Transcript

506:

Secret Identity
Transcript

Originally aired 10.04.2013

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/506

Prologue.

Ira Glass

OK, here's something that happens all summer long on Highway 101 in Northern California in the middle of the redwood forest. Little kids hold conversations with a statue that's five stories high.

Child

What do you eat?

Paul Bunyan Statue

What do I eat? Mostly pancakes.

[LAUGHTER]

Paul Bunyan Statue

What do you eat?

Ira Glass

The statue is Paul Bunyan. Big red shirt, blue pants, hairy chest, black beard. He stands next to Babe, his 36-foot tall blue ox. Adults talk to him too.

Man 1

Hey, do you know Bigfoot?

Paul Bunyan Statue

Yeah, I play poker with him on Friday nights.

Man 1

Who else plays in that game?

Paul Bunyan Statue

Uh.

Ira Glass

What's your shoe size? Shouldn't you be in Minnesota? Where are the bathrooms? Tell me a joke.

Paul and Babe are part of a roadside attraction called Trees of Mystery. Paul can turn his head in a slow swivel. He can wave. He can wink. All with the stiff, hydraulic-powered gestures you would expect from a statute built in 1962, which he is.

Morgan Gossage

Can I sing you a song?

Paul Bunyan Statue

Can you sing me a song?

Morgan Gossage

Yeah.

Paul Bunyan Statue

You are very much welcome to sing me a song.

Morgan Gossage

OK. [SINGS]

Ira Glass

Don't be fooled by how great these two seem to be getting along.

Paul Bunyan Statue

This is a good one.

Ira Glass

Eight year-old Morgan Gossage, like lots of kids, also has skeptical questions for Paul Bunyan. So many kids try to trap him into admitting he is not really Paul Bunyan, he's just a statue.

Morgan Gossage

Why can't you open your mouth when you talk?

Paul Bunyan Statue

Oh, I can. I don't need to, though.

Morgan Gossage

Hmm. How come you never move?

Paul Bunyan Statue

Because I'm not allowed to. There's all the OSHA regulations, like I can't swing my ax.

Morgan Gossage

Huh.

Paul Bunyan Statue

I can't dance. I can't jump up and down.

Ira Glass

Management, by the way, holds the line on this. When one of our producers first spoke with a woman in the gift shop and asked who does the voice for Paul Bunyan, the woman replied, "Paul Bunyan."

Or this is John Thompson. His family owns Trees of Mystery and he runs the place. I asked him what Paul's made of. He says, "The same stuff as you or I, only more of it." I ask if Paul Bunyan's an employee.

John Thompson

Well, you know, there's that fuzzy area there because he's so big we can't really get him to do what we want him to do all the time. It's only been a few years we got him to stop walking around in the daytime. He stepped on a couple cars and made a mess. But that's Paul.

Ira Glass

John's daughter Hannah and his son-in-law Kylan both listened to him tell me this. They both seemed a little pained to have to keep up the pretense with me that Paul was real. And it's Kylan who pipes in with a very reasonable point that if Paul Bunyan is just some guy pretending to be Paul Bunyan--

Kylan

You know, it really isn't as fun. I don't think the truth is really as interesting as people want to believe it is. It really isn't, you know?

John Thompson

The bottom line, Ira, is that would you pull the mask off Mickey Mouse?

Ira Glass

Me? No.

John Thompson

Well, there you go.

Kylan

Yeah, yeah.

John Thompson

OK?

Ira Glass

OK. And I'll be frank, I thought this is where the story would end. We have an episode for you today about secret identities.

And at this point, I would say something about how it's better not to find out who's behind the mask and I would start the show WBEZ Chicago, Public Radio International, all that blah, blah, blah. And we would move on to Act One.

But around closing time at Trees of Mystery, that plan fell completely apart. I was standing near Paul Bunyan and this heavyset guy in a t-shirt and jeans and wire-rimmed glasses walked up to me.

Ira Glass

Hi. Ira.

Dave Johnson

How you doing? Dave Johnson.

Ira Glass

Dave Johnson?

Dave Johnson

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Hey. Get a little closer.

Dave Johnson

Oh, OK.

Ira Glass

So do you work here?

Dave Johnson

Yes, I do.

Ira Glass

What do you do here?

Dave Johnson

I work Sky Trail and do Paul Bunyan occasionally.

Ira Glass

[LAUGHS] You're blowing their cover here.

[LAUGHTER]

Dave Johnson

Yeah.

Ira Glass

So was that you today?

Dave Johnson

Yeah, that was me. It was hot up there. [LAUGHS]

Ira Glass

Your face is totally flushed.

Dave Johnson

Yeah, yeah. It's about 95 up there.

Ira Glass

His face really was bright red, though it took me a minute to realize what he meant when he said "up there." I had assumed that whoever was the voice of Paul Bunyan was looking out a window from the gift shop, which is right across the way. Or maybe they were watching a video monitor somewhere and talking into a mike, but no.

John and Kylan, in a stunning reversal in their media strategy, I have to say, walked me around to see the back of Paul Bunyan's right shoe. And there's a little door there and they opened it up.

Kylan

We now see a ladder and a bunch of pipes and wires heading up.

Ira Glass

I stick my head in and look up. It's dark and narrow. Kylan and Hannah offer to take me up, and I climb in first and it was stuffy and hot and claustrophobic. It felt very easy to fall.

Ira Glass

So we just keep going up?

Kylan

Yep.

Ira Glass

We climb this one ladder for what seems like a really long time and then switch to another ladder and then hoist ourselves through an opening.

Ira Glass

Holy [BLEEP]!

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

It's like a little space capsule in here.

Hannah

Yes.

Kylan

It's about an eight to 10 foot oval.

Ira Glass

We're inside Paul's torso. It's lit by a single bare light bulb on a wire that looks like if you touched the wire, you would die. You see outside through Paul's chest hair.

The walls are covered in decaying soundproofing tiles and torn installation. There's a dingy old sink that the guys pee into on their shifts, and old pressure gauges from 1962 measuring the hydraulics, four levers to make Paul's eye wink or head turn.

Ira Glass

This is amazing! This is really like a magical place, I have to say.

Kylan

The coolest things, I think, are these old, old hydraulics that control everything. See, you can feel this whole place shake.

[RUMBLING]

Ira Glass

That's the hand?

Kylan

Yeah.

Hannah

So do you think it's better now that you know? Or is it worse? Or is it the same?

Ira Glass

I have to say this is better than not knowing. This is so cool in here, this room with these steel beams cutting through it and the crappy sink where people pee. This really is like going inside the Wizard of Oz's head.

Of course, right? Anybody with a secret identity probably feels this. They're supposed to keep it secret, but it must be so tempting to tell people the truth. It must be so hard to keep your mouth shut for spies and for superheroes, 'cause the truth is so insanely cool. How did Bruce Wayne not bring every woman he ever took on a date to see the Batcave?

Ira Glass

Is this the microphone?

Kylan

I think so.

Ira Glass

Is it live?

Kylan

You'd probably have a better shot.

Ira Glass

Oh, I would totally know how to work this. Yeah, this is totally technology that I know. One, two, three.

Kylan

That sounds live.

Ira Glass

Oh, it's on!

Hannah

Oops.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Paul Bunyan. Stay with us.

Act One. You Can't Handle The Truth.

Ira Glass

Act One, You Can't Handle the Truth. So I'm just guessing here, but I would think that people usually take on a secret identity only after careful consideration, only after thinking through all the angles, taking some time. Jon Ronson has this story of a guy who takes on a secret identity in haste without a lot of strategizing, without much long term thinking.

Jon Ronson

Sometimes the government stages crimes, like in the 1950s when the CIA was experimenting with LSD as a truth serum and they set up a fake brothel in New York City. The prostitutes would spike the unsuspecting johns' drinks with acid while CIA agents sat behind a one-way mirror to see if they would blurt out secrets. This really happened.

Just a few years ago, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was telling gun shops to sell weapons to drug smugglers. The idea was to track the guns into the Mexican cartels. But the operation fell apart when they lost track of them and two turned up at the murder scene of a US Border Patrol agent.

These kinds of covert operations happen quite a lot. Keep that in mind as you hear this story, which starts with a spate of attempted bank robberies in northern Virginia in June 2012.

The man who carried them out was a terrible bank robber. And I don't mean he was terribly evil. I mean he was terrible at it. He'd stand there, demand money, suddenly look panicky, then run out the door.

The entire spree lasted four days, five attempted robberies in all. He didn't make a penny.

The police quickly caught up with him. He was a 21-year-old guy named Herson Torres. But things took a strange turn when they sat him down for questioning. Tom Schoenberg is a legal affairs reporter and he covered the story for Bloomberg Businessweek.

Tom Schoenberg

Initially, he didn't want to tell them anything. And he didn't tell them anything for a little bit. And they started showing him pictures of his relatives that they had assembled, and saying he could go to prison for 25 years.

By that point, he was crying. And he said, I want to tell you something, but you're not going to believe what I'm going to tell you.

Jon Ronson

What Herson told them was unbelievable. But within hours of questioning Herson, the police began to think that his story might be true and that Herson was innocent.

It all started, he said, a few days earlier. Herson had got home from a shift unloading trucks at Target when he saw that he had a text message from an old high school friend, Carolina. Here's Tom Schoenberg again.

Tom Schoenberg

And the message says, hey, I've got a job for you. We're going to get paid $25,000. And he taps back, doing what? She responds, robbing banks.

And at first he thought it was a joke. She explains that it's all legitimate, that it's for the federal government. And he agreed to meet with her.

Jon Ronson

Three hours later when Herson was meeting Carolina in a nearby Dick's Sporting Goods parking lot, she was already on the phone to her government contact, a man named Theo who worked with the Defense Intelligence Agency, a part of the Department of Defense. She passed the phone over to Herson.

Theo started telling Herson that this was an operation using civilians to test the security of area banks. He'd vetted Herson, Theo said, so he knew all about a misdemeanor theft charge from when Herson was a teenager, the sort of charge that was sealed in juvenile records. And then Theo explained the job that Herson was being recruited into.

Tom Schoenberg

He calmly said the banks knew that this operation was happening, and he was going to tell them which bank to target. He explained how the whole operation would work out, that there would be no weapons involved, and that it was really a simple thing to go into these banks and see would they turn over money when someone comes in there and presents them with a note asking them to do so.

Jon Ronson

OK, so when he said that the banks knew, that the bank head office knew, but the bank tellers didn't know and the local managers didn't know.

Tom Schoenberg

Exactly.

Jon Ronson

Right.

Tom Schoenberg

Exactly.

Jon Ronson

Right. And so what would happen if Herson got into trouble in the bank, like if somebody tried to attack him or something in the bank or called the police?

Tom Schoenberg

Right. He was told-- and this is where his timing of going into these banks and out was very quick-- was that he was told do not stay in a bank for longer than five minutes. If anyone says they're going to call police, leave immediately.

If you see any armed security officers there, immediately leave. And if you get arrested, stay silent. We'll have you out within 24 hours.

Jon Ronson

So how long after this phone call did the spate of robberies take place?

Tom Schoenberg

Immediately.

Jon Ronson

Well, like the next day?

Tom Schoenberg

The same day.

Jon Ronson

The same day?

Tom Schoenberg

The same day.

Jon Ronson

Wow.

Herson had plenty of reasons to go along with it. The government guy, Theo, was credible. He seemed to know all about Herson's past. He said he may be able to get Herson a full time government job.

Plus Herson was going to be well paid-- $25,000 if he managed to get money out of the banks, $2,500 if not.

At the first bank, Herson handed them a note which read, "I need your help. I need money. My family is being held hostage and a bomb will go off at 4:30 if you don't help. Don't call the police or the FBI."

The teller asked Herson to wait for a few moments. Herson immediately ran out of the bank. Within minutes, the area was filled with police cars and a police helicopter. Theo was on Carolina's cell phone throughout it all, telling Herson which bank to go to next and to not worry.

Herson made four more attempts over the next two days, co-opting his cousin, his brother-in-law, and a friend. They were all as hopeless as Herson, running out of the banks before anyone could give them any money.

Plus they'd forgotten to bring a bag. So even if they had waited for the money, they'd have had to run out with it in their arms.

At the last bank, the cousin just stood there while the others ran away. So the police questioned him. He gave them Herson's name and address, which is how the spree ended. So there was Herson at the police station, facing 25 years in prison and crying.

Tom Schoenberg

So when he finally tells police, look this is the story, he says, take a look at my phone. Look at my Facebook account. Look at my email. It's all there. He also told them, go to my car and in there, you'll find an immunity letter that Theo gave me.

Jon Ronson

Theo had emailed Herson a letter on Defense Intelligence Agency letterhead, describing the bank operation, titled "Operation Down Strike," an operation involving civilian volunteers who would be immune from civil and criminal action. It asks police that, upon receipt of the letter, to assist in the operation.

The officer in charge, a veteran detective named John Vickery, was skeptical. But the letter was perplexing. And then, six hours after Herson was arrested, Detective Vickery got a call from a number he didn't recognize.

It was Theo. He demanded to know what the police had done with Herson. He sounded authoritative and exasperated and explained that he was with the CIA.

Detective Vickery was truly confused. After all, this was Virginia, CIA country. Vickery did deal with CIA people from time to time. But it seemed such a strange covert operation.

Theo demanded a face-to-face meeting with the detective's superiors. Theo also called Washington area criminal defense lawyers, saying he was with the CIA and he needed to hire civilian counsel to defend Herson.

The meeting place with the cops was set. It would be at the courthouse during Herson's arraignment hearing. Theo would be wearing an American flag pin on his black suit. The day came, but Theo never showed.

Eventually, the encryption on Theo's phone number was broken and police traced the phone to a man called Josh Brady, who lived in a ranch house 100 miles south of Washington, D.C. The police drove down there, and in an instant, three things became clear.

The first was that Theo and Josh were the same person. The second was that Josh was not working for the CIA. He was 26 and living with his mother and grandmother. And the third was that Josh was totally convinced that he was working for them. Here's Tom.

Tom Schoenberg

I interviewed Josh in a jail in Virginia. And when I met with him, he told me pretty quickly that he was working with the CIA. And I would say he was firmly convinced at that time that they took a computer from his house that contained all the information to prove that this was legitimate.

Jon Ronson

Josh was initially charged with impersonating a government official and three counts of attempted bank robbery. But doctors found that Josh suffered from a variety of mental illnesses and disorders, so prosecutors dropped those charges and Josh was released into his mother's care and ordered to get mental health treatment. They declined to prosecute Herson and Carolina was never charged. In the end, no one was prosecuted for the attempted bank robberies.

But here's something I found especially interesting about this story. During the court proceedings, a court appointed forensic psychologist had offered a second opinion about Josh Brady. He had diagnosed Josh with something really rare. It's a disorder that most people have never heard of. I'd never heard of it. It's called delusional disorder.

Herson Torres didn't want to talk to me for this story. Maybe he felt embarrassed about being taken in by Josh. But he shouldn't feel embarrassed, because the whole scheme, it was plausible. That's the amazing thing about delusional disorder, the delusions are plausible.

Dr. Evan Nelson

I mean, we all know that there are indeed folks who seem perfectly normal but turn out to be undercover agents. It doesn't violate the boundaries of reality.

Jon Ronson

This is Dr. Evan Nelson, the court psychologist who diagnosed Josh Brady with delusional disorder. Dr. Nelson couldn't talk to me about Josh Brady's case, but he explained to me that delusional disorder is like a cousin to better known psychotic disorders like schizophrenia.

The big difference is that people with schizophrenia have crazy delusions that nobody believes, like believing that the CIA is using telepathy to read your thoughts or believing that you're Jesus Christ. Whereas the delusions that come with delusional disorder, they could be true.

Dr. Evan Nelson

It's the difference between believing people are following you, which is entirely possible, and believing they're following you because they've inserted some sort of an x-ray machine in your body and they can covertly track you through a satellite that's orbiting Mars. That sort of violation of logic wouldn't be part of a delusional disorder.

Jon Ronson

Delusional disorder is defined as a rare disorder, but a lot of clinicians like Dr. Nelson believe that it has to be under-diagnosed. There have to be people out there who don't realize that they are living inside someone else's delusion-- like, for instance, my friend Emily, which isn't her real name. And this isn't her real voice either.

Emily

Well, my husband had it, so I lived with someone with delusional disorder.

Jon Ronson

When you say your husband had it, does that mean he doesn't have it any more?

Emily

No. I mean, he probably still has it.

Jon Ronson

Emily asked to be disguised because she loves her husband and wants to protect his privacy. And so in a show about secret identities, this weird robot voice is her one.

Emily is the reason why I ever got to hear about Herson and Theo. She sent me a link to Tom's article. In the message she wrote, "Imagine being married to that. LOL."

By "that," Emily meant a marriage filled with the chaos of a plausible delusion. I said I couldn't imagine it. So Emily agreed to talk about it.

When Emily first met her husband and when they first got married, everything was fine. He told her he'd been in a long term relationship before, but unfortunately it didn't work out.

Emily

He told me that his previous partner had been extremely unfaithful, unfaithful in the extreme. At the time, I just thought, oh, that's dreadful. You poor soul. I can't imagine what you've been through.

Jon Ronson

Emily says that for the first five years of their marriage, everything was normal. But then her husband had a bad turn professionally. It stressed him out. He worried about his job prospects and his finances, but mainly he worried about losing Emily. He started accusing her of having crushes and flirting with friends and coworkers.

Emily

But then he would get very agitated when I wouldn't admit to it. And then he would get into this vicious circle of if I didn't admit to it, I was lying. But obviously, I couldn't admit to it because it wasn't true. And we would just get into a very circular argument.

I mean, it got to the point where I would be accused of sleeping with friends, coworkers, just random people. Like if I caught someone's eye and smiled at them on the street, it would be, how do you know that person? You had an affair with that guy, didn't you? That's why he was smiling at you.

Jon Ronson

When would you have been having the affair? Because I presume that every night you were sleeping in the same bed as him.

Emily

Yeah. I mean, he would literally accuse me of getting up in the middle of night to go have secret assignations.

Jon Ronson

While he slept?

Emily

While he was asleep, yeah.

Jon Ronson

So at this point, did you think this is beyond regular jealousy?

Emily

Oh, absolutely.

Jon Ronson

There are five main subtypes identified with delusional disorder. There's the persecutory type, believing a person or group of people are out to get you. There's the erotomanic type, believing a person-- usually a famous person-- is secretly in love with you and trying to be with you.

There is somatic, thinking you've got a medical or health condition you don't have. Grandiosity, thinking you're special or have a high status, like, say, believing you work undercover for the CIA. And the last, as Emily discovered when she began desperately googling for some kind of explanation, delusional disorder jealousy subtype.

The diagnosis made on the internet was later confirmed by a psychiatrist. Emily's husband's delusions weren't real, but his anger was. Inside his delusion, she was cheating on him all the time. It was a living hell for them both.

Emily

When someone's screaming at you for nine hours a day, your first response is maybe to get angry and scream back. But I would just watch him and it would almost be like the sound was turned down on a movie. It was just so sad to watch him be in such distress and be so separated from reality. It was just the saddest thing to watch and know that there's no way that you can help him.

You know, I used to invite people over for Sunday dinner. And I remember just him announcing to the table of diners that my wife has a lot of affairs. She's a right slut. And you know, I didn't know whether to laugh it off or what.

Jon Ronson

What did the people around the table do?

Emily

I mean, this happens a lot. People maybe just thought he was joking. I mean, people just politely ignored it and moved on. And people didn't know whether it was just a bad joke or what.

Jon Ronson

Maybe some people believed him.

Emily

I had one chap that was convinced that I was the nymphomaniac that my husband had been boasting to everyone that I was. And so he came into the bedroom once when I was staying at a friend's house. And I just had to roll over and pretend to be asleep.

Jon Ronson

What? Somebody came in and said I hear you enjoy having affairs with people. Would you care--

Emily

I mean, he didn't say anything, but he made a pass. So I just pretended to be asleep, because this is a person that I knew and I didn't want to be embarrassed about seeing the next day.

Jon Ronson

Wow! He must have been so crushed, because, you know, you're sleeping with everyone.

Emily

I know.

Jon Ronson

And this is a crazy question, but when a delusion is as powerful as these delusions were, was there ever a moment, even though you knew you weren't having any affairs with anyone, was there ever a moment when you thought, my god, maybe I am having an affair?

Emily

I was honestly-- I mean, because my husband is a very rational human being. I mean, he was highly scientific. So when someone's that rational and that grounded in that level of reality, there was a point where I just thought, well, maybe I'm sleepwalking or maybe I've got a multiple personality disorder or something.

Jon Ronson

Wow.

Emily

Maybe I am the one that's mad.

Jon Ronson

It's really difficult to treat delusional disorder. Dr. Nelson, the forensic psychologist, says logic doesn't work. They can't be talked out of it.

Anti-psychotic medications can work wonders for people with schizophrenia because they're good at tackling hallucinations. But for some reason, they're not so great on delusions. Dr. Nelson says medication can sort of lesson the delusions a but, but they can't make them disappear. There is a best option, but it's a really frustrating one.

Dr. Evan Nelson

Gradually over time, you reach a sort of a detente, which is they're not willing to admit that their idea is a delusion, but they're willing to admit that acting on it isn't in their best interest. So I still suspect that my wife is cheating on me, but I know she says that it's not true. And I want to trust her. And our marriage is good, and every time I bring this up I make it worse. So maybe I'll just have to tolerate a little bit of infidelity in exchange for keeping this marriage.

Jon Ronson

Huh. So convince them that open marriages are the way forward.

Dr. Evan Nelson

[LAUGHS] Well, I don't know that that's necessarily an open marriage. I don't think they're consenting. But you're definitely talking about compromises.

Same thing with the persecutory type and the grandiose type. You may not get to the point where they agree that they weren't really acting as a special agent for the FBI, or where they agree that there isn't really a plot against them. But you might get them to the point where they agree that from a practical level, you've never been paid for your work from the FBI, so why bother to keep working for them?

Jon Ronson

The only way to move forward is for everyone to be submissive to the delusion. So someone like Emily never gets justice, never gets an apology for being taken all wrong. The delusion always wins. A few years ago Emily and her husband split up.

Emily

You know, people and places are triggers. So I actually became a trigger in my husband's life. So the only way for him to be healthy is to remove the triggers. So that's him moving to another new town and leaving me. And I'm sure that he'll find another woman in a new town, tell her the same story about the wife that was extremely unfaithful, and the cycle will begin again.

Jon Ronson

Incidentally, Josh Brady, the fake CIA agent who orchestrated the robberies, has been arrested again. A little under two months after he was released and remanded to psychiatric counseling, he was picked up again, this time charged with impersonating a Department of Homeland Security agent.

Ira Glass

Jon Ronson. His latest book of nonfiction stories, Lost at Sea, comes out in paperback this week.

Coming up, a woman avenger takes to the streets with a gun and a mission of justice. Men fear her, nobody knows her name. That's one of the stories after the break in a minute for Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, Secret Identities.

We have arrived at Act Two of our show. Act Two, Tiger Tiger, Burning Bright.

Elna Baker, who's on our program now and then, has this cousin named Navey. And Navey has a secret identity that actually isn't so secret.

She's the school mascot, a tiger, at Gilbert High in Gilbert, Arizona. And she's one of those kids who's just completely transformative. Her second identity gives her power. Here's Elna to explain.

Elna Baker

I used to babysit Navey. And she's always been able to completely lose herself in characters to a degree, honestly, you don't see in most kids.

Like when Navey was four or five, she was obsessed with dogs. So she'd tape a tube sock to her butt for a tail and crawl on all fours.

She drank from a bowl. She'd do that thing where she'd drag her butt along the carpet to scratch it. She'd sniff people's crotches. She was method.

Navey Baker

We had old collars, dog collars around the house. I'd put those on. And I'd tie a leash to the little stroller and I'd run around the house pretending I was a sled dog.

Karl Baker

I mean, I was fine with her being a dog, until she started crapping in our yard. I didn't think that was very funny. [LAUGHS] It is funny, though.

Elna Baker

That's Navey's dad, Karl. And at first I thought he was joking. But it turns out, one day he's looking out the window--

Karl Baker

And I'm watching her and she's acting like a dog, walking around the backyard. And the next thing you know, she takes her pants and goes crap in the backyard.

Navey Baker

And then I kicked my feet back to cover up the poop. [LAUGHS]

Karl Baker

And now I don't know how many times she did it before that. This whole time I was picking up my dog's poop, I may have been picking up my kid's poop.

Elna Baker

And as she got older, Navey discovered a more socially acceptable way to do the same thing, when, in second grade, the elementary school mascot-- a husky dog-- stopped by her class for the first time. Navey's mind was blown, because here's this person who got to act like an animal all the time.

She became obsessed with mascots. I know this because I babysat her for a whole week when she was 10. And while her siblings were outside in the yard playing, Navey was inside practicing mascot routines she'd found on YouTube.

She'd be dressed up in this old tiger Halloween costume, a tiger because that's the mascot for the local high school. All of this started to worry Navey's dad, Karl. He was really hoping it would be a passing phase.

Karl Baker

I don't know if many parents wake up one morning and go, oh my gosh, I can't wait for my daughter to be a mascot.

Elna Baker

And did you make fun of mascots when you were in high school or middle school?

Karl Baker

Now that's kind of an awkward question. Doesn't everybody? [LAUGHS]

I remember being in junior high and really just trying to fit in. And I just didn't know if being this would be something that she would be accepted in. I mean, is this something that she gets branded as the odd girl who likes to dress up like a tiger?

Elna Baker

For years, her parents kept trying to get her interested in other things. More quote, unquote, "normal things" like ballet, Girl Scouts. But Navey had tiger tunnel vision. It all came to a head one Friday night at her brother's football game.

Karl Baker

Our older son was playing football in high school, and Navey's still in junior high. And I came home from work and I'm like, hey, Navey, we gotta hurry up. We gotta get to Justin's game.

Navey Baker

And I was like, I want to wear my mascot costume. Please let me wear it.

Karl Baker

I thought in my head, I says, I don't know if I feel comfortable with me taking my daughter to a football game dressed up like a mascot at a high school, because A, you don't go to high school there, and it's just kind of bizarre me walking into a football game with a tiger.

Navey Baker

And I was like, I don't want to go to the game if I can't wear my suit.

Karl Baker

And I says, you know what? Then stay home.

So we're at the football game and she's texting my wife and just saying, hey, you don't love me. You don't support me as the mascot. You love the football player son, but you don't love the mascot daughter.

And finally she texts me and she goes, listen, I still want to. Can I please come to the game? So we say, your grandma and grandpa haven't got here yet. We'll call them, they'll pick you up.

Navey Baker

And I took that as hey, I can wear the costume. So I get in the car, I'm wearing my costume. And my grandpa just said, did they say that you could wear it? I was like, yeah.

And so I showed up, got out of the car. And everyone was like, oh my gosh. Hey, it's the tiger.

And then I go and I look up and I was like, oh there's my parents. And I could tell they were not happy.

Karl Baker

And she looks at us, we look at her and those big giant mascot eyes. And she beelined it onto the field. And I thought, oh my gosh, what's going to happen?

The sophomore cheerleaders didn't realize that she wasn't supposed to be there. And she's unbelievable. The crowd loves her. She's doing the wave, she's doing the cheer, she's leading the cheerleaders, football players are taking pictures with her. And no one has idea that it's a girl that's in eighth grade.

Navey Baker

They said everyone loved me. The crowd was cheering for me.

Oh! I fricking love-- I can't even tell you! I feel like this is my calling.

Karl Baker

And that's when I finally said, listen, you have a gift. You should go and do it 100%.

Elna Baker

This ended up being her big break. The high school athletic director was there and he came up to her after and said, look, if you want to do this again, just let us know. You're great.

And then he told her that she should try out to be the mascot when she got to high school. So since freshman year she's been the Gilbert High tiger. And all family pride aside, she is the best mascot I have ever seen. When she puts her costume on, which looks like a buff Tigger, Navey transforms.

[CROWD CHEERING]

She goes from being this awkward husky Mormon tomboy-- right, she's Mormon-- but she puts the costume on and then starts grinding like a male stripper. And it's hard not to think, are we allowed to do that? The kid has serious swagger.

Karl Baker

There's times where I sometimes forget it's my daughter. I don't picture her dancing because she doesn't walk around the house dancing. Immediately when she puts that outfit on, she knows all these moves. She can pretty much do any of the new fad dance moves.

Beyonce's "Single Ladies," she can do that. She can do Psy. She can do Michael Jackson. The two don't really match up. It's bizarre.

Elna Baker

She's been on the news, she's in the paper. In town her parents are known as the Tiger's parents.

Some people come to games just to see her. The football team sucks. Sorry, Navey.

And she's gotten so much attention that recently the Suns Gorilla-- that's the mascot for the Phoenix Suns-- tweeted at her, "You're inspiring. That's no hashtag monkey business."

Here she is at a dance-off against her rival, the Chandler Wolf. They're staring each other down across the 50 yard line.

Man 2

There's the tiger! There's the tiger! We love the tiger!

Elna Baker

The wolf does the lawn mower. Navey, as the tiger, throws her head back and laughs, as if to say, that all you got? And then she busts out "Gangnam Style."

[CROWD CHEERING]

She dances around him in a circle, shuffling and shimmying on the turns. And then she stops, face-to-face, and flicks her paws at him like, what are you going to do about it? And then, slowly, she backs away. And he shrugs, like I have nothing, and then bows to her, shakes her hand, and walks off the field.

OK, so that insanely confident person? Cut to the next day at school and she's just this super awkward teenager who doesn't want any attention drawn to her.

Navey Baker

Navey Baker is shy. During classes I just won't talk to kids around me. I just sit there and do my work, be quiet. I'm nervous to go to Taco Bell and order me a fricking burrito.

Elna Baker

And is it weird to be two people?

Navey Baker

Yeah, it's like Superman. I mean, Superman, he's got glasses and a suit and tie. And then all of a sudden, he rips the suit and tie off and he's Superman. Except I put clothes on to become a tiger.

Elna Baker

This is how extreme it is. Navey's never been able to do a cartwheel. But then one practice with all the cheerleaders there, she thought, the tiger would do a cartwheel right now. And so she did one, just like that.

She's done cartwheels in front of thousands since. But then Navey the person still can't do a cartwheel, which seemed impossible to me. So I asked her to try one out of costume.

Navey Baker

[LAUGHING] This is scary. I might hit something.

Elna Baker

Navey pushed off and crumbled to the ground.

Navey Baker

[GIGGLING]

Elna Baker

It wasn't an act. It was horrible.

Navey Baker

Nope!

Elna Baker

You had a good start, but--

Navey Baker

I did.

Elna Baker

What made you give up the minute your hands touched the floor?

Navey Baker

I don't know. I got scared and I sat down.

Elna Baker

So I told her to put her tiger costume on and try again.

[ZIPPER]

Elna Baker

All right, you're all zipped up.

Navey Baker

And now for the head. Ugh, hang on. Ugh, it's hard to breathe in here.

Elna Baker

All right, talk to me. Do you feel different all the sudden?

Navey Baker

Yeah, definitely. My heart's racing right now. My legs feel like running a mile.

I just feel like let's go crazy. Let's go slide somewhere. Let's go slide on my belly onto the court.

Elna Baker

All right. Here we go, tiger. Let's see this cartwheel.

Oh wow! You did it! All right! [LAUGHING]

Tiger is fist pumping the air. Tiger's bowing. All right, you want to take your hat off?

Navey Baker

Ah! Phew! I felt a lot better doing it in the costume than I did outside the costume.

Elna Baker

What is it about that costume that lets you be that way?

Navey Baker

Well, definitely the fact that no one can see your face. So no one's like, oh, who's that? Oh, they look stupid.

So that's another thing I'm scared of. Like, oh, people are going to judge me from what I look like.

I have broad shoulders, big old calves. And it's just, I'm a big kid. So I mean, the tiger's based off of what I really want to be, like this realest person who doesn't care.

Elna Baker

When you watch Navey on stage, it's clear that she's the one with the confidence. This is Navey's confidence, it's not the tiger's.

I keep trying to get her to see this. But the more I grill her, the more she insists, it's the tiger. It's all the tiger.

Ira Glass

Elna Baker is the author of the memoir The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance.

Act Three. The Blonde Avenger.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Blond Avenger. As we were putting together this week's radio show, we heard about a real life avenger with a secret identity in Mexico on the roads that run through Juarez, that incredibly violent city near the border, and to the maquilas, the factories on the border.

Writer Yuri Herrera lived on the border for years and spent a lot of time in Juarez. It's the inspiration for the setting of his first novel. And he tells the true story of what is going on with this right now. A warning that much of the story is not right for little kids and mentions sexual violence.

Yuri Herrera

The first murder happened at 7:45 AM on August 28th on bus route 4A. That morning, a woman hailed bus 718, climbed the steps, pulled a gun, and shot the driver. The driver jumped out of the bus trying to escape, but died on the sidewalk.

The killer, witnesses said, was a middle-aged woman with dyed blond hair-- or maybe it was a wig-- wearing a cap, plaid shirt and jeans. Nobody saw how she escaped, or at least nobody would say.

The second murder happened 24 hours later on the same route. A woman boarded the bus downtown and a few blocks later requested a stop. She walked towards the exit and motioned as if she were looking for the bus fare. But instead she drew her gun, spat words into the driver's ear, and shot him twice in the head, then fled the scene.

One day later, a news website from El Paso called La Polaca, which specializes in covering the political gossip of Juarez, received an email.

"You think that because we are women, we are weak. And that may be true. But only up to a point. Because even though we have nobody to defend us and we have to work long hours until late into the night to earn a living for our families, we can no longer be silent in the face of these acts that enrage us.

We were victims of sexual violence from bus drivers working the maquila night shifts here in Juarez. And although a lot of people know about the things we've suffered, nobody defends us nor does anything to protect us.

That's why I am an instrument that will take revenge for many women. For we are seen as weak, but in reality we are not. We are brave.

And if we don't get respect, we will earn that respect with our own hands. We, the women of Juarez, are strong." The email was signed by someone calling herself Diana, Hunter of Bus Drivers.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the first disappearances of young women in Juarez, or at least when people started recording these disappearances and considering them as being related, after a 13-year-old girl was kidnapped and then found dead with signs of rape and strangulation. After that, the number of women who were killed just kept growing. It went from dozens of reported murders in a year to hundreds-- so many women, it was hard to count accurately.

In 2010, the number peaked. At least 304 women were murdered that year. The circumstances of the crimes were eerily similar. One day, a girl would disappear on the way to work or on the way home. And if there was any news about her, it would be when her body was founded in the desert or an abandoned lot, often with traces of rape and torture. Sometimes they were found together in mass graves.

Oscar Maynez, who worked some of these cases as a criminologist, explained to me the way the authorities became complicit in the murders. First, they deny the problem, he said. Then they played it down. And finally they blamed the victims' lifestyle and their families.

The criminologist resigned, he says, after realizing his superiors were more interested in covering up investigations and tampering with evidence than in finding justice. So when I heard about the case of this woman, this Diana, who supposedly was trying to do something by herself, I wondered, after all these years without justice, if women in Juarez would look at Diana and say, it's about time. So I went down there to ask them.

As you can imagine, most of the women I approached to get their opinions were reluctant to speak to a stranger about the woman who'd murdered bus drivers. "I know nothing about it," said a woman with a small child on the bus, only to fix her eyes on the back of the seat afterwards and not glance in my direction again. "I have no opinion about that," another one said before quickly entering a mall.

But also one day I got this answer. "When I heard about what she did, I said, how great that someone's doing what many of us should have done."

This was Laura, 25 years old, pregnant with her second child. When I asked her if you were to run into Diana on the street, what would you say to her if you knew it was her? She said, "without a doubt, I would congratulate her."

There is a sense among the general population that buses are a bad place to be by yourself. Just this week, a bus driver was arrested for allegedly raping a girl on her way to school.

About this Laura said, "I remember when I was in high school, I would hear a lot about it. My friends would say to me, if you're going on the route and no one's there, take a pen with you with the point facing outward, because you never know.

That's been happening for years-- years. And it's the same for the ladies working in the maquilas."

There's no evidence that the bus drivers who were killed by the blond woman had actually committed a crime at all. But Laura didn't seem concerned about that. In a city where justice rarely brings results, maybe at some point you settle to get the justice available to you.

Just a couple of weeks before the Diana the hunter case, Laura's younger sister, Maria Alejandra, 20 years old, suffered a home invasion. A man came in through her bedroom window in the night armed with a gun and tried to rape her.

She recognized him. He lived in the neighborhood. After the man left her house, Maria Alejandra told her sister what happened and that she was going to report it to the police. Laura told her not to do that. What for? They knew how the police work.

Laura told me, "I told her not to go, not to expose herself, because they would ask questions and check her. I think between the police, they've created a sort of code. So you basically are putting yourself out there to suffer one humiliation after another.

"My father was with us. He wanted to go kill him. And my husband too, and me too.

"I said, I'll kill him. I said I'll go and I'll kill him. Since we know who it is, we are going to go and do it with our own hands."

But despite Laura's pleading, Maria Alejandra, after talking to her friends, decided to go to the police anyway. And things went down exactly as Laura predicted. Even though the doctors had said that there was evidence of sexual assault, Maria Alejandra says the police questioned her as if she was making it all up.

Why didn't she have bruises? What took her so long to report the intrusion? "I would have to almost be dying for them to investigate," Maria Alejandra says they told her.

Laura was angry. Now the opportunity for revenge was gone. "I said to her, I told you. We should have done something before.

"Because now if we took action, they would know who did it. Because that's how justice works here. The victims are the ones that are in jail."

In 2001, police did apprehend a bus driver, Victor Garcia Uribe. He was arrested with a colleague and accused of murdering eight women who were left in an old cotton field. He denied any involvement in the killings, but the police kept questioning him.

Finally, after long hours of interrogation, he confessed to taking part in those murders and in the murders of three other women. Yes, he said, he enjoyed killing them. Yes, he said, they did it under the influence of marijuana, cocaine, and alcohol. Yes, they loved to rape them and kill them, and then they would throw them afterwards in an empty field.

But two days later in court, Garcia Uribe did a complete 180. Again he denied that he was involved in the murders. He said he only confessed because officers had kidnapped him, taken him to a police academy, and tortured him until he did. He said they'd beaten him and burned him with cigarettes.

Still, the judge convicted him and sentenced him to 50 years. Garcia Uribe was freed in 2005, after it was proven that the authorities had tortured him into confessing.

"What makes me laugh," Laura told me, "is how the bus drivers are so scared. That's what really makes me laugh.

I didn't see this myself, but Maria Alejandra says she's seen bus drivers who posted a sketch of Diana near their dashboards. And when a woman who looks like her tries to board the bus, they don't let her. She says they close the doors quickly now. And she's heard that some are carrying knives on them."

"You what it is?" Laura said. "In this country, people don't have balls. That's why my dad has always said," Laura told me, "we don't have balls," he says. "Because if we had a little bit more balls, many things wouldn't be happening.

We don't express what we think. We don't express how we feel. And we don't act in accordance with what we think. And that's our problem. That's what we are lacking."

So I asked her, but wait, weren't you on the verge of taking things into your own hands with your sister? "Yeah, but I'm not the kind of person who would do it. Sure, in the moment I reacted and I thought about it.

But I would never do it. I would never try to kill anyone. It's not how I was brought up. I'm not like that."

While I was in Juarez, I spent more time riding the buses on route 4 than doing anything else. These buses, the Juarez public transportation buses, are old school buses imported from the US. They are noisy old buses, reasonably clean, but in a state of decay that everyone accepts.

I rode in the back of the bus and in the front of the bus. I rode it at the time of the killings, in the morning, and late at night, when the last bus was about to finish the route. Sitting there, I wondered if the guy driving my bus was scared at all, nervous. I wonder if in moments on his route, he was thinking about Diana the Hunter, and the words she said to the second bus driver on the morning of August the 29th.

[SPEAKING SPANISH]. "You all think you are so tough." Right before shooting the driver twice in the head and running away.

She hasn't been spotted since. And there's no proof that the email sent by Diana actually came from the woman who did the shootings.

Whoever chose Diana's name chose well. Diana the Hunter is the goddess of women and childbirth, who, like many other Roman gods, acts out of basic human feelings, like rage and revenge.

There is, on one of Mexico City's most famous streets, a statue of Diana the Hunter. And there's a replica of it outside a restaurant in Juarez. She's muscular, strong, holding a bow with her arms stretched back, about to shoot. Maybe that image was in this one driver's mind on a bus I was riding when he opened the door and a woman came in and he said, "What? Are you Diana the Hunter?"

"No, of course not," she replied. "What? Are you afraid of me now?" "Well yeah," he replied. "Shouldn't I be?"

Ira Glass

Yuri Herrera. His novel Signs Leading Up to the End of the World is available in Spanish right now. It's going to come out in English next year.

We commissioned a piece of artwork of Diana the Hunter on the bus to go with his story from this artist named Alice Leora Briggs. She's been doing these incredible drawings of scenes from Juarez. You can see this piece of artwork at our website. We also have a link to her other drawings at thisamericanlife.org.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Brian Reed with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Sarah Koenig, Miki Meek, Johnathan Menjivar, Lisa Pollak, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer's Julie Snyder. Production from Dana Chivvis.

Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon's our production manager. Elise Bergerson's our administrative assistant. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website.

Research help from Michelle Harris and Julie Beer. Research and Spanish translation by Annie Correal. Music from Damien Gray from [INAUDIBLE], and Anthony Roman. Original instrumental music in today's program by Roger Neill.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. Thanks as always to our show's co-founder Torey Malatia. You know, the staff had to stop inviting him to their kids' birthday parties. He'd get so excited around the slip and slide.

Navey Baker

My heart's racing right now. My legs feel like running a mile. I just feel like, let's go crazy. Let's go slide somewhere. Let's go slide on my belly.

Ira Glass

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

[MUSIC -- "SECRET IDENTITY" BY THE JEALOUS GIRLFRIENDS"]

Announcer

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