“A good friend stabs you in the front.”
In August, 1999, two 20-something friends started a cross-country road trip from Boston to Los Angeles. It was supposed to be a coda to adolescence—a last hurrah to the lazy days of post-college freedom before careers, families and mortgages kicked in. Dave Coughlin was moving to Los Angeles to start a career-focused graduate program and he asked his best friend Raffi Kodikian to drive out with him. Their trip began inauspiciously, with stops to see family in Pennsylvania and Virginia, a few beers in Nashville and New Orleans. It ended a few days later in a southwest desert canyon when Raffi stabbed Dave twice in the heart with a pocketknife and then buried him in a crude grave of rocks.
Jason Kersten first wrote about this story in January 2000 in an article for Maxim magazine where he was senior editor. He quickly recognized the “truth is stranger than” quality and, following the journalistic trend du jour, successfully parlayed the article into a six-figure book deal with HarperCollins. Lucky for us. It is an extraordinary tale.
Set in “Rattlesnake” Canyon, New Mexico—where the friends stop to camp for a night—and stocked with colorful local characters, Journal of the Dead is steeped in elements of pulp fiction. There’s an egotistic John Wayne-loving sheriff named “Chunky” Click; a lanky, Tommy Lee Jones-type defense attorney; and a hometown Andy Griffith-style prosecutor. The killer is charismatic, the desert sun is cruel and undiscriminating—it’s the stuff that makes filmmakers drool. And Kersten uses it all to maximum effect.
The story starts with Lance Mattson, a veteran park ranger, winding his way down the canyon in search of two campers who were overdue on an overnight camping permit. He finds them easily, one of several perplexing incongruities in the story. Approaching their tattered tent apprehensively, he spots Raffi Kodikian lying beneath the flaps - eyes wide open. Mattson asks about his companion and receives the cool reply, “I killed him . . . he begged me to do it.”
Lost campers and hikers are a news staple. The details change with the seasons and rarely make front page, but Raffi Kodikian and Dave Coughlin did. Though Kodikian accepted a plea bargain, avoiding a highly publicized trial, his story was sensational enough to draw considerable media coverage including a riveting interview with Connie Chung. He doesn’t give Kersten an interview, but does take the stand at his sentencing hearing - essentially narrating his own disturbing tale. Kersten uses that account plus the two friends’ 10-day travel journal, and supplements it with interviews and his own research to fill out the story.
The title is a pun on the travel journal and a New Mexican legend referred to as the “Journey of the Dead”. In the desert legend, a group of Spanish colonists in Santa Fe ran out of water crossing the Chihuahuan Desert. Stark, raving and mad, they were barely spared a gruesome fate by a rainstorm. It’s horrifying what happens to your body when it runs out of water and Kersten makes sure you are sufficiently creeped out, with accounts of desperate victims drinking blood (their own or an unlucky travel partner), radiator fluid and urine. He effectively blends these stories with the friends’ backstory and useful geological details into a white-knuckle read. His magazine days served him well, as the 200-plus pages of the book are driven by the same sharp economy of a 1,500-word article.
The narrative pace is lively despite walking the fence between the two sides that formed after Raffi was escorted out of the canyon. There was a loyal group of supporters who believed Raffi’s claim of mercy killing—that Coughlin was in so much agony it was a compassionate act granting his wish for death. And there were those who said simply, the story doesn’t add up. Indeed, Raffi was found a mere 275 feet from a trail out of the canyon and it took the park ranger a 30-minute walk from the gift shop to find him. Kerston sprinkles a trail of corroborating crumbs from each camp, so your mind changes with the chapters. The local authorities Kersten interviewed—border agents and camp rangers who worked in the trenches and had seen up close the grueling effects of sun—found the “mercy killing” story hard to swallow, yet Raffi’s friends and family, even Dave Coughlin’s family, were unswerving in their support. It’s a loaded, complicated story—stranger than fiction.
Was it truly a selfless mercy killing by a man who believed he, too, was doomed? Or was it cold-blooded murder fueled by jealousy? Kersten, in his Author’s Note, puts into words the problem people have anytime the guy next door commits murder: “Here was a guy who, like me, was raised in an upper-middle-class home by a loving family, probably even more functional than my own. He adored books and travel, studied journalism, fell in love during college . . . and had good friends with whom he enjoyed laughing and drinking beer. Strip him of his act, and he could be me or 50 people I know.”