The Case of the Cobra Killer
An investigative story by Michael Joseph Gross into the gay porn murders
February 26 2007 7:00 PM EST
May 26 2023 2:43 PM EST
An investigative story by Michael Joseph Gross into the gay porn murders
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 regions coal mining heyday.
Since 1959, when the Susquehanna River flooded the regions 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 Poolboys 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, cliche 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 hed 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 Webcams 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 drivers 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 Poolboys 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 landlords 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.
In a few months Grant and his boyfriend parted ways, and Grant's protective feeling for Sean turned romantic. From the start, Grant also saw business potential in the relationship: "I said Look, I could shop you around to all these other studios and they'll pay you a nice chunk of money. But if you really want to do this right, I'll help you start a company, and you can do your own thing. That way, when you're old and gray, if we do it right, this things still gonna be paying."
As their business plans grew serious, so did their romance. When Sean went to Pennsylvania for the summer, the new couple agreed that wed be exclusive sexual partners, Grant says, other than the work that he was doing. Sean's memories of that summer are mostly unhappy ones. Though he and Bryan sometimes socialized with visiting Cobra models, Sean felt isolated: "Bryan didn't want me to have any friends. I was there basically to have sex with him. He considered his relationship with Bryan to be essentially transactional."
It was trading the company of a younger man for the money and experiences that an older man can give. Lavish restaurants, fine wines, horseback riding lessons, nice clothes. "Looking back," says Sean, "it all seems silly and superficial, of course." Bryan, though, probably had higher hopes for their relationship. He tried to talk the boy into going to college down the street at Misericordia. One weekend that summer, Bryan also made a rare attempt to integrate his family life and his gay life. Robert Wagner, a close friend of Bryan's who appeared in Cobra videos under the name Aaron Phelps, says that Bryan rented a limousine to take Sean and his family to New York together for the Fourth of July. After they all checked into the Plaza Hotel, Bryan went to see the fireworks with his family, and Sean went to a party, where, according to Robert, he hooked up with another man. Bryan spent the night alone in his hotel suite, wondering where Sean had gone. The next month, things got worse. Grant decided to start playing with a little bit of publicity for the next step in Sean's career. From their separate bases in California and Pennsylvania, Grant and Sean participated in a fan forum on a porn portal site called Juicygoo.com, where they discussed Sean's plans to start producing his own videos even though Sean had just renewed his contract with Cobra. Bryan was enraged. Sean says they fought so bitterly that his best friend at the time a boy he chatted with online, whom he never met in person, and whose screen name he says he does not remember, advised him to flee.
In the Volkswagen Jetta that he'd received from Bryan when he signed the contract, Sean drove across the country to Grants house in San Diego. Safely in California, Sean called Bryan on August 16, 2005 and informed him that he'd been a minor when he made his first videos. Their relationship imploded. Sean reported his claim to the FBI, and soon his Cobra Video releases were recalled. Bryan applied to the U.S. Trademark and Patent Office to trademark the name Brent Corrigan. He filed a federal breach of contract suit against Sean. And he wrote Sean long, impassioned e-mails, arias of wounded emotion ("it still amazes me to see how people who are supposed to be close to me can be so heartless and selfish enough to take advantage of me the way they do I really wanted the best for you"), menacing cliche ("Such a tangled Web we Weave / When we practice to Deceive"), and an ultimatum.
Bryan offered Sean a choice: Be reconciled or be cast forever out of his good graces. No second chances here, Bryan warned. Your only decision, to be the Prince, or the Pauper. Soon the feud was tooth for tooth. Juicygoo.com became a battleground between Bryan, writing under the screen name King Cobra, and Grant, who called his alter ego Cobra Killer. The mainstream gay porn industry took note, and the best-known studio, Falcon, gave Sean the lead in a big-budget movie called The Velvet Mafia. In a bizarre coincidence, the moviea bout a porn industry turf war over an insolent twink named Fox Ryder had been written before the Cobra scandal broke. We had to have Brent Corrigan as the star because he was this character in real life, says director Chris Steele. Before the films release, Falcon executives decided not to credit Sean as Brent Corrigan because Cobras lawyer threatened to sue the studio. Every time Sean tried to work as Brent Corrigan, Bryan's lawyers quashed the effort and Sean's lawyers sent him another bill. Sean began a fund-raising drive called Brent Aid, during which he auctioned off a few of his belongings online. Someone bought his underwear for $1,000. Last fall, when Grant and Sean saw that legal negotiations with Cobra would lead to settlement, the couple started looking for new models so they could prepare for Sean to film new sex scenes. The best way to recruit men into porn, Grant says, is to browse gay cruising sites such as Manhunt.net, Adam4Adam.com, and DudesNude.com where it has become the norm for men to post naked pictures of themselves and, increasingly, pictures of themselves having sex. To find the youngest men, he also canvasses MySpace, which offers an argosy of exhibitionist sexuality encompassing various orientations.
"I go to the place where guys are exposing themselves for the whole world to see," Grant explains. "If they're willing to do that much online, maybe they're open to doing porn. It's not going far to make that next step."
Grant's other casting resources include escort sites such as Men4RentNow.com, where he first came across Harlow Cuadra's profile. Grant's eyes go big when he recollects the thrill of seeing Harlow's pictures and watching his sex videos on Boybatter.com for the first time. Wow, he remembers thinking. This is what we're looking for.
"I met Joe on Yahoo in a chat room," Harlow Cuadra says. "I think it was a straight chat room. Probably talking about skateboarding. Joe spams the room, 'Looking for a hookup,' and I'm like, 'Yeah!' "
When they met seven years ago at a mall in Virginia Beach, Joe Kerekes said that he was in the Marines. At the time, Harlow was in the Navy and in the closet, and he was spooked by the idea of dating another military man. He cut the meeting short and told Joe he would call him the next week, after returning from a wedding where he was to be the best man. One week later, to Joe's surprise, Harlow called. "He said that when I told him I was going away for a week, he thought I was lying," Harlow laughs. "I said, 'One thing to know about me: I can't really lie very well. It gets me in trouble.' " They hooked up.
"We went to his parents' house and had sex for, like, four hours, and then we went to Wendys at 2 a.m. He said he was an escort, and I was kind of put off by that, so I backed off, and we just became friends. We kept hanging out, and finally Joe was like, 'Will you go on just one call for me?' And it was an ex-NFL guy, and I walk in, and he's like, 'I just wanna play with your feet.' And I'm like, 'This is weird.' So I would do that like three or four times a week, and I was making a lot of money for letting this guy play with my feet. Then Joe and I started going out," and then eventually Harlow's voice drops low, each word an ember of contentment, remembering the day that love walked in. "Joe said, 'Harlow, I wanna be jealous of you.' "
Joe grew up in a Christian family in Virginia Beach. He graduated near the top of his high school class and for a time worked as a youth pastor at Bethel Temple, a conservative Assemblies of God megachurch in Hampton, Va. Joe's gifts as a minister, especially his preaching, were so prized by the church that Bethel paid for him to go to a Christian college. Joe had trouble controlling his temper, though, and after a few conspicuous flare-ups, he was asked to leave the church. He went to Marine boot camp and, his parents say, was discharged after a few weeks, following an angry confrontation with a drill instructor. (Government military records for both Joe and Harlow were unavailable at press time.) Then Joe started working as a gay escort, hired others to work for him, and built a business so popular that Internet searches for the word Norfolk returned his Web site, NorfolkMaleEscorts.com, as a top hit. The Norfolk city attorney reportedly called Joes lawyer to complain.
As an escort Joe was known as Mark. In Boy Batter videos he called himself Trent. With Harlow he was plain Joe; and after work was done, Joe says, he and Harlow didn't have much time for friends, but they spent a lot of time with Joe's family. His father, Fred, a Navy veteran who worked for the Norfolk water treatment plant, and his mother, Rosalie, who worked for many years in a grade school cafeteria, say that Joe never explicitly told them he is gay, but they gradually came to understand that Joe and Harlow were a couple.
Harlow, who grew up in Florida and South Carolina, was estranged from his family when he met Joe. Fred and Rosalie, sitting at their kitchen table, say they accepted Harlow as if he were their own son. (Since his arrest, Harlow has been back in touch with his mother, brother, and sister. All three have MySpace profiles that proclaim Harlow's innocence and solicit donations for his legal defense.) Fred and Rosalie say that as Christians they believe in hating the sin but loving the sinner. Although they disapproved of the men's relationship, they were intimately involved in Joe and Harlow's lives on an everyday basis. Rosalie cleaned their house, cooked for them, and ran their errands. For construction projects like the high fence around Joe and Harlow's backyard, Fred lent a hand.
Fred says, "I found the architect for them for their in-call room, pronouncing the final phrase, from the lexicon of prostitution, with jarring fluency. Fred is tan, hirsute, tall, and strong, with a long white beard like a biblical patriarchs that falls almost to his waist. He wears a purple baseball cap thickly embroidered with the word Jesus in rainbow-colored letters. "The in-call room," Fred says, "had a hot tub, leather sofa, mahogany lockers for their clients, and a huge mosaic tiled shower with jets coming from every different direction." Rosalie, a gentle, steady woman, says, "It was a super-duper shower. You could put 10 people in there. They knew how to do things to please their customers."
"They had a big, fancy massage table," Fred says. "That's what I thought they did mostly, was massages," Rosalie says. "And physical therapy." Rosalie says she did not know the details of her sons professional life until after he was taken into custody in May after she and Fred celebrated their 37th wedding anniversary. Fred says that he had his suspicions. He never voiced his hunch, but he cites it as the reason that he maintained a somewhat greater distance than Rosalie did. "I wanted them to be a part of our lives," Fred says, "but I didn't want to be a part of their lives."
"We started raunchy," Joe says, "but ended up being high-class." In their years together, Joe and Harlow rose from renting a $300-per-month room in the worst part of Norfolk to purchasing a house worth about $500,000 in a new development on a cul-de-sac. They were eating out every night, Fred says. They would have $500, $600 meals. Joe had a $6,000 chinchilla coat he bought in Vegas. It was leather inside, and it was reversible. He wore a 3.5-karat diamond stud in his ear. Harlow's was 2.5 carats. They always wore Rolexes. They had five, six Rolexes. They went in and out of four [Dodge] Vipers, Fred says, the poisonous snake that bites you and you die. The last one, that got seized by the cops, was yellow. They also invested in their bodies, working out almost every day at 5 a.m. at a private gym called Big House. The owner, a straight man named Lance Treadway, says, "They lifted heavy weights, but their form was terrible." Fred describes his son as "very, what's the word, very chiseled. The whole V shape. And he went to Phoenix to have liposuction done so that he would have the what do you call it the washboard abs. He went to Phoenix, where all the movie stars go to have it done, and it cost $6,000. He stayed in very good shape for his clients."
When Fred says chiseled, his palms cup an imaginary pair of pecs in front of his own chest. When he says V shape, he traces the shape on the sides of his own body. When he says washboard abs, his hand bumps down an imaginary set of them on his own stomach. When he speaks of his son's body, as when he speaks of his son's big spending, Fred's voice is fraught. On the one hand, he is proud of Joe for living an American dream. On the other, he says, "They would get so much credit loan for this car, loan for that car--I knew they were out of control."
By the time Harlow and Joe met Sean and Grant, the Virginians were almost $1 million in debt. Communication between the couples began when Grant saw Harlow's profile online last fall. After some correspondence and phone conversations, the four agreed to have dinner in Las Vegas during January's Adult Video News convention, the largest annual porn industry gathering, where Sean and Grant were also meeting Bryan to finalize their settlement. During dinner at the Bellagio on January 11, which Grant describes as "the most expensive meal I ever had in my life," Grant says Joe speculated that a video of Harlow and Sean could make a million dollars. Grant says he explained that they were hamstrung for the moment by legal problems with Bryan, and thats when Harlow brings up the question, "What if Bryan goes to Europe?" Sean, uncomprehending, responded, "Hell come back." Harlow said. Grant assumes a coolly insinuating voice: " 'What if he goes to Canada?' and I grabbed Sean and said, 'No, you guys.' Then Joe says, 'Harlow has this client thats in this sort of business who will do anything for him. I said, 'If Bryan dies, no matter who does it, this thing has been so ugly, were the first ones they'll come to. Don't even say anything like that. Though Grant says Joe and Harlow's remarks struck him as odd, he didn't think they were serious. That was, like, three or four minutes out of a three- or four-hour meal, where we'd all been drinking so much that we were just gone," he explains. The Virginians apparently left Las Vegas the next morning. (Pending trial, Harlow and Joe would not answer most questions directly pertaining to the case.) Then Grant and Sean met with Bryan and his lawyers to finish most of their negotiations and returned to San Diego for the crossing of the Ts the following week.
On the morning of Tuesday, January 16, Joe and Harlow called Sean, angry that Sean had not posted an announcement of their plans on his blog. Grant was furious at their impatience. "I'm in the middle of the settlement, and I had gone to great lengths to explain our situation, and they're all pissed off because we dont have a blog post on? Who the fuck do they think they are? I called them and said, 'We've got a lot to do. You're calling Sean and harassing him.' Joe starts getting angry with me, saying wild things, threatening me that if we don't put up a post, the deal is off. I said, 'If you dont understand us, leave us the fuck alone.' And I told Sean, 'Screw those guys. Don't talk to them anymore.' That was it."
Joe and Harlow seem to have returned from Las Vegas with new confidence in Harlow's pornographic possibilities. On January 14, NorfolkMaleEscorts.com sent an e-mail blast announcing Harlow's impending collaboration with Porn Twink mega star Brent Corrigan. More ambitiously, Harlow even applied to be a model for Falcon Studios on January 18, citing Brent Corrigan as a reference. Then, on January 22, Harlow created the screen name dmbottompa on Yahoo.com, an account he used almost exclusively for correspondence with Bryan Kocis. DM stood for Danny Moilin, an alter ego whose address was listed as King of Prussia, Pa. As Danny, Harlow completed a model application form on the Cobra Video Web site, and he e-mailed Bryan to say that he would like to meet you and "talk about filming and stuff. don't have much experience with this at all. may need to be taught first."
Police say that Harlow used a Visa card to buy a knife similar to the weapon found at the murder scene, and also a gun, in Virginia Beach on January 23; he rented a car; and, using Joe's drivers license as identification, they checked into the Fox Ridge Inn, across the valley from Dallas Township. E-mails show that Harlow, as Danny, had arranged to meet Bryan at his house on January 24. That night, Bryan Kocis was killed. His house was ransacked for documents relating to the business of Cobra Video, two computer towers that were the nerve center of the company, two video cameras, and his monogrammed Rolex watch. By the time a Dallas Township squad of volunteer firemen arrived at 8:34 p.m., flames had consumed most of the interior of the house. In falling snow, newspaper and TV reporters and a straggling mass of neighbors assembled on the street. Fire blew out Bryan's picture window, and cold air from outside rushed into the home that he had long kept hidden. Later, a friend of the deceased went inside and noticed something strange. The 65-inch plasma television screen that had been Bryan's Christmas present to himself. Melted by the fire, drooped and curled, like a wilted petal plucked from an immense, mechanical, imaginary flower.
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 its 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, its impossible to know precisely how to read them. Strikingly, Harlows 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 Videos 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 its 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, Im 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 fans 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 mans 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, its nearly impossible. The second reason is status. The third reason is, some boys are not very smart. My reason initially was the money. Now its about proving to people that Im 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 peoples 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, its 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 soldiers 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 persons 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. Ive 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 conversations 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.
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