At some level, we are all afraid our children will kill us.
Nathan Carman, the mentally disturbed, gun-owning amateur fisherman who had, by the fall of 2016, burned through all the money that came to him as a result of his grandfather’s murder, had always bonded with his mother, Linda, on the water. When they could not talk, they fished. Standing side by side, they fell into a rhythm and could communicate.
Nathan said it was with such a session in mind that he invited his mother to go fishing on the Chicken Pox on September 16, 2016. The cops never bought it. To them, it seemed obvious that it was not his mother but her money that caused him to extend the invitation. To keep possession of his boat and house in Vermont, to maintain his freedom, he needed access to the $7 million he was due to inherit when she died. Maybe he planned to ask for an advance on that money, or maybe he asked and she said no, or maybe he needed the money but could not stand to ask.
Linda told friends she looked forward to the trip. She was divorced from her husband and had been estranged from her father at the time of his murder, so Nathan was her closest family. She wanted to repair the relationship and shared her “float plan” with those friends: she’d be gone more than 12 hours and spend most of that time fishing off Block Island.
Nathan prepared. He removed the trim tabs, metal wings meant to stabilize and keep the craft afloat in bad weather, leaving four holes below the waterline that he plugged with epoxy. He removed the bulkhead, a forward compartment meant to serve as a possibly life-saving air pocket in time of distress. He replaced a bilge pump but never tested the new equipment.
Asked why he’d made these changes, he said he’d done it because the bulkhead wasn’t watertight, the trim tabs were pointless, and the bilge pump was old. To some, this suggests pre-meditation: Nathan did not merely kill his mother but carefully planned her demise. To others, including the man who sold Nathan the boat, it merely confirmed what they’d long known: the kid was an idiot.
Nathan moored the Chicken Pox at Ram Point Marina in South Kingstown, Rhode Island, an old fishing town near the top of Narragansett Bay. At sundown on September 17, a Friday, Nathan and his mother convened on the boat, where they sat amid the clatter of the harbor, the fishing boats, sailboats, lobster boats, and sloops. The Chicken Pox was a modest ship with a snug little pilothouse and a cabin belowdecks with just enough room for one person to stretch out. It had no toilet, which made it all the more unlikely that his mother had agreed to go on a multi-day trip, as Nathan later insisted.
It had been warm in the afternoon, but the temperature had dropped to the low 50s after sundown, the first hint of autumn, the chill of falling leaves, bonfires, the pain of the coming winter. The sky was black by the time they set out: 11:13 p.m. The ship moved through the harbor with its islands and its building-jammed shores, past Point Judith and out to sea. There’d be no one to witness what happened next. We have only a single story, that told by Nathan, who left with his mother and returned alone. The Chicken Pox had sailed off the map and into the annals of American crime.
“She Was More a Problem than a Solution”
According to Nathan, the Chicken Pox was anchored off Block Island before sunrise, nets deployed, lines in the water. But the fishing must have been bad, because, at some point, Nathan decided to pull up anchor and move on.
He’d always wanted to fish the Canyons beyond the coastal shelf, which put you in the deep water where the big fish linger and the ocean swells. Though Linda, not believing her son or his little boat up to the challenge, had always forbidden such a trip, he claimed that on this occasion he convinced her. In fact, he said, this is his only action he thinks can be questioned—that he’d pressured his mother to make a trip she’d always feared. “I almost feel like I twisted her arm,” he said.
Nathan’s aunts suggest this is where his narrative switches from fact to fiction. Nathan says he spent the morning motoring to the Canyons, then dropped anchor 20 miles off the coast. He heard water moving beneath the deck. He opened a hatch. The sea had breached the hull; the cabin was filling with water. The epoxy he’d used to fill the holes left by the trim tabs had apparently failed. Nathan shared none of this with his mother, but instead told her to bring in the nets.
“I treated my mother like a passenger,” he told prosecutors. “She was more a problem than a solution.… It was better to give her a task.”
Nor did he issue a Mayday. He went down to the cabin, gathered a few personal items, then came back up. As soon as he stepped on deck, he says, “the boat just dropped out from under my feet.”
To some, this suggests pre-meditation: Nathan did not merely kill his mother but carefully planned her demise.
There was an expensive life raft on the roof of the Chicken Pox. It was engineered to inflate when the ship went down. Nathan clambered on board, then, or so he claims, started calling for his mother, who’d vanished beneath the black water.
“I know that when I got into the life raft, I was yelling, ‘Mom, Mom, Mom,’” he said. But she never answered.
Nathan says he gave up the search at nightfall, having decided she’d been tangled in the nets and dragged to the bottom.
When Linda failed to return from her “12-hour float” with Nathan, her friends contacted the Coast Guard. A search was initiated. It continued for five days then was called off. According to experts, a wreck in that kind of boat in that part of the ocean was probably not survivable.
Linda and Nathan were presumed dead.
Turning Up in the Wrong Place
On September 25, eight days after the Chicken Pox “dropped out from under” Nathan’s feet, Zhao Hengdong, the captain of the Orient Lucky, a Chinese tanker, spotted the bright-orange life raft 115 miles off Martha’s Vineyard. Changing course, the tanker went to make a rescue. Thrown a rope and winched to the deck of the Orient Lucky, Nathan was surrounded by joyful Chinese sailors.
For a man who said he’d been at sea for eight days with little food or water, Nathan looked surprisingly healthy. He asked if his mother had been found, then went to stand alone, staring out to sea as the ship made its way to the Port of Saint John, Canada, where it was to take on sheet metal bound for Turkey. Captain Hengdong said Nathan seemed sad after the rescue, downcast, as if he was trying to make sense of what had happened.
The rescue made international news, but excitement soon gave way to suspicion. Nathan wasn’t even tan, let alone blistered and gaunt and half mad in the way of nearly every other person who’d survived more than a few days in a small open boat at sea. What’s more, his story—where he’d been when his boat went down—made no sense. The currents would have carried him in the other direction, far from where he’d been rescued. In short, he looked wrong, acted wrong, and had turned up in the wrong place.
He waved off reporters who asked about the inconsistencies. “What happened on the boat was a terrible tragedy that I am still trying to process and that I am still trying to come to terms with,” he told the A.P.
So, here’s the layout: Nathan and Linda Carman left the marina on September 17. Nathan says the Chicken Pox sank on the afternoon of September 18. Nathan was picked up by the Orient Lucky on September 25. That leaves a gap of eight days that detectives, reporters, and crime aficionados have been trying to fill ever since.
Some have Nathan committing a pre-meditated murder. There is evidence for this. All those preparations. The removal of the bulkhead and trim tabs, the replacement of a perfectly good bilge pump. What’s more, Nathan had hidden his computer before he left Vermont. Why? Maybe he did not want his hard drive searched while he was “lost at sea.” Then there was his behavior, some of it known only from his own testimony. He had not warned his mother, nor placed a distress call. He had not searched for more than a few hours, nor, as prosecutors put it, did he “dive down” to look.
But if he killed her, where did he do it, and when?
Some have him sinking the boat off Block Island, then floating on the raft until he was found on the 25th. But that wouldn’t explain his hearty appearance, which is why others have him killing his mother right away, sailing for days, then scuttling the Chicken Pox near the place of his rescue. Still others believe it was murder in the second degree. There was no plan. He simply struck his mother in a fit of temper. When he asked for money, and she said no. He’d been known to lash out if challenged. He was big and strong, a man-child who could have crushed Linda’s skull with a half-hearted blow. The sinking, the story of the sinking, the getaway and the rescue—all of that would have been improvised, hence no Mayday, no warning to his mother, no prolonged search.
Only Nathan knows what happened. Maybe it did unfold like he claims. Maybe he’d made the changes to the boat because he was a fool. Maybe he’d taken his mother fishing to fix their relationship. Maybe he did not warn his mother because he never liked to talk. Maybe he did not exert himself in trying to rescue her because he did not care that much. Not caring has always been part of his character. That kind of not caring is chilling, but it’s not a crime. It’s certainly not first-degree murder.
But every relative and cop dismisses this version.
Well, for one thing, to echo the opening of Part I of this story, there is the issue of the odds. What are the odds of one person being the last to see two unnaturally snuffed-out people alive and having had nothing to do with either death? A million to one? A billion to one?
“I know that when I got into the life raft, I was yelling, ‘Mom, Mom, Mom,’” he said. But she never answered.
And yet, despite several overlapping investigations—cops from five states, including Vermont and Rhode Island, were interested, as was the F.B.I.—no charges were filed against Nathan Carman, and no case could be made. Because there was no hard evidence to present to a prosecutor, judge, or grand jury. All the evidence for the murder of Linda Chakalos is circumstantial—the changes made to the boat, the hidden computer, and so on—most of which can be explained by the oddness of Nathan, whose behavior rarely followed a logical pattern. There is no body and no murder weapon, the body presumably sitting beside the murder weapon at the bottom of the sea.
The case was filed beside the other cold case—the death of John Chakalos. Nathan went home. He should have been free and clear. But there was a hitch. He was still busted—no job, no money—and, what with attorney fees and expenses, his indebtedness had only increased. If he was planning to quickly collect the $7 million in his mother’s estate, he was disappointed. Nathan’s aunt Valerie Santilli, the youngest daughter of John Chakalos and the executrix of the will, believing her nephew killed both John and Linda, was determined to block his inheritance. Along with her surviving sisters, Valerie filed a “slayer action,” a civil maneuver meant to deny money to any party seeking to be enriched by a crime—in this case, murder. The burden of proof is lower in civil court, meaning Valerie Santilli’s attorney could make use of circumstantial evidence and the law of averages.
Meanwhile, Nathan, in need of funds and a stickler for detail, made the single greatest error of this entire alleged murder spree. Shoot the grandfather? No problem. Sink the mother with the boat way out at sea? Check. Stage-manage a dramatic deep-sea rescue? Done. File the insurance claim, thereby collecting the $85,000 policy he’d taken on the boat with the National Liability & Fire Insurance Company? No! Mistake! Stop! Don’t do it, you fool! It’d be like the Zodiac Killer putting in a claim on the handgun he’d damaged during a murder. But that’s exactly what Nathan did. The only thing more dangerous than a detective with a taste for justice is an insurance dick working on commission.
The Principle Is the Point
Double Indemnity set the standard for Hollywood noir. Released in 1944, directed by Billy Wilder—he considered it his best—co-written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, the movie, based on a novel by James M. Cain, is the story of an insurance-company salesman (Fred MacMurray) and a femme fatale (Barbara Stanwyck) who cook up a plan to kill the fatale’s husband and make it look like an accident, thereby collecting the bonus the insurance company paid for violent death. That is, double indemnity. The plan was perfect and would have worked if not for the Ahab-like efforts of the insurance-company detective played by Edward G. Robinson, who just kept coming and coming.
I mention Double Indemnity to suggest the curse Nathan Carman called down on himself when he filed an $85,000 claim against the National Liability & Fire Insurance Company for the loss of his 31-foot boat. The filing of that claim, which sparked the broader investigation that led to the murder trial Nathan faces, began the third act of an unfolding true-crime saga that has mesmerized New England since December 2013. Now, $85,000 is not much for an insurance company—hardly more than the fees required to contest the claim—but that’s not the point. The principle is the point. If they pay off on what even a cursory glance tells you is a bullshit claim, where does it end?
Here’s the danger for someone like Nathan: though the presumed killer had left the murder weapon and body at the bottom of the sea, depriving prosecutors of physical evidence, insurance dicks need only show the claim is bogus, which, because this is done before a judge, gets the claimant, via a side door, into a courtroom where he can be put on the stand and grilled. This meant footage of Nathan entering and exiting the courthouse on the evening news. Those dead eyes and robotic movements, that lack of empathy and concern. He sat stone-faced at the defense table while his aunt testified.
The judge ruled that Nathan caused the accident with the “fixes” he made to the Chicken Pox; the insurance policy was voided. It was this ruling, along with the insurance company’s report, that re-ignited the interest of every variety of cop in the Carman case. Because the voyage that ended in Linda’s death crossed state lines, the case was taken over by the F.B.I. and the Justice Department.
Not content to pick up where the last investigation left off, the feds re-examined everything, the first murder as well as the second, Nathan’s background and the violence in his past. Having no money left for an attorney—he’d asked his aunt for an advance on the inheritance, but she refused—Nathan is currently represented by a public defender.
The story gets great attention in New England, where people fixate on money, old and new, families, old and new, violence, ships, shipwrecks, and disasters at sea. It resonates because it represents something larger than the particulars; larger than the kid, his grandfather, aunts, and mom; larger than the fortune; larger than the fishing boat, the rescue, and the mystery.
Nathan Carman, with his dead eyes and stiff arms and tantrums and R.V. and cold demeanor, stands for every murderous young lunatic who has turned up in our supermarkets, at our parades, and on our streets. Kids with assault rifles. Kids who approach the world as if it were no more real than a video game, as if they do not believe in the existence of other people. He is seemingly the product of a sick part of the culture, a place awash in weapons and pharmaceuticals, neither of which could cure, soothe, or wake him. He is the emptiness that makes you shiver. He is the blankness that feels no remorse. No mission. No hope. A soldier in the army of the night. He terrifies not because we’ve never seen him before but because we keep seeing him again and again.
Nathan Carman, now 28, pleaded not guilty and is in federal custody, his bail hearing delayed. Prosecutors, noting his history of violence, consider him too dangerous to release. If you see him, he will be in orange, manacled, shuffling in or out of a jailhouse or courtroom. His dream was simple: enough money to go off and be left alone. His trial will take place sometime in the next several months in Rutland, Vermont. If convicted, he will never be left alone again.
Rich Cohen is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL and the author of The Adventures of Herbie Cohen: World’s Greatest Negotiator