Update: The Case of the Cobra Killer
By Michael Joseph Gross
A few miles up the highway from the Luzerne County courthouse in Wilkes-Barre, Penn., a life-size statue of Christ commands a grassy hillside planted with, and almost totally obscured by, hundreds of tiny American flags on tiny wooden flagpoles. Public displays of piety and of patriotism are common here. They give energy to a landscape marked with collapsing smokestacks and other industrial ruins from the region's coal mining heyday. Since 1959, when the Susquehanna River flooded the region's richest anthracite mines, the local population and economy have steadily declined. Yet coal money did endow some enduring institutions in the Wyoming Valley, such as the Catholic liberal arts college Misericordia in Dallas Township, a five-minute walk from the tree-lined bower of Midland Drive, where a yellow diamond-shaped traffic sign warns drivers to watch children. This is where, until his throat was slashed one night last January, 44-year-old Bryan Kocis ran an online business from his home called Cobra Video, dedicated to 'Capturing the Erotic Essence of Youth' by producing pornographic movies of young men who looked as if they could be adolescents having sex without condoms.
Cobra competed in the market niche of low-budget, Barely Legal'style bareback films. For Kocis, the business was profitable: a Maserati, Aston Martin, and BMW sat in his garage and driveway. In 2005 the movies also made a modest yet scandalous name for him, and for his leading star and sometime lover, Sean Lockhart, in the mainstream gay porn industry. Lockhart, who met Kocis on the Internet and starred in films such as Every Poolboy's Dream and Schoolboy Crush, under the name Brent Corrigan, informed the FBI that he had been underage when four of his movies were produced. The movies were recalled, and the producer and performer squared off in a nasty, public, litigious feud that wore on until early this year.
On January 24, only a few days after their conflict was settled out of court, Kocis's house on Midland Drive was robbed and set aflame. Inside, firemen found the owner dead: nearly decapitated, torso stabbed 28 times. His remains were so charred that the county coroner used dental records to identify the body.
Law enforcement officials from three states and at least three federal agencies aggressively investigated the crimes, and in May police arrested Harlow Cuadra, 26, a former Navy enlisted man, and Joseph Kerekes, 33, a onetime youth pastor who was briefly in the Marines. From their home in Virginia Beach, Va., the couple'who, like Lockhart and Kocis, also met on the Internet'ran a gay escort service, which they say employed active-duty servicemen from military bases in the area, and they produced and starred in bareback porn on their military-themed Web site, Boybatter.com.
Pennsylvania's case against the accused casts Kocis as the victim of a porn industry turf war. Cuadra and Kerekes, police contend, killed the producer to liberate Lockhart from contractual obligations to Cobra. The scenario, teeming with noirish detail, is as neatly plotted as a potboiler. Police say the Virginians believed a sex video of Cuadra with Lockhart, 21, would be a porn blockbuster that could yield that archaic, almost quaint, clich' of fortune: a million dollars.
At first glance, this may look like just a lurid saga on the margins of a far-flung subculture. But the tabloid headline of the tale may conceal a larger truth. Kocis, Lockhart, Cuadra, and Kerekes all met in a virtual world where they hoped to realize their most outrageous sexual fantasies, where screen names and avatars enable endless reconstruction of selves: a fluid, identity-less existence that many millions of people have chosen as their primary mode for seeking sex and love. In the midst of those searches, it is worth pausing to consider: Is the world of the Cobra Killer merely a darker reflection of our own?
Bryan Kocis was many things to many people. A former Cobra Video performer, now a 21-year-old student at Cornell University, calls him 'just a smart, nice guy. Not the sleazy, overbearing producer. There was nothing stereotypical about him.'
Amy Withers, a 23-year-old bartender who was Bryan's next-door neighbor, says, 'He slept during the day and worked at night. I would hear car doors at 3 in the morning. I would hear him having sex in the Jacuzzi on his deck, right by my bedroom window. He always scared the hell out of me: always wore aviator sunglasses and a baseball hat. Everything that you would ever think of a creepy porn guy? That would be him.'
Bryan's next-door neighbor on the other side says that the Kocis family'who remained close with Bryan throughout his career; who learned of his death from the local newspaper; and who are refusing to speak to reporters until the murder trial is finished'asked her not to talk about him. She stands behind her screen door, wearing an apron printed with dozens of overlapping images of the Stars and Stripes. She has kind eyes, and she says thoughtfully, 'Bryan was complex.'
He was an Eagle Scout who grew up in Luzerne County, graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology, worked as a medical photographer for a local eye doctor, and then made a few unsuccessful business investments before incorporating Cobra Video in 2001. That same year, a few months before declaring bankruptcy to settle debts of more than $200,000, he was arrested on several criminal counts, including six felony charges, for twice having sex with a 15-year-old boy. The first time Bryan had sex with the youth, he also videotaped it, according to police. Eventually all felony charges were dropped when he was found guilty of the lesser offense of corruption of a minor. Bryan served one year of probation, but the damage to his local reputation was done.
He became increasingly reclusive, passing many nights chatting online with prospective models. One evening, he received an instant message from a 21-year-old in California who wanted to be in porn. Bryan didn't find him attractive, but the young man bragged about his hot new boyfriend'17, going on 18, he teased'and, showing off, turned a Webcam on the 5-foot-5, 100-pound prize, who was taking a nap. The image of a pale, thin, dozing boy appeared on Bryan's computer screen.
Bryan did not know that he'd been lied to: The boy was actually 16 years old.
The boy, groggy and disoriented, did not know why his boyfriend was pulling back the sheet, or why the camera was on.
Bryan stared at the streaming video of the naked teen, who, aroused, gazed into the Webcam's lens.
Neither of them seemed to have taken real action, much less made a momentous choice, but this was the moment when their fates, and the fates of many others, began to change.
Soon the boy, Sean Lockhart, was chatting every day after school with his new friend in Pennsylvania.
Bryan was funny and understanding. He gave good advice. His online rapport with Sean was consistent and comforting, which were not words that Sean could use to describe the behavior of most adults he knew.
Sean, who had never known his biological father, was raised primarily by his stepfather in Seattle, after his mother left the family when he was in third grade. He had recently reconciled with her and moved to be with her in San Diego. The two of them were barely scraping by, living in a flophouse where Sean didn't feel safe.
Sean says he needed to make money, and his options, as he saw them, were to 'whore myself, deal drugs, or do adult work. Adult work seemed like the least compromising of the choices. That was how the initial decisions were made.'
With his then-boyfriend, Sean scanned his driver's license and birth certificate into Photoshop, changed the dates to make it look like he was 18, and sent electronic copies to Bryan.
Sean earned $3,500 for his first Cobra videos, Every Poolboy's Dream and Casting Couch 4, which were shot in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in September 2004. 'When I first met Bryan, I was disappointed. I'd seen only one picture of him. But after how much we talked, I'd developed not a crush, but''Sean's voice, an eager stream of poised, ingenuous-sounding self-analysis, briefly stumbles. 'He'd become a stable force for me.'
On his next shoot, for the movies Schoolboy Crush and Bareboned Twinks, also in Florida, Sean says he chose a new name for himself. 'I took Brent from Brent Everett, who was the costar, and I found Corrigan in the phone book. It sounded Irish or Scottish, and I'm Irish, and I liked that it kept things consistent.'
During that second shoot, Sean says, two other important things happened. He and Bryan slept together for the first time, and Bryan first voiced fears that Sean's IDs were forged.
After Sean returned to San Diego, Bryan started sending him gifts and money. Whether because he was smitten with the boy, afraid of legal jeopardy, or both, Bryan invited him to spend the summer of 2005 in Pennsylvania, 'to be an apprentice and help with the video shoots.'
Sean's home life in San Diego had deteriorated, and he decided to move out on his own. He found an apartment on Craigslist, but says he was evicted when he resisted his landlord's sexual advances.
A mutual friend introduced Sean to Grant Roy, a beefy, wedge-jawed 40-year-old Texan who worked for his family's trucking company. Grant shared a house in the suburbs with his boyfriend at the time. Sean rented their spare bedroom for $500 a month'the same amount that Bryan was sending Sean to help with monthly living expenses.
Grant's father, with whom he had been close, had just died, which inclined him to sympathize with Sean's all-but-orphaned existence.
The boy, Grant says tenderly, 'had nowhere else to go.'