car door, and storm over to him. It was Nathaniel Dowl, the guy who had shown up in court reeking of marijuana.

Brad Robinson

And he said, who are you? And I identified myself. And I said, I found this house on the city's website, and I was looking at purchasing it. And I told him. I said, if you want to keep it, you've got to do two things. Number one, you've got to clean it up. And two, I said, you've got to go down and pay your taxes because you've got maybe seven years, or whatever it was, in taxes that were delinquent. And at first, he was kind of belligerent the first time I met him. And then once I tried to help him and I told what he needed to do to fix the problem, he was talking to me like a friend.

Wayne Curtis

Brad actually had a few things in common with Nathaniel Dowl. Both were born and raised in New Orleans. Both were in their 40s. Both were from families that had once bought investment properties here, only to lose some of them to the city for neglect or unpaid taxes. So Brad thought it was only fair to give Dowl a shot at keeping his house. But Dowl failed to act. He didn't pay his back taxes, and the city went ahead and put his house up for auction. Brad picked it up for $10,000.

A couple days after buying the house, Brad and two friends stopped by to check it out. He also wanted to disconnect the electric meter, which he worried could be a fire hazard.

Brad Robinson

So we went to pull the meter, and the second I pulled the meter back out, he came running out the door.

Wayne Curtis

And what did he say?

Brad Robinson

Basically, he took a baseball bat, and threatened me, and threatened the other two people with me, and said he was sick and tired of the city taking his f-ing properties.

Wayne Curtis

Did he come down off the steps?

Brad Robinson

Yeah, he chased us out in the street. He was like a mad man.

Wayne Curtis

Brad called the cops who cited both men for disturbing the peace. Brad showed the police some papers proving that he had just bought the house, so the police told Dowl he had to leave. But Brad had a feeling it wasn't over.

Brad Robinson

So I drove back, I think it was like 11 or 12 o'clock at night. And I saw his car parked there, and there was a light on inside the premises.

Wayne Curtis

Brad called the cops again.

Brad Robinson

And they came out. And they knocked on the door, and they instructed Mr. Dowl that they had previously ordered him not to return to the property unless he was accompanied and yada, yada. And they placed him in handcuffs for criminal trespass. At that time, Mr. Dowl presented a document. It was a restraining order signed by Judge Paul Brown in Division M, so the police took the handcuffs off and allowed him to stay in the premises that night.

Wayne Curtis

None of this made any sense to Brad. Why would a judge sign a restraining order against him? After all, he hadn't done anything. Besides he owned the house.

Brad Robinson

The next morning, I went to see Judge Brown to see why she signed this restraining order, TRO. And she had no recollection of signing it. She emphatically denied it. She had her clerk check her book. There was nothing in there. And then she actually walked me to each judge and asked them and their clerks if any other judge had signed her name to a TRO. And they all said no.

Wayne Curtis

The TRO was a fake, and this is where Nathaniel Dowl's background comes in. Under the advice of his attorney, Dowl refused to talk to me. But here's what we know mostly through public records and court documents.

Throughout much of his life, Dowl ended up in court for stumbling onto the wrong side of the law for car theft, for pot, for unpaid debts. In 1988, he was sentenced to three years in prison for using bogus money orders. We also know Dowl used to own several houses, places he apparently inherited from his father, who invested his longshoreman salary in properties.

Somewhere along the line, Dowl started teaching himself law. He enrolled in a correspondence program and got his paralegal certificate. He learned the basics, what legal documents do, how to file them, what size the paper should be, how to make them look official. In fact, he learned enough that he could produce fake documents pretty easily.

Dowl had a couple of favorite scams. One was to take a bogus document to a notary and would stamp it with a seal. That only meant Dowl signed the document in person in front of the notary. But the seal made things look all the more official and gave the appearance that claims in the document had been verified.

Dowl also figured out how to make good use of a run-of-the-mill kind of legal document, which, and unless you're a lawyer, you've probably never heard of. It was something called a quitclaim. While it might sound obscure, the idea behind a quitclaim is pretty simple. Let's say you have the rights to a piece of property. You go to the courthouse and file a quitclaim giving those rights to, say, your cousin. So your cousin now has legal rights to that property.

The trick that Dowl figured out was that he could file a quitclaim on any piece of property, whether he owned it or not. City officials would look at that document and figure he must have had some rights to begin with, because why else would he file it? And so essentially, Dowl found that armed with just a small bit of legal knowledge, he could trap pretty much anyone he wanted in an upside down topsy-turvy world where all sorts of basic things normally taken for granted just crumble out from beneath you.

Brad Robinson's war with Dowl started out small and kind of mundane. Brad sued to get Daniel evicted. Dowl challenged the city's right to take his property. The fight went to the state Supreme Court where Dowl lost. And for a while, Robinson's life went back to normal. But then Dowl started showing up in strange places, like the houses the Robinsons were working on, properties Dowl had never had anything to do with.

Brad Robinson

He would show up at the job sites and pretend to be a buyer of one of the properties and request whoever was there to walk through the property. And later on, if he would go down and create these false documents on every one of them.

Wayne Curtis

Dowl would file these bogus documents. Robinson would have to track them down and get them thrown out. And here's the thing. It wasn't like the city or the courts would call Robinson up and say, hey, Dowl came in again. Instead, Robinson had to be constantly watching.

Brad Robinson

I lived down in the inventory archives going through records, because he'd file a document, and I'd go pay an attorney to do a mandamus to pull a document out, and then he'd go back and file another document. So I call him my paper stalker because he'd go down, it would cost me, say, $1,500 to hire a real attorney to do a mandamus, go in front of a judge, and the judge would make a ruling and know this was BS. And she would order the document pulled from the public record. And we did this for god knows how many years. And it was over, and over, and over.

Wayne Curtis

How many documents-- do you have any idea-- that you contested with him?

Brad Robinson

I'll be honest with you, it was on, like, every piece of property he could find.

Wayne Curtis

Dowl went after his old house, houses that Robinson was renovating, even after Robinson's family home.

Brad Robinson

I was somewhere. I was at a meeting or doing something, and my wife called me up in hysterics. I mean, absolute hysterics. She had come home from work with the children, and there was a notice to vacate posted on the door by a Sheriff's deputy. And she didn't know what it was about or what was going on. And she just went into total hysterics. So I went home, I got it, I went down there, and then I did a little research, and I found out it was my paper stalker again.

Wayne Curtis

What does it take to clear something like that up?

Brad Robinson

We had to go to court. We had to hire another attorney.

Wayne Curtis

Over time, Dowl grew more brazen. At this point, he was just going after Brad with reams of paperwork. But he stepped things up with Tracy Poydras. She's the woman we talked to earlier, the woman who found her house covered with caution tape. Not only did Dowl file papers claiming he owned her house, he moved in.

Tracy Poydras

My mother-in-law went over to the house. And he told her that she couldn't come in. He told her that she couldn't come in. And so she thought, OK, I'm going to call the police. So she calls the police. And they tell her, he has some kind of document with, like, a seal on it. And she had some documents, and she's like, this man does not live here. This is my son's house.

And the police were, like, OK, he showed us something saying that he should be in the house, so this is a civil matter. And you all have to go to court. We can't just remove him from the house. And he's in the background, like, making muscles and doing all kind of little stupid victory dances. And we were like, this is just not happening.

Richard Arias

This house has multiple defense perimeters. It's obvious that you see the shutter and the door, but you don't see all the other things.

Wayne Curtis

Meet the third person to get into this war with Nathaniel Dowl. Richard Arias is an attorney in his early 60s. He lives in a house that's dark inside because all the solid wood shutters are sealed tight. He explained to me that stems from a paranoia that dates back to his days as an infantryman in Vietnam. He knew both Nathaniel Dowl and Brad Robinson because he owned a house on Zimple Street next door to the one the two first fought over.

Richard Arias

Dowl was fighting Robinson, so Dowl came to me for help. Dowl knew that I was a lawyer, so he asked me for help.

Wayne Curtis

But that was pretty short-lived because it didn't take long for Dowl to turn on Arias, to decide Arias wasn't his ally, and to start serving him with fake paperwork and eviction notice, all of it. And the thing with Arias, he'd never bought any properties that Dowl once owned. With Arias, it was about vengeance, plain and simple. But regardless, he found himself in this paper war with Nathaniel Dowl.

Richard Arias

He learned enough to make it look good. He would go to the courthouse and copy other people's work, change it enough, but not enough to correct typographical errors, not enough to remove references to standard forms, not enough to pass the scrutiny of a professional, like a judge. Well, just enough to get in the door.

Wayne Curtis

This went on for more than four years, and Arias, the Poydrases, and the Robinsons all felt trapped. They went to the police, who told them it was a matter for the courts. They went to the courts, and the judges said they really couldn't do much, except reverse each fraudulent filing as it was presented to them. They went to the district attorney, who was struggling with the chaos left in the wake of Katrina and had didn't seem too interested in white collar crime.

They even went to the court workers, the people who accepted Dowl's bogus documents when he filed them. The workers sort of shrugged and told them that even if they knew the documents were fake, they were bound by state law to accept them. At one point, Tracy's husband Oscar told her if the courts wouldn't help and the police wouldn't help, then they were on their own.

Tracy Poydras

You're talking about a 6 foot 3, 300 pound man. He's like, OK, this is what I'm going to do. I'm going to go in the house with a bat, and I'm not going to hurt him. We're just going to run him out of there, you know? But I'm not going to hurt him. And I told him, you know what? It sounds good.

So you do start to lose your mind because you're thinking, OK. Your sane mind is saying, I'm just going to go in there with this bat, and scare him off, and say, get out! Get out of my house. Well, what are you going to do if that doesn't work? What if he has a gun? You can't go in and do that.

Wayne Curtis

Then came the mounting costs of all this-- court fees, filing fees, not to mention that after Dowl moved in, the Poydrases had to pay two mortgages, but couldn't rent out their rental property because Dowl was living in it. But the people who felt the strain the worst were Brad and Michelle Robinson, who guessed that when you include court fees and lawyer fees, they ultimately spent about $90,000 on what was originally a $10,000 house.

The genius of Dowl's scheme was that he exploited the inertia of the legal system. Every time he filed a quitclaim, he was forcing the system to agree, just by taking the paperwork, that he had some rights to the property. And once the system accepts something as true, even for a moment, it's hard to make it go away. Do that over and over, and you're always a step ahead of your adversaries.

And if Nathaniel Dowl hadn't slipped up, it's hard to say how long this all would have gone on. But Dowl finally tried his property trick on the wrong people-- the Feds. Brad Robinson discovered this after Katrina when he applied for federal money to do work on the house on Zimple Street.

Brad Robinson

I called Road Home Program, and they said, Mr. Dowl, you've already got money from this property. And I said, I'm not Mr. Dowl. And he said, oh, uh, well, Barbara Dowl got $137,000.

Wayne Curtis

Using bogus property claims, Dowl's wife Barbara had applied for federal Road Home assistance. They got $132,000 on a property the Robinsons owned. That got the attention of the US Attorney's office. And soon Barbara Dowl was indicted by federal grand jury, and Nathaniel Dowl was charged with filing false public records. For a moment, the Robinsons, the Poydrases, and Arias thought they might get their lives back.

And then something really dark and crazy happened. Brad had a habit of going out late at night after his kids were asleep-- he liked to play poker-- and then coming home after midnight. But one night-- it was a couple days after Dowl found out he was being charged-- he happened to be in bed early.

Brad Robinson

I was at home sleeping. I was in bed with my wife. About 10:30 that night, I'd gotten up and got a drink of water at my kitchen. You know, you get up and you get a drink without turning on the lights. Standing in my kitchen drinking a glass of water, and I heard somebody say, his name's Brad. I heard two people having a conversation in my driveway adjacent to my house.

Wayne Curtis

During this time, the Robinsons had someone staying with them, a friend of a friend named Tony White, who was an engineer from out of town working on some reconstruction projects. He didn't know a lot of people in this city, and most nights he worked late. This was one of those nights.

Brad Robinson

2:00 in the morning, 2:30 in the morning, my wife was awakened by a phone call. And then she rolled over, and woke me up, and said that an elderly neighbor next door who was up late usually at night had heard something, and there was somebody laying in the street.

Wayne Curtis

Brad went outside.

Brad Robinson

And right when I walked out the door, a police unit was pulling up. And I looked at the person, and he was laying face down, so I still didn't know who it was. I did not know who it was. And I walked down. I was in my pajamas, and I walked down. And I was about halfway down. I told my wife, I think it's Tony. But I wasn't sure, and I didn't know if he'd fallen, if he'd had a seizure, and I didn't know if he had a history of seizures or what. All these scenarios were running through my head.

And I told my wife to bring the kids inside, so she brought the kids inside. And I knelt down over the body, and I felt his carotid artery. And when I reached down, he was-- there was no pulse whatsoever, so I knew he was dead.

Wayne Curtis

Tony White had been shot through his left eye at point blank range.

Let's be clear here. The crime is still unsolved, and the investigation never connected the shooting in any way to Dowl, or his wife, or anybody for that matter. And Dowl had an alibi. But there are things that still haunt the Robinsons about the shooting. Brad and Tony were about the same age, height, and build. The killers didn't bother with any of Tony's stuff. They took his car and burned it, but left behind his money and a bunch of expensive camera equipment. Brad's convinced that what happened at his house late that night wasn't just another random crime.

Nathaniel Dowl was eventually found guilty for filing fake public records. He's now serving a 10 year sentence, and his appeal was rejected late last month. Brad Robinson says he feels safer with Dowl in jail-- that's no surprise. But he also knows that in six years or so, Dowl will likely be getting out. He worries what will happen then.

Brad Robinson

I think it's just a lull. He's only in jail for maybe, what, six years, 10 years. He might do six. And then he's going to get out, and he's going to come back and probably start up right where he left off, I would imagine. I think we've got a six-year reprieve. And I think when he comes out, he's going to come out with even a bigger vengeance.

Wayne Curtis

Because of that fear, Robinson is planning to move his family out of New Orleans before Dowl gets released. Whatever does happen, then, even if it's over for the Robinsons, even if it's over for the Poydrases and Arias, it might not be totally over. Recently, Brad Robinson told me he happened to be looking at the city of New Orleans website, and he saw another one of Nathaniel Dowl's old properties up for sale by the city. Robinson says he feels sorry for whoever buys that place.

Ira Glass

Wayne Curtis, he's a contributor to The Daily Beast and Garden & Gun. Today's show is a rerun. Nathaniel Dowl died in 2013 shortly before he was due to be released from prison. The murder of Tony White remains unsolved.

[MUSIC - TEENAGE FRAMES, "SIGN ON THE DOTTED LINE"]

Act Three: I've Fallen In Love and I Can't Get Up

Ira Glass

Act Three, I've Fallen in Love and I Can't Get Up. Sometimes you're a hostage inside your own body. Chris Higgins has this example, and we decided to rerun today's program this week because a movie is opening up this weekend based on this radio story. Anyway, here's Chris.

Chris Higgins

You know it's going to be a pretty weird interview when the first question is this. If you have an attack during this interview, what would you like me to do? I'm talking to Matt Frerking. He's 39.

Matt Frerking

Well, if I fall over, then making sure that I can continue to breathe would be nice or that I haven't come to rest on something sharp or anything like that.

Chris Higgins

About four years ago, Matt started having these strange attacks. The first attack happened when he was taking a shower. His muscles began to feel heavy. His head began to droop. He slumped into a sitting position. He ordered his body to stand, but nothing happened.

Matt Frerking

And so I was sitting there thinking, this is ridiculous. You can lift your head, move your arms, so just do it. And then just as quickly as it happened, a few minutes later, it went away. And I was back to normal and thought, wow, that was strange. And I went down and told my wife about it.

Trish

He just said I couldn't move. And I was thinking, well, he must be overstating it. You can't just not be able to move. That's just not something that really happens to people.

Chris Higgins

That's Trish, Matt's wife. They have four kids from her previous marriage, and some of those kids have kids of their own. It kept happening. Matt kept collapsing out of the blue every day, sometimes three and four times a day. He went to a string of doctors, including a psychiatrist, and a sleep doctor, and a neurologist. But none of them were able to fix the problem.

Matt happens to be a neuroscientist. He's a professor at a university, but he was as baffled as everyone else. When each attack hit him, Matt was still totally conscious. He just couldn't move. Once on campus, he ended up flat on his back in a flower planter for over half an hour with his legs sticking out over the edge. He's fallen down stairs. He's had police and paramedics show up.

It took Matt three years to finally get a diagnosis. It turns out he has this disease called narcolepsy with cataplexy. That first part you've probably heard of. Narcolepsy is excessive sleepiness. You can treat that with stimulants. The real problem is the cataplexy, which is making him collapse. Worldwide, researchers estimate that more than a million people have this disease.

Although they're not sure why it's happening, they think it's related to REM sleep, the part of sleep when you dream. When you start dreaming, your brain tells you your muscles to go limp, so you don't act out the dream. That same signal was getting sent from Matt's brain, but it's happening while he's awake. So while the cause is hazy-- and by the way, there's no cure-- scientists have managed to figure out what triggers the attacks in most patients.

Matt Frerking

The triggers vary, but the things that most reliably do it are strong emotions, and in particular, strong positive emotions. By and large, those are things that I either have to avoid or recognize that if I do them enough, they're going to trigger an attack.

Chris Higgins

Let me make sure you got that. When Matt gets really happy, when he feels the warm fuzzy stuff, he becomes paralyzed by his emotions-- literally paralyzed. This has been going on for four years, and there's no end in sight.

Trish

I mean, he told me once, yeah, this is such a sick disease because when I feel love for my wife, excitement at the grandkids, love for the kids, that sort of thing, it makes him have an attack.

Chris Higgins

So for example, when his littlest granddaughter had her second birthday party, Matt showed up. Kids were running around the living room. He was filled with the sentimental happy feelings anyone feels. And then he collapsed on the couch in the middle of a swarm of toddlers who weren't bothered by it. Matt can't even pet a puppy without collapsing.

Weddings are just as bad. Matt's brother got married a few weeks ago, and Matt was there, happy for him, and therefore having an attack the whole time. He was propped against a wall, hoping people would ignore him and just go on with the wedding.

Trish

Poor Matt. This was one of those things that it was just not OK for him to miss, even though we knew it would be difficult.

Matt Frerking

His wedding ceremony was a very small one. They wanted to take pictures of the whole group. Immediately after, my attack hadn't cleared up, so they all basically clustered around where I was propped up against the wall and included me. And so that was very sweet of them.

Chris Higgins

When you look at those pictures, what do you think?

Matt Frerking

Oh, this was only a couple of weeks ago. I haven't actually seen them yet.

Chris Higgins

Are you concerned about it? It seems like it might be-- I don't know-- sort of strange, but also absolutely sweet.

Matt Frerking

Yeah, and in honesty, I probably won't spend much time dwelling on those pictures because it makes it more difficult to not have an attack. It can be a triggering condition just to discuss it even.

Chris Higgins

So at this moment, Matt is starting to have an attack. You can hear him slowing down and hesitating more.

Matt Frerking

It's a bit harder to initiate movements, and I don't know if you've noticed or not. But I feel like my eyes are sort of drooping a bit, and so.

Chris Higgins

We talked for a little while more, and then Matt has to go lie down. It's half an hour before he's able to talk again. Matt's on medication now, and that medication helps him postpone the attacks. He has some warning before he loses control. And think about this. Matt had this attack while he was talking about a photograph he's never seen. If just talking about a picture can cause this, imagine all the other things Matt has to avoid.

Chris Higgins

How does this affect your marriage?

Matt Frerking

Well, profoundly, I guess, is really the way to put it. It's very difficult to allow myself to enjoy being with my wife.

Trish

It's hard for me to have to either give up those things or not share them with Matt. It sucks, you know? How articulate of me. It's not a cool thing to happen to you.

Chris Higgins

Trish is pretty open about how she's come to deal with Matt's cataplexy and how it's changed their relationship. It messes up their social life and their sex life, too.

Trish

It's hard to hear that my love-- and when you had those wonderful close moments, when you sit with your arms around one another and you just want to reflect on this is a pretty cool person I'm spending my life with, those make him sick. And sometimes what goes through my mind is a little guilt because is that fair to put him through that? And am I just doing it for myself?

Chris Higgins

Trish is the only person who's really close to Matt these days. She told me that she reminds everyone that if Matt didn't care about them, this wouldn't be happening, that when he collapses, it's proof of his love. Their kids even have a kind of contest going to see who causes him to have more attacks to find out who his favorite is. They'll tease each other, like, did he pass out when you talked to him on the phone? 'Cause he passed out when I talked to him.

And after living with this for four years, with being punished every time he experiences happiness, Matt's adapted, though the way he's adapted is sad. He tries to enjoy things less. He told me he tries to think of himself as a robot and not engage too emotionally. He's told me he even has to be careful with how he speaks, not to get too enthusiastic or worked up.

Matt Frerking

When enjoyment and positive emotions cause you to basically be stuck in a state where you can't move, it doesn't take very long for you to find them quite a bit less enjoyable than they were before. So there's sort of a natural retraining that you do of how much to derive joy from things.

Chris Higgins

But it's important to point out even though Matt is being trained by his brain every day not to feel these emotions, he still has them. He's still with Trish, and they make it work. Although Matt tries to avoid happiness, it's still a part of his life. He's proof that you can't avoid happiness. It'll find you no matter what. And Matt's lucky he has a wife who's standing by him. But for now, they're not holding hands.

Ira Glass

Chris Higgins, he's the host of the Election Ride Home podcast. As I said earlier, a film is coming out this weekend that is a fictionalized story of somebody like Matt Frerking. The screenwriters basically heard this story on the radio and wrote a whole script that tries to imagine what it might be like to try to date and find love with this disease.

Like, what happens when you meet somebody who really makes you so joyful, and ecstatic, and therefore triggers these attacks? The film is called Ode to Joy. It stars Martin Freeman. It's in theaters right now in New York, and Los Angeles, and then lots more cities next weekend. And you can watch right now online on Amazon and iTunes.

[MUSIC - WARREN ZEVON, "HOSTAGE-O"]

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Lisa Pollak and Ben Calhoun, with Alex Blumberg, Jane Marie, Sarah Koenig, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer for today show is Julie Snyder, the music up from Jessica Hopper. Additional production on today's rerun from Jessica Lussenhop, Katherine Rae Mondo, Stowe Nelson, and Matt Tierney. Special thanks today to Josh Bearman, Scott Carrier, Annie Baxter, Matt Malloy, Etgar Keret, and Douglas Robinson. Annie Correal's story in Act One was originally produced with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Our website, ThisAmericanLife.org. This American Life is delivered to Public Radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder Mr. Torey Malatia. It is so distracting when he comes into the studio while I'm here reading the credits.

Tracy Poydras

And he's in the background, like, making muscles and doing all kind of little stupid victory dances.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC - WARREN ZEVON, "HOSTAGE-O"]