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Breaking the Olive Branch
The enemy that I created from the friend that I failed
There are two versions to this story, Eloy's version (i.e., the state’s version) and my version. But, only one of these versions coincides with the totality of the evidence and the physical limitations of reality (something that the former-DA Brandenburg wasn't concerned with). All of which leads us to ask the obvious question, assuming that what I’m saying isn't utter bullshit. Why would Eloy commit a betrayal of this magnitude against his oldest friend?
Whenever I relate to someone the circumstances that brought me to prison they inevitably get real quiet. Maybe they're looking for the right euphemism to describe a friend who commits an egregious murder and, when things don't go as planned, extricates himself by blaming his friend.
For someone to do that to you, they say, could only be because he really hated you with a passion. A statement that usually leads to another uncomfortable silence where they hesitate in asking an even more obvious question. What did you do for him to hate you that much?
I admit, it's easier to rally around the plethora of expletives that come to mind in moments of self-pity than to actually answer these questions. But some questions have to be answered.
News headlines frequently describe shootings as ‘senseless murders’, and I immediately think, senseless to whom? Because if you really stop to think about it every crime makes sense to someone, and if it doesn't, that's only because we don't have the entirety of the facts. Because as we get closer to the details the senselessness always dissipates.
Take my trial, for example, where the prosecutor often repeated just how senseless the crime was. Which was, basically, her way of admitting just how inept she was in uncovering the truth. And at the time, I couldn't help but think, if you think this is a senseless crime that's only because you never cared to understand, your only objective here has been to protect your political image at the expense of my life, when what you should be doing is uncovering the truth.
In other words, the question that the former DA Kari Brandenburg should have explored, in 2004, is the question that still hasn't been answered to this day: why did this crime take place? And, how could someone betray a friend to such an extent as to end his life in the worst way imaginable?
First, there needs to be some context.
When I first met Eloy he had everything that most adolescents would want: the classic sports car, nice clothes, and parents who were as liberal with money as they were with all the other freedoms bestowed upon him.
Our friendship was one of those captive audience scenarios due to a school break, and from there it simply grew out of convenience. He had a beautiful sports car, a great television, and we liked the same kind of movies. And what we either didn't care to, or, couldn't see, was how unsuitably matched we were for friendship.
From a young age I had a very clear picture of what success looked like. Which explains why I joined academic clubs, did volunteer work, had a steady girlfriend, and a job. Eloy and I were friends who ordered pizza and watched old gangster movies together, and as long as we didn't venture beyond those parameters of our friendship everything was fine. Which is another way of saying that our friendship was doomed because inevitably we would each get up from the sofa in his TV room and go live our lives, pursuing our own versions of success. And the big challenge for our friendship was that we were growing into different people based on contrary views of what success was going to look like in our lives.
I once asked him what success looked like for him and he said, “a beer in my hand, a cigarette in my mouth, and a bottle of Jack on the table.”
Maya Angelou once said that “when a person shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Unfortunately for me I wouldn't internalize that small kernel of truth until it was too late.
Because had I taken Eloy at his word, then, it's highly probable that our friendship would simply have died of natural causes shortly thereafter. But I was always looking for ways to resuscitate what was already dead, so who’s really to blame?
After high school Eloy enlisted in the Marine Corps as an infantryman. While I was in the university studying business he was at Camp Pendleton in San Diego learning how to make the “grass grow green with the blood of his enemies.” (An old drill cadence he used to sing.)
Eloy had never faced structure or discipline and my initial thought when he enlisted was that the Marines would either make or break him. I saw him only once when he was enlisted and I was surprised at the transformation in him both physically and mentally. Finally he had a clear vision of what success was going to look like in his life, and in all actuality I was happy for him.
We laughed and reminisced about old times, like most friends do when they come back together. Our lives were on different trajectories, and had they stayed that way perhaps our friendship would have survived. But, as it so typically is with life, something unexpected happened: his mother was diagnosed with cancer, and shortly thereafter he was mysteriously discharged from the Marines.
The next time I saw him he was adrift. The optimistic, mentally and physically invincible man I had witnessed was almost like something I had imagined. The man before me now was not so different from what he had been before, living at home, unwilling to find steady employment, and drinking more heavily than ever — with the added caveat that he was now bitter. And it was during one of those drinking bouts when I asked him what had happened with the Marine Corps.
He was hesitant for a moment, seemingly studying the bottle of Jack Daniels between us on the table of his parents’ back porch with his Rottweiler Dillinger and his side.
He said, “I told my CO (commanding officer) that if he didn't give me the leave of absence that I was requesting that I would put a round in the back of his head during the next night-fire drill.”
Unfortunately, my adolescent-self didn't know that life is a struggle for self-invention, and that friendship brings with it the grief and responsibility of knowing when the time has come to sever our ties. Something that must be done in order to make room in our lives for others. I didn't understand that we could outgrow our friends. Just as I didn't know how to be the friend of someone who lacked any sort of purpose or ambition.
I listened to him talk about how the Marine Corps had betrayed him, all the while thinking that I needed to get up, make an excuse, and walk out of there before his self-destruction contaminated my life any more than it already had. Of course, what I hadn’t anticipated was seeing his mother on the other side of that door as I made my exit.
I didn't doubt that she had been listening to our conversation, and from seeing her face I knew she was worried.
Actually, I don't think “worried” is the right adjective. She was afraid. She feared that Eloy, having washed out of the Marines, would not recover if we didn't intervene. And the intervention she had in mind was for me to convince him to attend the university with me.
“He looks up to you,” she said, “and he'll go if you encourage him.”
In retrospect I don't think she really understood what she was asking of me. And as for me, I was yet to learn how to say no and mean it. I tried to walk away without committing myself, but in the end she got what she wanted.
I vividly recall having a long conversation with my girlfriend Beatrice about how I had agreed to do something that I knew in my heart was a mistake, without knowing exactly why that was.
She knew Eloy, but she didn't know him like I did and was naturally sympathetic to his mother’s petition. “She only wants what's best for her son,” she said. “And as his friend that's exactly what you should want.”
I resented that my reluctance to help him was somehow being perceived or twisted into some sort of moral failing on my part. But I didn't know if I was resenting Beatrice for thinking it, or myself for believing it.
I completed his application for admittance, wrote his essay, and when he was admitted on a probationary status, I even selected his classes. And in the eyes of Beatrice what I was doing wasn't unethical it was a great act of kindness on par with volunteer work, tutoring, or donating blood, and I admit that I liked the way she looked at me.
Which probably had something to do with why I could never find the courage to tell her the truth about who he really was, because I feared that she wouldn't believe me, and feared even more where that would leave us.
I had seen flashes of who Eloy was becoming long before he confessed to having threatened his commanding officer in the Marine Corps, but prior to that moment I had always convinced myself that it was nothing more than bravado. The new realization that I struggle to accept was that, if what he had confessed to me was true and the Marine Corps had truly discharged him for what they saw as a legitimate threat, then my assumptions of male bravado were wrong and what I was doing by pushing him into a situation where he wouldn't succeed wasn't helping him, it was only setting him up for another round of failure that could potentially push him into an even darker place.
But how was I to explain all of this to his mother or Beatrice or anyone else who would listen without betraying his trust?
My solution, if we want to call it that, was to ignore the truth and hope for the best.
Most incoming freshmen are stepping out of their adolescent elements for the first time and looking to both find and reinvent themselves. Not every freshman knows what they want to study or do in life, but most at least have a general inclination or idea as to what they are walking towards.
Eloy did not.
He was there for one obvious reason and probably several lesser ones. The obvious being that, had he stayed home he probably would have drowned himself in self-pity since he wasn't yet prepared to face life as anything other than a marine. Which brings us to the lesser ones: he needed a safe place to confront his setback or failure; needed to avoid his parents’ insistence that he do something else with his life; and, quite possibly, needed to prove that he was still better than me.
When we became friends he always had the upper hand. He had the cool car, the nice clothes and the natural advantages that money provides. Advantages that suddenly didn't count for as much in academia.
Academia was a place where one could shine without needing to be tough or cool or feared, and the friends and acquaintances I was making were not so easily impressed by the externalities of overindulgent parents.
Like most freshman he initially didn't know anybody which put it on me to introduced him around, which I sensed he resented. He participated in rush week, and even suggested that he might pledge a different fraternity, until he learned that being admitted as a pledge wasn't as easy as it seemed. And in the end he pledged the fraternity where my position as an executive council member could guarantee his admittance.
Of course, he didn't select me as his big brother.
Was he spreading his own wings and finding his better self as I had? Or had he sensed that I resented having him around because of how readily he used me as a social punching bag or punchline to break the ice in uncomfortable situations?
I had always thought that the only one who actually knew how much I hated having him around was Beatrice. But as I look back, Eloy may not have been intellectual but he was by no means stupid. And it was my mistake, then, to think that he hadn't picked up on what I was feeling.
When I saw him as a freshly minted marine, I was happy for him. But when he saw me in my academic element it was disorienting to his sense of self. And maybe, because of which, the resentment between us was somewhat inevitable.
I started to avoid wherever he was and he did the same. Maybe he needed to convince himself that he was still at the top of our social paradigm, or maybe I needed him to see that he was wrong. I don't know.
What I do know is that he didn't make the grades to pass from pledge to brother in the fraternity. I could have used my influence to push him through, but since he didn't ask I didn't do it.
And I still remember just how furious Beatrice was when she learned what I had done, or rather not done.
“He’s your best friend and you're treating him like your worst enemy. You know he doesn't have anybody, this fraternity is all he has and you're basically kicking him out,” she said.
I tried to argue that the fraternity had academic standards and rules and that he alone had made the decision to not study or apply himself in his classes, which was not my fault. But that was more smokescreen than truth, and we both knew it.
The truth was I didn't want him there. I was fed up with his antics of needing to shine at my expense, and since he wasn't willing to ask for my help I wasn't willing to give it, simple as that.
And the one person who had witnessed more than anyone else the kind of friend he was, Beatrice, she didn't take my side. Instead, she was adamant in placing the blame at my feet for the mutual animosity between me and my “friend”.
He was going to drop out, she said, and in her estimation it would be a blow that he wouldn't recover from and that would be my fault, too. Is that the kind of friend you are? she asked.
It was only a matter of days before her prediction proved true. The rumor that Eloy was dropping out soon found its way to me, and despite my better judgment of wanting to let that happen I compounded my earlier errors by deferring to what she wanted instead of what I knew was right.
I went to Eloy's dorm later that same day, but it was apparent from the moment I arrived that I was only there to help him drive the nails into the coffin that was our friendship. What inevitably happened was that certain perceived truths, that couldn't be unspoken, were spoken, precipitating the death of our friendship.
Or, at least, that's what I thought.
I wish I could say that I was relieved, but in an even bigger way I was heartbroken. I could justify it however I wanted, but the truth was I had set him up for failure in the worst possible way: by encouraging him to pursue a course of action where his probability of success was minuscule, at best. He was about as academic as an amoeba, and I knew when I convinced him to enroll that he would fail and that all I was really doing was the delaying the inevitable.
Life has since shown me that friendship isn't about what's easy or convenient, it's about actively finding ways to make another life that much better for having known you. And sometimes that requires being selfless and willing to endure a little hardship for the greater good of what a friend needs to steady themselves through the storms of life. And I was most certainly not that friend to him.
Whether we like it or not time has a way of softening our hearts, especially when it comes to old friends and the good memories irrevocably attached to them. Fast forward a couple of years and I was about to get married for all the wrong reasons, and the biggest complaint of my soon-to-be wife was that I didn't have enough close friends to stand with the bridesmaids at the wedding. She knew about Eloy and felt that I should let bygones be bygones and extend him the olive branch of goodwill. “He will probably be happy to see you,” she said. And I was still foolish enough to think that I could make a woman happy by giving her what she wanted.
I tracked Eloy down through other old acquaintances and found him selling auto parts for NAPA. I sat in the parking lot for a few minutes trying to settle my nerves as the memories of our last encounter hit me like a gong. Nobody ever knew what was said in that dorm room that day, and as I sat in the parking lot I was forced to remember it all.
That day in that dorm room, where I went to “fix” what I had done, was the moment that I learned that relationships can’t always be fixed. Eloy told me that I was a fraud and a fake, that I was trying to be someone I wasn't, and that I would be nothing more than a “filthy wetback” no matter what I did or where I went and that he would always be there to remind me of that.
And for my part, I said, he would never know success because he didn't have the balls to fail, much less succeed, and that the time would come when the handouts from his parents would come to an end and then he wouldn't even be able to pretend that he was someone because all along he was no one.
When I finally walked into that auto parts store I don't know what I expected. Our conversation was hesitant and uncomfortable, but he did agree to meet for a drink where I thought we would both apologize, but we didn't. He did agree to attend the wedding, only to be escorted out of the reception because he became belligerent, which was to say that he lived up to my expectations.
For the most part my wife was indulgent, and I was indifferent.
At this point is when most people tend to ask how I could ever think that Eloy was my friend. It's a question I have struggled with for years, especially because the answer is one of those truths that I've adamantly avoided.
Weeks after my arrest when my attorney finally brought me the transcripts from Eloy's initial statements to the police, I returned to my jail cell and read them through the night. And since then people have asked what it was like to see his betrayal in black and white for the first time. And my response has varied over the years, mostly because I didn't have a good answer, I just had a feeling somewhere between nauseating and painful that I struggled to describe. Mostly because I was seeing it as a betrayal, when in fact it wasn't. All betrayals are treacherous, but not all treachery is betrayal. His decision to save himself at my expense was treachery, but it was also self-serving and quite logical. The decision before him was to either tell the truth and help someone who he resented, or help himself.
Which brings us back to the same question, why this crime in this way?
There was one constant throughout all the cameo appearances he made in my life following my failed marriage. He never stopped seeing himself as a marine, and likewise thought that he could solve his problems by being a blunt instrument.
Frequently he mentioned taking someone hostage or robbing a drug dealer, and while I entertained his conversations long enough to back him away from the edge of the cliff he was standing on — again and again — my patience with this topic was not eternal. And when I came to New Mexico in 2004, he enjoyed seeing me in the bind of being pursued by threats from my business partners and ex-father-in-law. He enjoyed the fact that I needed his help. And more than anything, relished the idea of seeing me fall flat.
So imagine his disappointment when none of that was going to happen on its own.
Of course, I couldn't see any of that at the time because I was too blinded with frustration for my perceived setbacks or losses. My most egotistical self just said, Eloy will help me because he's desperate and since I have money, and he doesn't, I own him.
Obviously, my ego couldn't account for how much his own ego needed to see me defeated.
Days before Eloy lured me to a vacant property under false pretenses, we had another dorm room conversation. He felt that I owed him for “helping” to keep me safe from my business partners, and that part of that debt included me helping him to either rob a drug dealer or take someone hostage. Of course, that wasn't happening, especially since the whole reason we were looking at properties for homes to flip was because it was a legitimate way to help him without necessarily putting him under my thumb — which I knew he would refuse if he saw it that way. But when he became insistent about committing a crime I eventually felt compelled to tell him the truth: he wasn't the tough marine who he thought he was; he was just another guy overly indulged by his parents and now incapable of surviving on his own; and he wouldn't rob or take anyone hostage because he didn't have the balls.
And how did he respond?
He told me that he had slept with Beatrice because I wasn't man enough for her. He knew how to throw a punch that's for sure.
When Eloy called me on the morning that I was leaving town, to do something that he had never done before — apologize! — as a chess aficionado I should have seen the ruse for what it was. He knew that I carried just the right amount of guilt accept his humble apology, and likewise knew that my ego needed to see itself as a savior.
We already know what followed from his well-executed ruse.
The takeaway from all this is that perhaps we should be more definitive in our efforts to either safeguard or end relationships before they become toxic. Because once they become toxic, there is no diffusing the bomb.
And, while life is most certainly an opportunity to pursue success it can also bring with it the rather caustic effect of eroding our relationships with the very people we leave behind in pursuit of our dreams. If we struggle to bring a definitive end to these toxic relationships it's because we share a past and some of that past was good, making it hard to cut ties because like it or not they make up a part of who we are, and that they are part of the experiences we have traversed to get to who we are.
Over the years I have thought a lot about Eloy and it hasn't all been bad. Anger was my immediate response, but only because I was looking at his treachery as that of one friend betraying another. Until it finally became clear that he was quite possibly never my friend — the very truth that I resisted confronting for so long.
The tragedy that is this truth is likely that Eloy decided that he couldn't live in a world where my success would perpetually cast a shadow over his life, which by no means diminishes the tragedy of the crime and the loss of life but it at least makes sense of it.
The irony of his apparent contempt for my success is that by my own estimation I had failed far more than I had succeeded. If I was successful at all it was only because I had a woman who loved me and a daughter who adored me, and all the rest was just a collection of insignificant details.
Like I said, crimes always make sense. And if they don't that's only because we don't have all the facts in front of us.