Update: The Case of the Cobra Killer


By Michael Joseph Gross

A battery of law enforcement officials representing three states (and, mysteriously, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the FBI, and the Naval Criminal Investigation Unit, none of which has clear jurisdiction over any publicly known aspect of this case) coordinated a far-reaching investigation of the murder, culminating in the electronic interception of two conversations between Joe, Harlow, Grant, and Sean on April 27 and 28.

Grant and Sean cooperated with police and wore a wire during two meetings with the Virginians when they came to San Diego, ostensibly to finalize plans for Harlow and Sean's video. Excerpts from the conversations appear in Pennsylvania's affidavit of probable cause for Joe and Harlow's arrest. The first day, when Grant asked if Bryan 'felt any pain,' Harlow answered, 'Don't worry, he went quick.' The next day Harlow said, 'Seeing that fucker going down, actually it's sick, but it made me feel better inside. It almost felt like I got revenge, and I know that sounds fucked-up.'

As damning as these lines appear, it's impossible to know precisely how to read them. Strikingly, Harlow's quoted remarks in the affidavit sound more like the statements of a man who witnessed a murder than those of a man who committed one. (Joe, it seems, was mostly interjecting details as Harlow described meeting Bryan.) Harlow's story, as related by this document, is confusing (and perhaps intentionally presented that way by police; at the time of arrest, it is common to withhold evidence that will be introduced at trial), but other details raise the possibility that a third man might have been present when Bryan was killed. Harlow 'stated that he and another 'did some recon work'' before his meeting with Bryan. And after he arrived at Bryan's house and they drank some wine together, Harlow said that his ' 'dude' 'came around', and 'it was crazy.''

Language, however, may be the least reliable form of evidence in this case. Joe and Harlow's stories have changed utterly since the saga began. Upon first being identified as a suspect, Harlow told the Scranton Times-Tribune that he had never met Bryan and was ' 'freaked out' that his image was linked to a murder investigation.' At about the same time, Joe's escort persona, 'Mark,' told a reporter from the Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader that Harlow was working in Virginia the night that Bryan was killed.

Most recently, Joe told the same newspaper that, actually, they did come to Pennsylvania'so that Harlow could try to win Bryan over to their plan to work with Sean. But when Harlow arrived at Bryan's house 'the door was partially open. He looked inside and saw an overturned table and smelled smoke. He said he saw someone on a couch or chair, and heard a noise upstairs, like someone was about to come down,' Joe said. At the time of the interview, Joe did not have legal representation. His new attorney, Joseph Nocito, says, 'There will be no more interviews.'

There has been no official mention of forensic evidence in the case. (Crime lab processing takes longer in life than on CSI.) The strongest pieces of physical evidence suggesting the suspects may have been at the crime scene are two video cameras, the same models that were stolen from Bryan's house. The cameras, whose serial numbers had been obliterated, were seized in a police raid of Joe and Harlow's house on February 10. Shortly after the murder, Harlow posted a query on an Internet message board asking how to operate one of the cameras.

In Virginia, Joe and Harlow were arrested as fugitives from justice on May 15, the same day criminal charges against them were filed in Pennsylvania. Virginia also put their assets into forfeiture and began investigating whether to charge them with conspiracy to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act [RICO], money laundering, and conspiracy to receive money from the earnings of a prostitute.

The seizure was unusual: In RICO cases, assets are typically put into forfeiture after a criminal hearing, not before. Joe's lawyer in Virginia, Jim Brice, believes the holdup was 'being used to deny them the opportunity to secure proper representation' on criminal charges in Pennsylvania, where they have been held since their extradition in July.

Because Joe and Harlow's credit was overextended, it is unlikely that, even if they had access to their assets, they would be of much use. So their friends and family are trying to raise money for their defense. The Web site FreeHarlowCuadra.com sells products bearing his mug shot, including a $39.99 wall clock (the big and little hands sprout from Harlow's nose) and a $49.99 'maternity T-shirt.'

Evidence against the two is substantial, and yet it seems impossible to organize that evidence into a plausible story. A murder as brutal as this one is almost always a crime of passion, committed by a person who knows the victim, but there's no evidence of prior acquaintance between Bryan and Joe or Harlow. The alleged porn-turf-war motive makes no rational sense, especially because Sean and Bryan had just resolved their conflict. Yet Bryan's business must have had something to do with his death: Why else would Cobra Video's documents and computer towers disappear? Or was there other information stored in those machines, something that might help explain why federal agencies are working on this case?

Winding on, the questions form a trail that starts to seem like it's all switchbacks. Why, if not to murder Bryan, did Joe and Harlow go to Pennsylvania? If there was a third man, why don't they reveal him? What, if anything, is hiding under the layers of their shifting stories? And what kind of murderer buys his weapon with a credit card?

In California, Grant Roy says that he has learned a lesson. 'From now on, if somebody ever mentions something''about killing someone''in joking or whatever, I don't care what the circumstances are, I'm walking away.'

The saga of Bryan's murder, he believes, 'says a lot about our country and our culture. It used to be that I watched TV shows like CSI: Miami, movies with conspiracy or murder plots. It was all fantasy to me. Now I watch this stuff and I think, That's based on something that really happened. All these reality shows that are coming out now, there's a fine line between what is not real and what is real. A lot of that plays into why this happened, why these idiots thought they could do what they could do. There's something instilled in our culture' that, he says, is related to bigger questions such as 'Why do we think we can go into Iraq and give this country democracy, when they've been clashing ever since Great Britain carved it all up and called it a country? Empires are built on delusions.'

He and Sean have a new Web site, BrentCorriganInc.com. The day it launched, on one of Brent's fan's blogs, someone named Ernie posted a flag he designed to represent 'Brent Corrigan's 'Independence Day.'' Accompanying text explained that the flag 'incorporates the pride flag' and a blue star like the one tattooed on Brent's right buttock 'similar to the Texas flag (representing Grant).'

The blogger, who goes by the name Dewayneinsd, continued, 'I believe the Flag itself stands as a banner of One Young man's Independence from Evil, Corrupt and Exploitive men! And while Brent's battle is waged for his rights, it is also for the benefit of all young gay men who choose to 'Do Porn'!'

Confidently, Sean explains why he and other young men make the choice to have sex on-camera'the choice that permanently entwined his fate with Bryan's: 'There are three reasons why boys work in porn. The first one is money. Trying to support yourself when practically the only jobs you can get are in retail, it's nearly impossible. The second reason is status. The third reason is, some boys are not very smart. My reason initially was the money. Now it's about proving to people that I'm one of a kind. When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade.'

In Virginia Beach, most of Joe and Harlow's neighbors say they didn't know the men. Their street looks like Wisteria Lane on Desperate Housewives, with the patriotic ambience of screaming fighter jets flying drills low in the sky.

At one house, a 17-year-old named Lauren stands among large sculptures of eagles in flight that decorate her family's living room and, leaning forward for emphasis, seems to enjoy reciting this speech: 'I never knew they were gay. I never knew they were porno stars. I never knew they were gay male escorts. I never knew they murdered their rival porn producer. I never knew nothing.'

Lauren's storytelling pleasure captures the spirit of many people's fantasies of the untrammeled id in gay men's lives, a fantasy that Joe and Harlow incarnate. The most astonishing thing about them, however, is that the couple attained all-out hedonism while at the same time maintaining the appearance of propriety required to sustain intimate relationships with Joe's family.

In this part of Virginia, it's common for gay men to lead double lives. Even the editor of Norfolk's gay newspaper, Out & About, works under a pseudonym: 'Call me 'Harry King,'' he says. 'I try to keep the identities separate. I have to live with a lot of 'don't ask don't tell' living here in Norfolk. We all do.'

It is rare for a gay man here to be out in a simple sense. Instead, he exists in an open closet with a strict code of silence. Silence protects him from the risk of being ostracized if he were truly known. Silence also degrades him. To be accepted, he must grant that he is unacceptable.

This self-annihilating mind-set is common among gay men here, but it is not unique to them. Ego destruction is the first step in a soldier's training, and the open closet is practically a mirror image of fundamentalism, in which no sinner can be saved without affirming his own worthlessness.

When Fred Kerekes started to suspect his son was gay, he talked to Joe about sin, hoping to make a point without having to spell it out. 'I would tell Joe sometimes 'Guilty or innocent in this life is immaterial. When you die, you will stand before the Father and be judged.' When he dies, Joe will have to answer for whatever he's done.'

Fred's faith asserts that life has two dimensions and two stories. Each person has a physical life and a spiritual one. Life on earth gives way at death to life in heaven or hell. And God alone determines the person's fate, regardless of the outcome of the struggle in this life between powers of good and evil.

Pastor Ron Johnston, who was Joe's mentor at Bethel Temple, says that Joe's struggle between the powers was unusually strong. 'There's a dichotomy in Joseph,' he says. 'There's two Josephs. I would see a Joseph that on one side was extremely kind and good, and on the other side he would lose it. I've seen this before with people that were demon-possessed.'

Two years ago, long after Joe's angry separation from the church, Pastor Ron was amazed one day when Joe showed up at his office. 'He started crying. He sat down. He said, 'Pastor, I'm in problems. I'm doing things I never thought I would do.' He told me about the escort service, about some of the things he was involved in. Harlow, and their relationship. 'Joseph,' I said, 'you have the call of God on your life. It doesn't matter how far you've gone or what you've done, God never takes back what he gives you. God is always there, no matter what happens or what happened, to forgive and help you. If there's anything I can do to help you, I'm here for that.''

But the next time he saw Joe's face was on a television screen, on the news the night of Joe's arrest. 'It broke my heart inside,' he says, 'I thought, Oh, my word. That kind of anger, I've seen that kind of anger in him. And I thought, This is unreal.'

The legion of characters that any one of us could be is always present in the blooming confusion of our minds. To be an adult is to choose among them and work to realize a vision of a good life. Yet in our time, even the act of concentrating begins to seem old-fashioned. Multitasking ceases to be jargon.

Flawless integrity is for saints'and, in theory, machines. Since the Victorians drew a hard line between the public and private spheres, we have all in some way led two lives; yet until recently, only a clinical sociopath could pull off the feat in full.

Today it is possible, and for growing numbers of people it is habitual, to simultaneously carry on three, four, five conversations via instant messages. Everyone, it seems, chats online during conference calls for work. From there, it is not such a far stretch to imagine typing softly while talking on the phone with Mom and Dad, e-mailing naked pictures snapped in a mirror, in hopes of setting up a hot fuck with a stranger for when the conversation's done. Radical dissociation can creep in without noticeable outward change; and, thanks to our machines' integrity, our own leaches away.

Bryan Kocis, Sean Lockhart, Harlow Cuadra, and Joseph Kerekes reinvented themselves online. Military patriotism or fundamentalist faith helped accustom some of them to double lives. But these four were caught up in a mode of reinvention disconnected from the one that in literature and life has united American characters as disparate as Abraham Lincoln, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Horatio Alger, Jay Gatsby, and Tom Ripley.

Those men all left home to start anew. These men just logged on. They created alternate identities in parallel worlds, as most of us do now, imagining that we need not give up anything to do so, believing that our games exact no unrecoverable cost. The difference between us and the characters in the case of the Cobra killer is one of scale, not of kind. Unreal realities, endless flickering between truth and fiction, an addictive stream of possible connections among possible selves, converging in the dead end of a life.

Inside the Virginia Beach County jail, a tasteful brick building that would not disturb the aesthetic of Colonial Williamsburg, the visitor room contains four rows of small Toshiba screens, each housed in a brushed aluminum case the size of a microwave oven. Above each screen is mounted a small video camera, allowing the visitor and inmate to see one another in half-profile from slightly elevated angles.

When conversation feels especially intimate, either the visitor or the inmate may choose to look directly into the camera in order to create for the other an illusion of eye contact. Yet the equipment's configuration ensures that any normal feeling of conversational intimacy will be one-sided. The person who creates the illusion of eye contact always loses it himself. As a result, the only way for Harlow to let me see his eyes is for him to play to the camera, requiring him to look away from me and therefore to perform. And vice versa.

I ask Harlow what it was like to work as an escort and a porn performer, and be in love with Joe, all at the same time. He grins. He says, 'It's like I have a light switch.'

He thinks for a moment: 'I walk in, and I make a force field to my heart that wraps around me. The way I describe it to new employees is, 'You walk in that room, you're Scott. You walk out, and you're Adam again.' They all have two names. They all are two people. Even Joe. He's Mark on calls and Joe with me.

'I go in there, and I'm Harlow. But a different Harlow. What messes me up is, I'm the same person always. I don't have a light switch,' he says.

For a moment I don't notice the contradiction, because Harlow looks into the camera, and it feels as if he looks into my eyes.