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Hess and Fischer and Smit were all surprised how quickly Browne had answered. What they didn’t learn

Hess and Fischer and Smit were all surprised how quickly Browne had answered. What they didn’t learn until later was that four days before Hess’s letter to Browne, Browne, after a two-year hiatus, had tried to resume his correspondence with Detective Mark Finley, who was no longer with the sheriff’s office. Browne had posed a “hypothetical” question: “If a person were to identify a murder which occurred in El Paso County, and then plead guilty to this murder in exchange for a sentence of death . . . how long would it take for the execution to take place? I would appreciate an answer by mail. No visits.”

Hess saw the coincidence as another example of Lou Smit’s maxim that you never know what will happen when you give the pot a stir. Now he had to follow up. Hess wrote his second letter by hand on a yellow legal pad in June. Scott Fischer typed it up:

Dear Mr. Browne:

Thank you for answering my letter. I would have responded sooner, but I was out of town. I note that you too were in Vietnam. I directed the C.I.A. Phoenix Program in III Corps. I spent most of my time in Cu Chi, Tay Ninh and Long An; headquarters in Bien Hoa. I however did not earn a Bronze Star, a worthy accomplishment.

As to the questions you posed: 1) I was intrigued by the unique manner in which you originally chose to communicate, the map, the poetic verse etc. 2) the cases it brought to mind were Ted Bundy, Henry Lucas and Otis Toole, as well as two Security/Intelligence cases handled by the F.B.I. In those cases, authorities as well as the accused carried on a dialogue. The first three were especially reminiscent as they were serial cases. 3) In response to the question in your letter, the matters where I sought illumination were those unsolved cases to which you alluded.

It did appear you wished to provide details by virtue of the information you provided. I feel you do have a desire to clear up some pending matters. I of course have no idea as to your goal(s).

As to my goal, several years ago our family experienced a tragic event. My son-in-law was murdered when he walked in on a burglary in progress. Those involved were apprehended and the case was adjudicated. The void created by my son-in-law’s death can never be filled, but there is great solace in closure. I decided to do as much as I can to assist others in finding closure. I have wondered if you, too, would experience a form of relief by revealing information that would give some peace to parties who have a relationship to any case where you have information.

Perhaps we can both achieve our goals. Mine, closure. Yours?

Both the district attorney and our office are aware of the fact that we have written each other. I hope you will consider to continue.

Sincerely, Charles J. Hess.

Browne wrote back in July as if the murky clues he’d given the El Paso authorities about “seven sacred virgins” buried under some sort of lake were so transparent any 9-year-old could have cracked the case: he repeated the clues, asked some more “hypothetical” questions about criminal responsibility and requested the addresses of the Ford Motor Company, truck and car development divisions. Hess replied 10 days later, in August. Still looking to establish a rapport, he tried to ally the nature of his training and work in Vietnam with Browne’s: “What a peculiar world in which we live. About 30 years ago we were both trained to dispatch human beings and sent 12,000 miles away for that purpose. Now you are incarcerated for just that, and I am investigating the who, what, where of it. The gods must be bewildered.”

Hess included the Ford Motor Company address Browne asked for, the first of many errands he ran to curry favor. He also included a photograph of himself holding a yellowfin tuna.

“There were certain words I would never use,” Hess told me. “Like the word ‘murder.’ I would use ‘case’ instead. I never said ‘stab,’ or ‘kill.’ I always tried to mix a little lightheartedness and something personal in with some solid questions. There has to be a certain ebb and flow to it. But no matter where you are in the correspondence, you always, always, always have to write in a respectful manner. Whether they’re a criminal, an agent, an ideologue, the whole trick is to be able to find some common ground and to do it sincerely, and not judge them. You cannot fake the fact that you may despise them, or what they’ve done. You can’t fake who you are.”

With that snapshot of himself and the tuna, Hess got a bite. Browne knew what kind of fish it was and asked in his reply if it tasted as good as it looked. He didn’t have a lot of protein in his prison diet, he said. He didn’t think the gods were bewildered; he thought they were ecstatic. “The god of the Old Testament time and again killed thousands upon thousands of men women and children. . . . It eludes me how humans can worship such an evil, vindictive creature.”

More important, in this third letter, he asked if Hess would like to hear the beginning of a “possible story” entitled “How to Create a. . . .” What followed was an account of a childhood — you can only infer that he was speaking of his own, because he was still being careful to hedge his disclosures:

How old am I? Three, maybe? What am I feeling? Safe, secure, warm, loved, with a sense of belonging. All these feelings are about to end, never to be again. . . . I hear my mother say, ‘Don’t tell him!’ Don’t tell me what? . . . One of my brothers runs in and says, ‘They’re coming to take your bed, ha ha!’ I run and climb into my crib. I’m thinking they can’t take my bed. This is my place, they can’t take it. Someone, I can’t remember who, took me out of my crib. I am screaming and crying. Then they take my crib and put it in the back of a black pickup truck and drive away. I run back to where the crib was and curl into a ball and cry and cry and cry. Now it’s night and time for bed. My mother takes me into a strange room. There are two beds in this room. There are two older boys in each bed. Where am I going to sleep? She puts me in one of the beds between two boys. As soon as she leaves the boys start hitting me and telling me to get out of their bed. I start crying. . . . Each night I am put in one of the two beds. This nightly ritual goes on and on and on night after night after night. What a wonderful childhood I have. This is just the beginning of the endless joy of my childhood.

It was not until the fifth letter, in September 2002, that Hess began to feel he had an idea of who Browne was and whether their developing “synchronicities” might yield confirmable facts. Browne had taken to saluting Hess with a jaunty “Hello Charlie Hess.” Hess felt familiar enough to address Browne as “Robert.” But he was also frustrated. Browne was now calling the Pontiac Trans Am a Grand Am. The oft-repeated allusions to a “high priestess” had sent Hess poring fruitlessly over the literature of Tarot cards and hunting in the Bible. “Robert,” he wrote, “are we talking about a real person, or is the High Priestess allegorical? I continue to feel you are trying to provide me with specifics but for some reason we don’t get over that last hurdle.”

Hess was about to go into the hospital to have the first of two hip-replacement operations. He’d been stockpiling his own blood. He was 75, and there was always a chance he might not get off the table. Pressing in the name of the trust he felt he’d earned, he challenged Browne to explain himself, saying he’d put all his cards on the table: “Won’t you consider laying out just one verifiable instance? . . . If this is just a game, tell me and we can continue to correspond and exchange philosophies. . . .”

“It was his put-up-or-shut-up letter,” Scott Fischer told me. “Charlie intentionally told the truth and risked inflaming the situation.”

The appeal, the persuasion, the brinksmanship none of it worked. Browne came back six weeks later, in December, “relieved” to learn Hess made it through the operation but loaded for bear. He revived his complaint that he’d been framed by a planted fingerprint in the Heather Church murder. He mocked Hess’s occasional use of first-person plural. He said: “I will not hand it to ‘us’ on a golden platter with nothing to gain for my efforts. What I could possibly gain eludes me for now.”

A week into the new year, Hess wrote: “You know, Robert . . . I do not believe I would put the details on a golden platter without first receiving the assurances you consider important. On the other hand, it makes one wonder why you wrote in the first place. You must have been moved by something. . . .”

Browne’s reply nine days later was uncharacteristically reflective. “You were wondering why I wrote in the first place,” Browne said. “I don’t know that I could answer that to your satisfaction. I’m not sure that I even know.”

But for the first time Browne printed both his name and his return address on the letter, not just on the envelope: a negligible detail perhaps but it seemed significant to Hess and Smit and Fischer. And subtly, altered perhaps by a few grains of introspection, the balance between Hess and Browne began to shift. Hess had already emphasized that almost everyone at the sheriff’s office thought Browne was giving him the runaround. And, sure enough, the indignation of a habitual liar unable to find a market for the truth flared in Browne’s letter at the end of January 2003: “As far as something tangible that will convince someone that there really are cases out there, I tried before with the white Grand Am. I guess some cases (people) don’t rate. Also the sanitation companies do a great job of disposal.”

Still trying to establish his credibility, Browne wrote five weeks later that he thought he would “throw a couple of things your way in hopes of adding credence to the whole shebang.” He dropped two more details about the white Grand Am, which would prove to be crucial. The investigators ought to search the missing-persons files for a “young army wife,” he said. More pertinent, the husband recovered the car himself. “If that doesn’t ring any bells, nothing will.” And then he went on to a second matter:

“In addition to bolstering credence, I am mainly curious of the outcome of the following. I thought long and hard about picking an incident that would not be lost among the many others. A very small town seemed to be my best bet. Small towns don’t forget such rare happenings. The town I choose is Flatonia, Tex. They don’t get much smaller. The year was approximately 1984 or 1985. A young woman was killed and her body was found near this town. The last I heard was that her husband was being charged with her murder. I’m curious as to the eventual outcome. Please let me know. Afterward we may talk some more on this. Texas does like to kill people! That should give you something to think about.”

Indeed it did. Lou Smit learned via a phone call from the Fayette County, Tex. sheriff’s office that the death of a 22-year-old waitress named Melody Ann Bush fit Browne’s descriptions. She had had an argument in a bar with her husband the night she died. Her body was found in a culvert about two miles north of Flatonia on March 30, 1984. The coroner estimated she’d been dead five days. The cause of death was “acute acetone poisoning.”

What may have been a kind of implicit pressure to uphold his end of an unspoken contract seemed to peak in May 2003, when Browne wrote an extraordinary five-page letter. It invited Hess on a hypothetical trip around the United States. It was, in essence, a text to go with that provocative map Browne sent to El Paso authorities in March 2000. The narrative was written as a jaunty travelogue, with each town or geographical location supposedly the burial site of a murder victim. It seemed as if the breakthrough Hess had been hoping for was imminent.

“The information you provided certainly puts us a long way down the road, and I believe we are about to ‘move some of the big boulders,’ ” Hess replied eight days later. “Robert, we still need a local case or two where we actually find a body, and hopefully some attendant facts. The Grand Am thing may be a good place to start I mean all the specific information so we can use our time efficiently. . . . We have traveled a long way together and [I] hope that in some way we can make the rest of the trip easier on you.”

Had they traveled further than Browne wanted to go? Not three months later, the line went dead. Browne wrote a letter on July 14, 2003, saying he wasn’t feeling well and wasn’t up to any visits or “interrogations.” He complained as he had often in the past about the medical treatment he was receiving. In what may be the paradigmatic moment of narcissism in the entire correspondence, the man who said he had been murdering people for 25 years was outraged that the Department of Corrections wasn’t living up to its legally-mandated obligation to provide him adequate health care. “I find the selective application of the law to be an indication of humanity in general,” Browne wrote. “I can only be greatful [sic] that I’m not part of this humanity.”

And then, after that 14th letter from Browne, letters stopped coming. Hess wrote in September to ask what was up. No reply. Like some castoff suitor, he wrote again in February 2004, wondering what he’d done wrong. No reply. He reiterated offers he’d made to get Browne examined by an outside doctor. He mentioned again his contacts with an author who was still keen on writing about the adventures of Robert Browne. But nothing Hess offered drew a response. Another seven months went by. Hess was baffled. He could think of only one last thing to do.

6. Face to Face

The Colorado State Penitentiary was about an hour south by car, near Canon City. Scott Fischer drove Hess down in his GMC Yukon on the morning of Sept. 9, 2004. It was a drastic step, this “cold shot,” but what did they have to lose? Hess had made arrangements with the Colorado Department of Corrections to visit Browne. When they arrived, Fischer waited in the car. Hess was shown into a small visiting room where inmates usually met with lawyers. Shortly, escorted by guards, the man behind the signature came shuffling in. His hands were cuffed behind his back, his legs hobbled in irons. He was dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit and flip-flops. His beard came down to his chest.

“Do you know who I am?” Hess said.

“No,” said Browne.

“I’m the guy who’s been writing you letters!”

“Oh!”

Hess reached around behind Browne’s back and awkwardly shook his cuffed hand. Hess asked why Browne had stopped writing. It was nothing personal: Browne said he was down to pennies in his prison commissary account and didn’t have the money for paper and stamps.

For an hour Hess listened as Brown vented his frustration with the medical treatment he was getting. He had headaches; he had bad arthritis in his back and knees. He said the medication he was taking was making him dizzy. He had no faith in Department of Corrections doctors.

“I hope I haven’t caused you any distress by just walking in here,” Hess said.

“It’s O.K.”

“Would you mind if we clarified some of that information we talked about before?”

Hess brought up the Grand Am lady, whose identity the investigators had still been unable to establish. Browne said that when he lived in Colorado Springs in the late 1980s, he killed a young woman who lived in an apartment complex nearby.

Killed. Hess was startled to hear the word, especially given how strenuously he and Browne had avoided it in their correspondence. And Browne in future meetings almost never used it again. It was one of a few words that were like the no-go red-coded roads in Vietnam: Kill. Murder. Rape. By comparison Browne seemed curiously comfortable with stab, strangle or the piece of diction that seemed to define his icy dissociation from the horror of his acts: disarticulate. Hess was struck by how nonchalant Browne seemed not just about his being there face to face, but also about what he was sharing. Confessing.

They’d been sitting nearly three hours when the guards rapped on the door and said Browne had to be back in his cell in 10 minutes for the midday head count.

“I appreciate the way we were able to talk,” Hess said. “Can we restart communicating?”

“Yeah,” Browne said.

“Any objection to me coming back to see you in person?”

“No. Come whenever you want.”

Two weeks after their visit, Hess had a $20 money order sent to Browne’s commissary account to help him buy stamps and paper. And in mid-October the first letter from Browne since the hiatus arrived in Hess’s mailbox. It laid out the quid pro quo, what Browne wanted in exchange for any further details about his “deeds of interest.” He wanted two things: one, a thorough examination by a “real” doctor coupled with assurances that all his medical problems would be addressed “commensurate with the 21st century”; two, to be transferred from the Colorado Department of Corrections. Tucked into the envelope with the letter outlining the terms of his cooperation was a separate sheet of paper proffering details about the death of Melody Bush. The message, in stark capital letters, read:

FLATONIA

ETHER/ICE PICK

The details Browne offered were convincing not so much because they jibed exactly with the coroner’s report, which made no mention of ice-pick wounds and listed the cause of death as acetone poisoning, but because they were so specific and offered with such conviction. In follow-up interviews Browne said he had sprayed ether into a rag and held it over Bush’s face. He had ether handy because he used it to kick-start the diesel engine in his truck. No ice-pick wounds in the coroner’s report? Tell the Texas authorities to disinter Bush’s body and examine the area around her ribs for nicks, he said. The discrepancies in that case still have not been resolved, but El Paso detectives have no doubt Robert Browne killed Melody Bush.

Hess went in for hip-replacement surgery in November and was not able to schedule a second visit with Browne until December. On that second visit, Hess persuaded the guards to uncuff Browne’s hands and he and Browne talked about a body found in Sugar Land, Tex.: Nidia Mendoza, a 17-year-old topless dancer from Panama. When Hess described that visit, I asked if, having seen the autopsy photographs of Mendoza’s corpse — which graphically showed how Browne had “disarticulated” her legs and severed her head with a dull butcher knife from the kitchenette in what he called the “rather nice motel” where he strangled her (and then carried the pieces of her body out to his flower delivery van in a suitcase and dumped them off Highway 59) — Hess had ever found himself too repulsed to sit and chat about the inmate’s health and how Browne’s beloved New Orleans Saints were faring that season in the N.F.L.? Was it hard to shake his hand knowing what it had done?

“It upsets people when I say this, but it wasn’t hard,” Hess said. “I can’t let myself feel revulsion. If I feel revulsion in my gut he’s going to pick up on it. When we were talking about the Mendoza case, I’d ask him a question and he’d give me one-line answers, one after another. I’d say:

‘Tell me what happened.’

‘I met a girl in a bar.’

‘And then what?’

‘I took her to a motel.’

‘And after that?’

‘I paid her.’

‘And then?’

‘And then we had sex.’

‘What happened next?’

‘I strangled her.’

‘And then what did you do?’

‘Then I put her in a bathtub and cut off her legs.’

‘How’d you do that?’

“And he showed me. He put his hand down near his groin and said, ‘You circumscribe the thigh with a knife here like this until you hit hard tissue you can’t cut, and then you twist it back and tear it off like a turkey leg.’ Now when I’m hearing this, I can’t jump up and say, ‘Jesus Christ, Robert, how could you do that?’ I have to say ‘O.K.’ like it’s something everybody does. I have to put the horror of it out of my mind. And when I walk out of the prison, by the time I get to the front gate, I’m not thinking about it, I’m thinking about getting some Mexican food. I never missed a night of sleep because of something Robert Browne told me.”

In two years of letters and two face-to-face meetings, Hess had been able to get details from Browne mostly in dribs and drabs. But in late January 2005, having elicited key facts about the homicides in Flatonia and Sugar Land, Hess drew from Browne a story in which the inmate didn’t mince words about what he had done. He told Hess that in 1983, while living in an apartment complex owned by his brother Donald in Coushatta, La., he had stabbed his next-door neighbor to death with a screwdriver. From a Louisiana state trooper, Hess learned of an unsolved murder that fit the given details. A local newspaper reported that Wanda Faye Hudson had been fatally stabbed with a knife, but the autopsy report noted that the murder weapon was a screwdriver. Browne’s name surfaced during the initial investigation by Louisiana authorities because Hudson had told her uncle that Robert Browne had replaced the locks on her front door, and she thought he had a key. About two months after the January confession, Browne explained that he had worked as the maintenance man at his brother’s apartment building, and Hudson’s death was a “spur-of-the-moment thing.” He had opened the door, reached in with a screwdriver and removed the bracket that held the security chain. Hudson was asleep. Browne had a can of red ant killer which contained chloroform. He soaked a rag with it and put it on Hudson’s face. The autopsy report noted 25 stab wounds in the chest area, four in the area of the vagina. Not long after the authorities took Hudson’s body from the room, Browne himself moved in, cleaning up the blood he’d spilled, repainting the walls and even sleeping in the bed of the woman he’d slaughtered.

At a meeting in mid-February of senior sheriff’s office investigators and officials from the Department of Corrections, Hess and Smit and Fischer gave a PowerPoint presentation of the evidence in the out-of-state cases. Sheriff Maketa, Chief Joe Breister of the Law Enforcement Bureau and Cmdr. Brad Shannon of the Investigations Division thought it was time to bring in a sworn officer. They assigned Jeff Nohr, 47, a methodical, detail-oriented detective who at one time was married to Lou Smit’s daughter.

What remained maddeningly elusive was any corroborating evidence of a Browne homicide in El Paso County. Five years after Browne first mentioned it, the only local murder was still known as “the Grand Am lady” case. El Paso authorities might provide crucial information to other jurisdictions, but they couldn’t prosecute crimes that occurred outside the county. The enigma of the Grand Am lady bedeviled the Apple Dumpling Gang from the beginning. Now with Nohr aboard they made a concerted effort to break it open.

Knowing El Paso authorities were working on a deal under which he might be transferred to another state-prison system, Browne began giving up details readily. With a map of the city Browne tried to locate the apartment complex near his where the Grand Am lady and her husband and daughter lived in 1987. Scott Fischer made a 360-degree panorama of photographs, and at a meeting with Hess, Browne was able to pinpoint the Grand Am lady’s apartment complex at 4410 East Pikes Peak Avenue, and to show where she had lived on the north side of the building an apartment later identified as either 107, 108 or 109. He pointed out the Kwik-Stop convenience store where he had worked, and where he had asked the young wife out on a date. She and her husband used to come in and rent videos. Her husband and their baby daughter had gone out of town, he said, either to Miami, or New Orleans. Browne and the Grand Am lady drove in the white car to a movie. Afterward, they went back to Browne’s apartment, and there he strangled her. He threw some blankets over the body, took her keys, went to her apartment and took a Sony color TV. He waited until the next night to dismember her in his bathtub, he said, because he was tired. He removed a “big cluster ring with a lot of small diamonds” before disposing of the body parts in a Dumpster.

Browne’s information sent investigators off looking for TV-set serial numbers, long-gone security guards and stolen wedding rings. Without the victim’s name, or the names of her survivors, who might have filed a missing-persons or stolen-vehicle report, they didn’t have a case. They’d had the Police Department look at missing-persons files and check stolen-car reports, but nothing had turned up.

Finally, in April 2005, they got a name.

In March, Nohr asked the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to search for all stolen and recovered Pontiacs in El Paso County from 1986 to 1988. On April 14, a list came back of 172 vehicles. Using the vehicle identification numbers, Detective Rick Frady, who specialized in auto-theft investigations, was able to narrow the 172 Pontiac models down to nine Grand Ams. The detectives were hoping to match a registered Grand Am owner with one of the approximately 100 names they’d gotten out of a city directory of people who had lived at 4410 East Pikes Peak Avenue between 1986 and 1988. But none of the names matched. Detective Frady, however, recognized that one of the vehicle identification numbers had a mistake in it — a character out of place. When he had it rechecked, the name of the owner came back as Joseph Allen Sperry; and on the list of former tenants there was also a Joseph Sperry. Nohr couldn’t find a phone number for Joseph Allen Sperry, but an Internet database listed him as a possible associate of a woman named Amie Charity in West Palm Beach, Fla.

The number was listed. He dialed. A woman answered. He explained who he was and asked if she knew a Joseph A. Sperry.

“Joe, telephone!” she said.

Sperry not only confirmed that he’d lived at 4410 East Pikes Peak, he also had the case number for the missing-persons report he had filed with the Colorado Springs City Police Department, which no one in the legal system had been able to find. He told Nohr that his TV had been stolen. And he gave the detective the full name and date of birth and complete description of his wife. He had last seen her around Nov. 1, 1987, when he left to take their 3-month-old daughter Amie to stay with his mother, Amie Charity, while Sperry and his young wife sorted out their marital troubles. The name of the local woman Robert Browne killed was Rocio Chila Delpilar Sperry. She was 15. Her body has never been found.

It’s doubtful that the district attorney for the Fourth Judicial District could have ever made a case against Browne for the murder of Rocio Sperry without producing her body. Browne most likely pleaded guilty to her death to speed the transfer that was the price of his cooperation in the first place. At one point in July 2005, displeased with the progress of the discussions, he announced in a letter to Hess: “I have decided to end this whole affair. As of the above date, I terminate all negotiations, etc.” But he finally got the long-sought medical examination he wanted — by special dispensation, a doctor who attended Lou Smit’s church gave Browne a physical and found nothing that the prison doctors hadn’t been treating. Browne’s medical complaints abated after that. As for the transfer to another location, the Department of Corrections had worked out a deal with the Minnesota D.O.C. to move Browne to the Minnesota prison system. During a visit with Hess almost a year after the fate of Rocio Sperry had been clarified, Browne was fretting about the delays.

“I wish there was a way to expedite this,” he said.

“I can tell you how you can expedite it,” Hess replied. “You go in and you plead to the Sperry case.”

Browne agreed, and on July 27, 2006, he was standing in district court pleading guilty to the first-degree murder of Rocio Chila Delpilar Sperry. In the courtroom that morning were Joe Sperry, who once served time for aggravated battery after getting into a fight because he’d been accused of murdering his wife; and Amie, his 19-year-old daughter, who had grown up thinking her father might have killed her mother. They spoke during the sentencing that immediately followed the plea. Joe Sperry cursed the man who in killing his wife, Rocio, had destroyed much of his life, too. Amie Sperry extended her “deepest gratitude” to the state of Colorado for bringing justice and ending her doubt. “And as for Robert Browne,” she added, “I would like to say may God be with his soul.”

7. A New Correspondence

The members of the Apple Dumpling Gang have probably swapped their last stories over coffee at the Old Heidelberg Pastry Shop and Cafe. During the winter, Scott Fischer’s wife, Roxanne, a nurse anesthetist, found a better job, and they moved up to the mountains in Breckenridge, Colo. This June, Lou Smit plans to leave to try to set up other cold-case units around Colorado, Arizona and Kansas.

As for Charlie Hess, he celebrated his 80th birthday on April 21. He remains, he told me, “embarrassed” that the promises he made to Robert Browne have not been fulfilled. (The transfer to Minnesota fell apart when the Browne case became public last summer, and Browne remains at the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility. El Paso authorities are still working to make good on their promise, according to Detective Nohr, who continues to work full time on cold cases.)

A little more than a year ago, Hess got a new correspondence going with another inmate in another state — one who has a very different personality from Robert Browne’s but who also has murders to discuss. Hess says he hopes to close more cases soon, under different auspices. In January, he received the Sheriff’s Meritorious Service Award. There was a big dinner, lots of warm words. Only weeks before, he was asked by the El Paso Sheriff’s office to sign a confidentiality form. He was insulted — what had he ever done that suddenly the bureaucrats didn’t trust him not to compromise privileged information? He turned in his office keys. “Quit is too strong,” he said. “I’ve left.” With a co-author, Davin Seay, he is writing a book titled “Hello Charlie: Letters From a Serial Killer.”

I called Hess at home one evening late last month, to take another run at the secret of his motivation. I tried the Readers Will Be Disappointed gambit. “You’re really clever!” he said, and then he must have turned to Jo because he said, “He thinks I’ll give it up to him because his readers really need it!” They had a good laugh, and even their dogs started barking. The missing puzzle pieces would be revealed in his book, Hess said. We got to talking about whether there were really more categories of people than Intellectuals and Those Who Got Things Done. Indeed there were.

“You have educated people and uneducated people,” Hess said. “You have competent people and incompetent people. And you have people who are just average.”

“What category are you in?”

Innate suspicion made him hesitate. Then he said, “I’m in a category all by myself.”

Chip Brown is a contributing writer for the magazine. His last article was about the new-media company Flavorpill.

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