On the morning of July 1, 1981, three bodies were discovered behind a shabby, concrete ranch house on Bob Hope Drive, a main drag in a sand-swept stretch of California’s scorching Coachella Valley. The corpses were sprawled in a semicircle, on chairs and beds that had been dragged into the backyard. Each of the victims—the house’s owner, Fred Alvarez, his girlfriend, Patricia Castro, and a guest named Ralph Boger—had been killed by a single .38-caliber gunshot to the head. Police surmised that Alvarez and his friends had been planning to sleep outdoors to escape the heat of the house, which had no air-conditioning, and were surprised in the dark by one or more assailants. There were few clues and no witnesses left at the scene; the crime had all the hallmarks of a professional hit.
Boger’s daughter, Rachel Begley, who was 13 at the time, says she learned of her father’s death from a television news bulletin. Her parents were divorced, and though she spent occasional days with her dad, riding in his motorcycle’s sidecar, she didn’t know enough about his life to make sense of what had happened. The police would eventually conclude that Boger and Alvarez were killed in connection with shady doings at the nearby Cabazon Indian reservation. But Begley’s mother shielded her from all the murky details of the investigation.
After the murders, Begley went through a rebellious phase and fell in with a bad crowd. By the time she was 15, she was pregnant and had dropped out of high school. Eventually she got her GED and moved to Iowa. She says she would periodically wonder about the case and check in with the police, who never seemed to have any new information. Beyond that, she didn’t have time or tools to delve too deeply.
Then one night in 2007, she idly typed her father’s name into Google. She didn’t find much, but as she clicked through the few results that came up, she found a book entitled The Octopus: Secret Government and the Death of Danny Casolaro. Based on the work of a fringe freelance journalist, the book argued that the 1981 triple slaying was wrapped up in an enormous plot involving arms dealing, private-security firms, and the upper echelons of the Reagan administration. Skeptical but intrigued, Begley dug deeper and discovered that over the years the murder case had taken on a curious life of its own, preserved on obscure websites and nurtured by a grassroots community of obsessives. To these conspiracy theorists, Boger’s killing was the work of a secret syndicate that they called the Octopus, because its tangled tentacles supposedly reached into some of the most powerful organizations in the world.
Begley’s simple Google search launched a four-year-and-counting odyssey, during which she has devoted herself to tracking down forgotten documents, corresponding with federal prisoners, putting questions to Oliver North, and even confronting the man who may have shot her dad. Her work, she says, has placed her own life in danger and made her a target of the same forces that killed her father. And yet she cannot stop. She keeps following the siren song of the conspiracy theory, the same beguiling cognitive path that lures others to the JFK assassination and Area 51. What was once a family tragedy has blossomed into something else entirely, a vast puzzle whose solution promises to illuminate not only her father’s death but the dark forces behind the world’s apparent chaos.
On a sweltering afternoon last June, Begley was sitting in front of a wheezing Dell Dimension 8300 desktop, beneath a photocopy of a prayer for protection from “evil spirits who prowl about the world,” trying to sum up the dimensions of the Octopus conspiracy. “You’ve got the drug people, mixing with the mafia, mixing with the Hells Angels, mixing with the government—various governments, actually,” she says as she clicks around on the computer. “This is where I piece it all together.”
Begley lives and works in a rickety house at the end of a gravel road, next to a small pond and a rotting wood barn in a rural town outside Louisville, Kentucky, that she doesn’t want named for security reasons. Out front, her “guard dog,” an aging flat-coated retriever named Lucky, lazes beneath her porch. Begley is 43 and heavyset, with piercing blue eyes. On this day, her air conditioner is broken, and her round face glistens with sweat. She has four children, and for the moment she is collecting unemployment and selling a line of weight-loss shakes to make money on the side.
Before she heard about the Octopus, she never gave much thought to politics or read the newspaper, and she certainly didn’t size up her dad—a bearded mechanic who liked to drink, smoke pot, and ride motorcycles—as the type to be tied up in byzantine plots. “I thought it was a normal thing,” Begley says of the killings. “Well, murder is never normal, but I thought somebody went to try and rob them or something.”
In fact, within days of the crime, investigators had fixed their suspicion on John Philip Nichols, who was serving as financial manager for the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, a group of fewer than 30 descendants of a desert people that had long inhabited the Coachella Valley. Nichols was encouraging the Cabazons to open a casino, a radical idea at the time that caused clashes with the police and attracted some alleged mob associates to the reservation. Boger’s friend Fred Alvarez, a dissident tribe member, opposed the plan. Before his death, Alvarez had approached a local reporter to talk about blowing the whistle. “There are people out there who want to kill me,” he warned. No one knew what Alvarez was preparing to disclose, but initial speculation involved embezzlement.
When Begley stumbled upon The Octopus, though, she found a more nefarious explanation: Nichols proposed to use the tribe’s sovereign status to build an arms factory on the reservation and ship weapons to Central American rebel groups like the Contras. Drawing heavily on a San Francisco Chronicle investigation, the book reported that he had struck a partnership arrangement with Wackenhut, a private-security firm with alleged ties to the CIA and Republican Party.
That strange story was widely reported in the early 1990s. But since then, others had embroidered those findings with more bizarre information, speculation, and extrapolations. Before long, Begley was tearing through websites and bulletin boards, finding herself drawn into the conspiracy. Much of what she found traced back to Danny Casolaro, the freelance journalist who had been the first to write about a shadowy “international cabal” of covert operatives he dubbed the Octopus. Casolaro tied the Cabazon tribe’s arms company to a Reagan crony, who figured in the so-called October Surprise of 1980 and was connected to a computer program called Promis, which was supposedly used for spying. In 1991, the writer was found dead in the bathtub at a West Virginia hotel, his wrists slashed. Authorities deemed the death a suicide, but others presumed Casolaro was killed because he knew too much.
“Most of the stuff, I didn’t believe,” Begley says. “I thought all these people were making money off my dad’s murder, writing these books.” She was angry enough, in fact, that she was determined to prove the speculators wrong. At the time, Begley was working in customer service for an Internet service provider, which was moving its back-office operations to another state, and she was spending her days sitting idly at her computer, waiting to get laid off. Begley had once worked for a collections agency, and she knew how to track people down. “I went into it with a mindset, I guess, almost like a police officer would,” she says.
No one had ever been charged in the killings. Nichols was long gone—he had died of a heart attack in 2001. But Begley talked to Alvarez’s sister, who recounted her family’s thwarted efforts to get the police to pursue the case. She then found William Hamilton, the developer of the Promis software, who had collaborated with Casolaro on his investigation. Hamilton called her back on her cell phone as she was leaving work one day, and he talked and talked until his battery died. “It was like—boom,” she later said. “He dumped it all in my lap.” Begley may have started out trying to resist the Octopus, but she gradually gave in to the theory’s implications: Her father had been caught up in a vast conspiracy, and it had killed him.
So Begley dove deeper, into the submerged ecosystem of interconnected message boards where initiates continued to discuss and dissect the Octopus. “I was one of those thinking that the conspiracy people were weird,” she posted on one of these boards in 2008. “Then I had my eyes opened, REALLY FAST.”
As she set out on her search, one of the first things Begley did was fashion a new identity. She came up with a screen name, Desertfae, and introduced her character in a series of YouTube videos. The first ones, set to pounding music, consisted of montages of images—an Indian chief, a close-up of her eyes—and cryptic messages: “I am lost … I need your help and guidance to bring closure … I will be silent no longer … Soon the clues and proof will be found.”
As Begley plunged into the world of the conspiracy theorists, she found more than facts and assertions—she found a community with its own rules, ethics, and currency. And it was a difficult one to penetrate; the cluster of people devoted to studying the Octopus tended not to throw their arms open to newcomers. Over the years, they had built a kind of gnostic society, a belief system that was both all-encompassing—a grand unified theory of everything sinister—and exclusionary, open only to the select few who could accept the devastating truth. They were suspicious of outsiders and divided into factions that warred over arcane points, often accusing one another of being double agents.
With persistence and a convert’s zeal, Begley managed to win the trust of some of the leading theorists. She formed a particularly tight bond with Cheri Seymour, a matronly San Diego woman who had been working for nearly 20 years on a book called The Last Circle. The two sealed their friendship with a transaction of weathered documents, the Octopus community’s customary medium of exchange. Copying Seymour’s files, which the author had gathered from archives, courts, and a confidential source’s hidden trailer, Begley glimpsed the far reaches of the speculation: bioweapons, Lebanese heroin shipments, Howard Hughes, the yakuza.
There were many competing interpretations of the Octopus—Seymour was particularly interested in the alleged role of entertainment company MCA—and they were infinitely adaptable, able to accommodate the Patriot Act or the financial crisis. Devotees found and fought one another on sites like Above Top Secret, conspiracy clearinghouses that host every conceivable thread of discussion. Begley forged an alliance with a retired FBI agent who was exploring a link between the Octopus and Satanic cults. She did battle with a prominent UFO enthusiast who thought the Octopus was hiding the government’s collaboration with a colonizing alien force. (In January, online sleuths discovered that alleged Arizona assassin Jared Lee Loughner was a regular poster on Above Top Secret, but his bizarre ramblings about currency and space travel, widely disdained by other contributors, never touched on the Octopus threads.) Begley also developed a venomous rivalry with Virginia McCullough, a California writer who accused her of being an enemy impostor, not really Ralph Boger’s daughter. When Begley posted a copy of her birth certificate online, McCullough called it “a cut-and-paste job.”
“I do not believe that Desertfae is a ‘victim,’ and she has not posted any information that she is who she claims to be,” McCullough wrote on one message board. “She is a low-stage puppet reporting to the puppet master and two or three of his minions.”
The man McCullough called the puppet master is a federal narcotics prisoner named Michael Riconosciuto, Casolaro’s principal source, who had worked for the Cabazon arms company in the 1980s. The convict, who claimed he’d been framed, continued to play a leading role in the factional wars, penning letters in loopy cursive to numerous correspondents. Shortly after Begley began communicating with Riconosciuto, she posted a new video, entitled “OMG Michael Called!!!!!” Looking rattled, she reported that Riconosciuto had warned that the Octopus was watching. Then she cut to shaky handheld footage of a black helicopter that had appeared over her house.
Begley wasn’t scared off the trail. She interviewed retired cops and unearthed new witnesses. She amassed thousands of documents: news clippings, police reports, Casolaro’s notes, leaked memos, reams of legal filings and depositions. (For a secret cabal, the Octopus was remarkably litigious.) Informants found her website or friended her on Facebook and promised they could tell her about the Octopus from the inside. “If you’re involved with some kind of high-level weird thing,” she explains, “and you’ve held it in for 20 or 30 years, and you can’t talk about it, eventually you’re going to be, like, ‘I want to tell somebody before I die.'”
Begley continued to post YouTube videos documenting her investigations, and before long they started winning a small but avid viewership—and not just fellow conspiracy theorists. It seemed the police were paying attention as well. Back when she had first begun investigating, Begley called the police department in Riverside County, where Coachella is located, telling them the case was bigger than Watergate. She got a dismissive response. But after she started posting her videos, she received a phone call telling her that the cold-case squad was reopening the inquiry into her father’s murder.
Soon, Begley focused her attention on one player in the killing: Jimmy Hughes, a former Cabazon reservation employee who worked for John Philip Nichols. In 1984, in the midst of a business dispute, Hughes implicated Nichols to the police, claiming he had ferried a cash payment from Nichols to some unidentified contract killers for the Alvarez hit, which he said his boss had called a “US government covert action.” The police had looked into Hughes’ claims but gradually shifted their suspicion to the informant himself. At that point, Hughes fled town, and the grand jury investigation into the murders fizzled.
Begley discovered that Hughes had become an evangelical minister based in Honduras. In December 2007, she began trying to contact him, but he ignored her. She had an idea why: On the website of a religious group, she discovered an autobiographic essay Hughes had posted that sounded eerily familiar. In it, he called himself “a hit man with a new mission” and told a story of elite military training and a career as a contract killer, a life that was transformed when he was born again. She also found a list of upcoming speaking engagements, which indicated that Hughes was scheduled to address an evangelical banquet in Fresno, California. Begley booked a flight.
On a rainy evening in February 2008, Begley sat in the gilded ballroom of a historic Fresno bank building as Hughes took the floor to preach. Inside her handbag, she carried a hidden camera that peeked out through a discreet hole she’d cut just beneath the zipper. Next to it sat a loaded pistol—just in case.
Hughes, a stocky 51-year-old with a graying buzz cut and raspy voice, bounded around, bellowing tales of his past brutality. Begley, nervous and bleary-eyed from a sleepless cross-country flight, exchanged incredulous text messages with an accomplice who had come along as backup: Mikel Alvarez, Fred’s son. When Hughes finished his performance, Begley and Alvarez came forward with a rush of adrenaline, introducing themselves to the sweat-soaked evangelist as the children of the murder victims.
“Can’t say nothing about that,” Hughes stammered. “It’s a long time ago—it’s in the past.”
“Not for us,” Begley said, insistently. “We’re trying to get resolution.”
“I don’t care who got killed,” Hughes shouted, attracting the bewildered attention of others at the banquet. “I was trainedin the military. I killed people all over the world, right or wrong, because the government ordered me to.”
Hughes stalked off, fuming, and Begley began to cry. That seemed to bother the minister, because he came back, speaking in a tone that was softer but full of veiled menace. Apparently, he had seen her web videos. “Are you aware that that goes all over the world? Are you a crazy lady?” Hughes said. “Think about your children. They need a mother.” He told Begley and Alvarez that the murder was a “mafia hit,” and though he didn’t explicitly admit to carrying it out, he intimated that he knew much more.
“Your parents were involved in some very dangerous things,” Hughes said. “It’s a lot bigger than just the murder of this guy or the murder of that guy. You’re talking political people. You’ve got babies to take care of, mama. Go home tonight and be at peace.”
Suddenly, the murky crime had come into focus, and the conspiracy theorist confronted an unaccustomed feeling: vindication. Hughes’ outburst seemed to confirm Begley’s deepest fears and also her most far-fetched fantasies. After so many decades of false starts and mysterious ends, Begley had finally hit upon something undeniably tangible—an actual lead in the case. Within two days, Begley posted excerpts of the confrontation to YouTube, ending her video with a postscript in stark black and white: “This ‘crazy lady’ wants the murders solved. The Octopus will be exposed.”
Shortly before Begley confronted Hughes, she began cooperating with John Powers, a Riverside County homicide detective who was investigating the reopened 1981 murder case. When Powers saw the video of her run-in with Hughes, he was impressed. “The statements she got from him,” Powers says, “no police officer would ever have been able to get.” He and Begley went on to form an unusually tight partnership. She shared everything she learned with the man she called “my detective” and helped to persuade a pair of reluctant witnesses to offer damning testimony against Hughes.
Still, the case had to overcome some curious obstacles. Powers was surprised to find that the records of the 1980s grand jury investigation had somehow disappeared. And it turned out that the district attorney of Riverside County, a long-serving prosecutor, was actually related to Hughes. Because of the conflict of interest, the case was transferred to the California attorney general’s office. After much procedural wrangling, a warrant was finally issued. In September 2009, Hughes was arrested at Miami’s international airport. Begley posted a celebratory video, scored to Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida.” It flashed up an image of Hughes’ mug shot, across which she had scrawled: “Gotcha.”
As fond as he was of Begley, Powers’ arrest complaint completely ignored the Octopus conspiracy. The detective doubted that a jury would believe—or even be able to follow—the abstruse connections that purportedly linked Hughes to the CIA, the Contras, and all the rest. Instead, he wanted to focus on the old dispute over building a casino on the Cabazon reservation. “Nichols thought he was going to be making millions, and Fred Alvarez was a threat to that,” Powers says. “That was motive enough for murder.”
On the afternoon of July 1, the 29th anniversary of the murders, a grim-faced Begley walked into a courtroom in Indio, California, for an important hearing. The chamber was packed with an expectant crowd of reporters, members of Hughes’ family, and a few supporters from the Octopus community, including Cheri Seymour. Hughes was ushered in, wearing chains and an orange jumpsuit.
Then Michael Murphy, a dapper prosecutor from the attorney general’s office, rose and delivered a shocking blow. “We have lost confidence in our ability to proceed with the prosecution,” he said. Begley closed her eyes tightly as the prosecutor gave a vague reason for his sudden about-face, something about “new information” and a reassessment of the evidence. Begley was allowed to address the court. “How many people must die or suffer at the hands of Jimmy Hughes,” she asked, “before he is brought to justice?” But the judge dismissed the charges anyway. It was enough to make you wonder, if you were of a certain mindset, whether the fix was in.
Afterward, Powers stood next to Begley outside the courtroom as she addressed the television cameras, sobbing. The detective was disgusted by the outcome. The attorney general’s office gave no further public explanation for its decision, but Powers sensed that the prosecutors were eager to “dump” the case. Murphy, he said, started to question the credibility of the witnesses Begley had uncovered. Throughout, Begley had used Twitter and Facebook to mobilize the Octopus believers to pressure Murphy, and at least a few called the prosecutor to urge him to look beyond Hughes and dig into the myriad connections they had spent decades documenting. Begley’s devotion and inventive use of the Internet had helped to ensnare Hughes, but the obsessions of her fellow travelers may have helped to undermine the prosecutor’s confidence. (Murphy declined to comment.)
Powers, for his part, doubts there ever was an Octopus. The detective blames Nichols, the self-aggrandizing adviser who convinced the Cabazons to build a casino, for conjuring the intrigue that continued to befog the case long after his death. “Nichols had a lot of people fooled,” Powers says, “believing that he was some secret spook working for the government.” Even Nichols’ own underlings bought into his mystique; Powers thought it entirely plausible that Hughes truly believed his boss gave orders on behalf of shadowy overlords. In that sense, the Octopus may have existed, if only as a deceived and malignant state of mind.
On the night of his release, Hughes emerged from jail into a furnace blast of desert darkness. “Only God can justify and vindicate those who are really innocent,” he triumphantly told reporters outside the Indio jailhouse. Fearing retribution, Begley had already split, driving over the mountains to San Diego, where she holed up at Seymour’s house. “It’s not over by a long shot,” she told me on the phone. Her cell phone kept ringing: the Los Angeles Times, Dateline NBC, her newly materialized pro bono lawyer, a victims’ rights advocate who often appeared on Nancy Grace’s talk show.
Finally, the world seemed to be listening. “Actually, this might be better,” Begley says, sounding curiously invigorated. Though this experience has been draining, it has given her a sense of purpose, of a momentous cause. Hughes might be free, heading back to Honduras, but in a way, defeat offered a perverse validation. The Octopus wouldn’t be the enemy she thought it was if it gave up its secrets so easily. “You’re going to find out real soon,” Begley says, “that the world isn’t what you think it is.”
Andrew Rice (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget. This is his first piece for Wired.