The Experiment Podcast: The 'Perfect Crime' in Yellowstone's 'Zone of Death'
Deep in Yellowstone National Park, there’s a glitch in the U. This episode was produced by Julia Longoria and Alvin Melathe, with editing by Katherine Wells and sound design by David Herman. Music by Water Feature (“In a Semicircle or a Half-Moon”), R McCarthy (“Big Game,” “She’s a Gift Giver, She’s a Giver of Gifts,” and “Melodi 2”), Ob (“Ell” and “Ere”), Parish Council (“Mopping”), H Hunt (“11e”), Column (“Quiet Song”), and Bwengo (“Première Mosrel”); catalog by Tasty Morsels. (A distorted montage of sounds plays: birdcalls, radio signals, and then a ringing phone. (Electronic music plays, growing in intensity as it runs under the speech. Belderrain: I was a real rowdy guy, I guess you could say. Longoria: Why do you think you were rowdy at that time? Longoria: Fifteen years ago, Mike Belderrain was a little rough around the edges. Belderrain: So, you know, if someone was an asshole in a bar, I’d go have a beer by you until you’d say something to me, and then it’d be all bad for you. Longoria: He lived in Montana, not far from Yellowstone National Park, where elk are everywhere. Belderrain: Elk hunting’s hard, but if you could call good … You know, I’d guarantee my hunters a shot at 30 yards or closer. Longoria: So you—you make the sound of a cow because, like, the elk— (The music suddenly cuts out, the silence as abrupt as Belderrain’s “No. Longoria: So why, you might ask, are we talking to this self-proclaimed asshole about killing elk? It’s because of this one particular elk—a star-crossed elk—that changed the course of Mike Belderrain’s life and walked him right into a hole in the U. Longoria: Eventually, he spotted a group of elk off in the distance. Longoria: You knew if you killed the elk, you’d be breaking the law. Belderrain: I knew that if I got caught, I’d be in trouble. Belderrain: I meant to shoot him in the rib cage, behind the shoulder, so that he would go into the trees and die. (The elk whimpers again, then a rush of wind blows and all goes silent. Belderrain: —and it hit him in the head and he dropped, he fell right where he landed. Longoria: Instantly, Mike knew he’d shot an elk while standing inside of Yellowstone National Park. Longoria: The evidence of his crime, the carcass, was laying out in the open. Belderrain: So then it was a race to get him out of there. Longoria: Did you take the whole elk, uh, into the car, and …? (A sound plays, indicating a miscommunication, and the music fades out. Longoria: Mike knew he’d just committed a crime—a serious, federal crime. Longoria: I’m Julia Longoria, and this is The Experiment, a show about our unfinished country. (For a moment longer, the sound grows louder before fading into silence. Longoria: I’ve been thinking about holes in the American project since the beginning of this show, which launched after an armed insurrection took place in our nation’s capital, and in the middle of a global pandemic. We’re still asking the same questions we asked at the beginning of this show: “How do we fix this? How do we move forward? And how do we repair the weak spots that left us vulnerable to all of this in the first place?” Longoria: Brian Kalt is obsessed with the tiniest details in the law. Kalt: I was the sort of kid who, if I’m coloring something and I colored a little bit outside the lines, I would have a tantrum and crumple it up and throw it away and start all over again. Kalt: Loopholes, weak spots—looking for potential hazards and suggesting ways to patch them up before anyone steps on them. Longoria: Brian Kalt has fashioned himself as a sort of “constitutional plumber. Longoria: In any other year, he might sound kind of like a prepper. Kalt: … like the article I wrote on impeaching people who’ve already left office. Maybe you’d use the Twenty-Fifth Amendment if the president is running amok, because impeaching him can’t stop him right away. Longoria: But this year, when many of his old predictions made headlines, he’s sounded a lot like a prophet. CNBC anchor: The New York Times is reporting now that the president has been discussing pardoning himself. Longoria: But the loophole that Brian is most famous for is the one in Yellowstone National Park—the one that elk hunter Mike Belderrain stumbled into. Kalt: I discovered a loophole where there’s this 50 square-mile zone in Idaho where you can commit crimes with impunity—um, get away with murder. (The music layers soft acoustics for a moment before the narration resumes. Kalt: We had Yellowstone National Park before we had the state of Wyoming, before we had the state of Idaho, before we had the state of Montana. Longoria: When the states were drawn, Congress colored outside the lines. Longoria: And here’s the issue: No one—zero people—lives in the Idaho sliver.
Kalt: One of the reasons I went to law school in the first place was this idea that the law mattered, and that if you master the law, you have an understanding of the law, that you can make things happen the right way—the way they’re supposed to. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Berger: It was as near a perfect document as has ever been written. Lynne Cheney: But without the Constitution, we would be an entirely different country than we are today, and one of the ways … Senator Ben Cardin: Because the Constitution, this amazing fabric of our nation, is our protection. Longoria: We spend a lot of time talking about this document. And then to realize there’s a place where a major right in the Constitution just doesn’t apply? Longoria: Have you heard of the Sixth Amendment right to a jury of your peers? Longoria: When I found out about this loophole, I called Ed Yong. Yong: You assume that the legal system of the greatest country in the world can’t possibly have a loophole that allows people to get away with murder. Surely, if that actually ever happened, like, there would be some way to go, “It’s fine. And I think we sort of assumed that with a pandemic. Longoria: Brian Kalt had what he thought was a very easy solution to the Zone of Death loophole. Longoria: First, he did what we’re all taught to do in school. Longoria: They just had to pass a law to redraw the district lines. Longoria: And as he waited for these responses to these letters … Vox’s Estelle Caswell: This is a map of Yellowstone National Park. NPR’s Robert Siegel: Brian Kalt says there is a hole in the Sixth Amendment big enough to run a crime spree through. Idaho News 6’s Roland Beres: … in part of Yellowstone, it’s not how to get away with murder—it’s where. Vox’s Estelle: It’s called the “Zone of Death” because of a loophole that exists … (Fades out. Longoria: Brian published an article in a legal journal about this, and it got a lot of attention. Kalt: I don’t want to say it went viral, ’cause, I mean, it was a constitutional-law article. Longoria: It was maybe the only time a law-journal article made it into the National Enquirer. TikTok User @ItsKeyes: (Sings in the style of The Mountain Goats. Longoria: Even with all that attention, Brian could not get a single elected representative to talk to him directly about this problem. NPR’s Robert: Uh, do you expect or have you already been contacted by, you know, the screenwriter of Ocean’s 27 or Law and Order, about to craft some plot that’s based in the Idaho portion of Yellowstone Park? Kalt: Uh, I suppose that plots of legal thrillers have turned on odder oddities than that. NPR’s Robert: Now there is a catch here … (Fades out. Longoria: But a year after Brian’s article came out, someone did contact him—someone who’d read Brian’s paper and urgently wanted to talk to him about the loophole. Box: You know, the book opens with a guy slaughtering some campers, and then turning himself in to the ranger’s station, knowing that if they try to prosecute him, he’s likely not to be convicted. Free Fire narrator: “Do you want to call a lawyer?” McCann said, “You don’t understand. Box: Because he knows about this loophole, because he’s a lawyer. Kalt: If he, instead of a small-town lawyer, had made it a pointy-headed, sociopathic law professor, uh, as the protagonist, that might’ve—that might’ve hit too close to home. Free Fire narrator: Then he smiled, as if sharing a joke. Longoria: The whole plot is like Brian Kalt’s worst nightmare. Box: The puzzle in the book is, why did this lawyer—local lawyer—shoot all these campers and kill ’em? Free Fire narrator: “We’ll just never fucking know, I’m afraid …” Free Fire Narrator: “I don’t know where we’re going, but it seems like we’re headed somewhere. Longoria: Spoiler alert: Ultimately, we learn the lawyer-murderer was part of this big corporate conspiracy, and a government cover-up. Longoria: The story is pretty dark, but that didn’t stop it from having a wide appeal. Kalt: Free Fire got onto The New York Times’ extended best-seller list. (Music holds a drone for a moment, then quiets down even further. Longoria: What you’re hearing is a recording of Enzi on a C-SPAN show called Book TV. Box: He actually would write little reports to me on each book. Enzi: And I’ve done a book report on every one of them since I got out of graduate school. Enzi: There was a zone in Wyoming, well, in Yellowstone Park, that was actually considered to be part of Idaho, but nobody lived there.
Box: “This book is about this issue,” and, you know, dah-dah-dah-dah-dah … “and this is what happens, and I enjoyed it. Longoria: And, for a little while, it seemed like government was working the way Brian thought it should. Kalt: So November 2006, I had contact with Senator Enzi’s office. Longoria: Brian had back-and-forths with Senator Enzi’s office that seemed promising. Kalt: In February of 2007, Enzi sent the letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, asking him to look into this matter … Kalt: And then in May of 2007, Enzi sent the letter explaining why the Department wasn’t going to be doing anything about it. Longoria: And could you read a little bit from that letter? They have assured me that, should a crime be committed in the ’Zone of Death,’ they would move forward with prosecution, and have suggested that the courts would allow the prosecutors to move forward … At this point in time, we will hope the problem is a hypothetical, and it remains as such. Longoria: Did you ever hear back about “what is practical and what is possible”? Longoria: I reached out to Senator Enzi to ask him why he didn’t end up closing this loophole. Kalt: I recognize the Congress has many more pressing matters—less hypothetical, actual problems to deal with. Longoria: The last bill that Senator Enzi introduced in the Senate, by the way? [Pause. Longoria: So, after years of trying to get this loophole fixed—even after it became a viral sensation, a hit crime novel, an item on Senator Enzi’s agenda—Brian hit a brick wall. Belderrain: When I shot, and I hit him in the head and he dropped, it was the worst, sick feeling I’ve ever had in my life. Longoria: When we last left Mike Belderrain, he’d poached an elk while standing inside Yellowstone, chopped off the head, and left the carcass out in broad daylight. Belderrain: That was the biggest elk killed in Montana that year. Longoria: He felt bad about it, but not that bad about it. Longoria: It wasn’t until a full year later that Mike was arrested, and we got our first and only test of the perfect-crime theory. Belderrain: My shooting that elk had nothing to do with that perfect-crime area. Longoria: Of course, Mike had never heard of Brian Kalt or the Zone of Death. Belderrain: That bull could have been standin’ deep inside the park, where I had to pay an entry free to get into it. Kalt: And the judge basically said, “Well, that’s an interesting but esoteric argument. Belderrain: I mean, did I deserve to get in trouble? Absolutely. Belderrain: Like I said, I definitely deserved to get in trouble. Longoria: And in his plea, he agreed to a condition: that he would never appeal his case based on the Zone of Death. Kalt: The fact that they put him in prison in a way that left the loophole as open as it had been—if not wider—that was the part that was hardest for me to swallow. Maybe it’s from when I was a kid watching Schoolhouse Rock that the image of the lawmaking process that I grew up with was “I’m just a bill. And he says, you know, “When I started, I was just an idea. Yong: So with the Brian Kalt case, did anything change after the elk incident? Ed has spent a lot of the last year wondering why the government was not better prepared for the pandemic. Now, obviously, like, a pandemic is not the same as this murder loophole, because, in the worst-case scenario, you would expect, like, maybe a few people to fall foul of the problem that Brian Kalt identified, whereas, in a pandemic, almost by definition, it’s the whole world that’s at risk. Longoria: Why do you think we have trouble fixing things, as a country, that aren’t currently on fire? Longoria: Yeah, I—I wonder if sometimes, like, on our good days, that idealism or exceptionalism would push the country, push individuals, to try to keep making the ideal true. Yong: I—I don’t, you know—I don’t know that that’s true. And, uh—and I worry about that, because I think we still have a lot to do. Belderrain: The guards, the people there—no one could believe I was in prison for shooting a freakin’ elk. Longoria: Do you think you shed your, like, rough ways of—of—of your young years? Longoria: And how—how do you make sense of—of everything that happened to you now? (Music plays lazily as the two breathe in the space after the question. (One last elk cry in the noise of the woods, then slow quiet under the credits. Gabrielle Berbey: This episode of The Experiment was produced by Julia Longoria and Alvin Melathe, with editing by Katherine Wells and sound design by David Herman. The Experiment is a co-production of The Atlantic and WNYC Studios.
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