Missing Persons

Dark Water : Serena Karlan

posted: 09/27/12
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Missing since July 2002

In the summer of 2001, 30-year-old Serena Karlan is busy launching her first real career in the competitive world of New York City real estate. Then, on September 11, 2001 the calamitous terrorist attacks prompt a change in her plans. On October 16, she flies off to join her longtime paramour on a sailing trip through the South Pacific. Almost a year later, they mysteriously vanish.

Throughout her travels, Serena and her mother, Gael Karlan, speak to each other via satellite phone. They also email at least once, and sometimes three times a week. But, after a not hearing from her daughter for almost two months, Gael becomes worried. She asks her husband to find Serena. His first call goes to Kevin Porter, personal assistant of Serena's boyfriend -- retired NBA basketball star Brian Williams, a.k.a. Bison Dele.

For over ten years, Bison and Serena had an on-again, off-again love affair, which blooms into a tender and committed relationship after 9/11. Serena is one of the few people in Bison's life who never asks for anything or seeks to benefit from his stardom as a multi-million dollar basketball star. Perhaps that's why after walking away from his lucrative NBA contract, Bison sought a deeper relationship and invited her to sail with him from New Zealand through the islands of French Polynesia to Hawaii.

After spending 6 months of bliss together, their romantic trip suddenly becomes tense when on May 2, 2002 -- a few weeks before they're to cast off from Aukland, New Zealand to sail to Tahiti -- Bison's estranged older brother, Kevin Williams a.k.a. Miles Dabord, unexpectedly appears at Bison's boat. Unemployed and nearly broke, Miles has abandoned all his possessions back in Palo Alto, California to try and patch up his relationship with Bison.

Anyone who knows Bison well, also knows the relationship between the brothers was often strained. Bison's friend Patrick Byrne says Miles judged his own business and career failures against the yardstick of his younger brother's success. Patrick claims that although Miles was very jealous, he frequently benefited from Bison's generous financial support. During a satellite phone conversation shortly after Miles' appearance in New Zealand, Patrick could hear the undue stress in Bison's voice. In another satellite phone call, Serena tells her mother Gael that everyone living on the boat in Auckland's port have been forced to adjust with Miles being around.

After three weeks in port, the boat finally shoves off from Auckland bound for Tahiti on May 29, 2002. But Bison and Serena aren't on board. Instead, they fly ahead of the boat to escape a long voyage with Miles, says Byrne. The next day, Miles' mother allegedly receives an email from Bison that the brothers are trying to fix their relationship. This is apparently her final email from Bison.

Two weeks later, Bison speaks to his assistant, Kevin Porter, from a beach-side bungalow he and Serena had rented in Tahiti. Bison says that he's worried about Miles' erratic and desperate behavior. A week after that, Miles arrives in Tahiti on the sailboat, rejoining Bison and Serena. The trio spends the next two weeks preparing for a lengthy voyage to Honolulu. Then on July 6, 2002 they set sail. The three are guided by the boat's skipper, Bertrand Saldo.

The next day, Serena and Kevin Porter speak on the satellite phone. She says the group is doing fine. Then Kevin suddenly loses the call. But, he's not concerned because the satellite phone regularly drops calls due to poor reception. It's also not unusual for him to go without hearing from Serena and Brian for weeks at a time. He has no idea that this dropped call was the last time anybody will hear from Serena and Bison.

After a full eight weeks without contact from her daughter, Gael tells her husband, "I know there's something wrong." On August 30, 2002, they contact Kevin Porter. Kevin says he too is concerned because he has just learned that, uncharacteristically, Bison has written a check for $152,000 to a gold coin dealer in Phoenix, Arizona. Kevin is the only person other than Bison authorized to withdraw money from the bank account -- and he knows that Bison would never perform such a transaction without his knowledge. Kevin speaks to the gold coin dealer in Phoenix and discovers the contact number associated with the check has a Miami, Florida area code. He calls and a voice message identifies the number as belonging to Bison Dele. But Kevin is shocked to hear the voice in the message. The voice belongs to Miles Dabord.

On September 3, the coin dealer notifies Kevin that the person claiming to be Bison is scheduled to pick up the gold coins in person two days from then. A day later, Kevin and Brian's mother fly to Phoenix. They notify the Phoenix police of the possible illegal activity and a sting operation is set up for the next day.

On the afternoon of September 5, 2002, nineteen police officers converge as the buyer arrives to pick up the gold coins. It is Miles Dabord. As he signs his brother's name, he is arrested for forgery. On him are Brian's passport and credit cards. Under questioning, Miles asserts that Bison and Serena are in trouble, and they have sent him to retrieve the coins on their behalf. His only other claim is that Kevin Porter is also aware of the situation. But Kevin knows nothing of this and the police allow him to press Miles for more details. Miles refuses to disclose anything further, insisting that Kevin trust him for Bison and Serena's sakes. Amazingly, the Phoenix police release Miles. They think Miles' behavior is consistent with a kidnapping for ransom -- a plausible scenario based on Bison's fame.

The next day, September 6, 2002, Miles flies to Palo Alto, California where he convinces his girlfriend to drive him to the Mexican border. During the ride, he allegedly reveals his version of what happened to Bison and Serena. His girlfriend claims it started with a brawl between the two brothers on the deck of the boat, which the captain tried to break up. The girlfriend further claims he said that Serena then jumped on Brian's back, and the captain accidentally punched her in the face, sending her head-first into a blunt object -- killing her instantly. Miles allegedly explains that the boat's skipper, insisted on reporting the death to authorities, but Bison struck the captain on the head with a large wrench -- killing him. Miles allegedly claims further thathis brother wanted to tell authorities the deaths were accidental. But Miles says he thought there was no way anyone would believe them. Miles allegedly confesses to his girlfriend that as the disagreement became physical, he retrieved a gun kept on the boat for protection -- and shot Bison. Miles allegedly says he tied weights to the bodies and threw them overboard.

Miles' girlfriend says she finds this story unfathomable. After she drops Miles off at the Mexico border, she reports everything to the FBI. An international manhunt for Miles begins. Out of concern for Bison, Patrick Byrne starts his own investigation, obtains Miles' cell phone number, then tells the FBI that he has offered Miles ransom money to secure Bison and Serena's freedom. But when Miles gets wind of Patrick's cooperation with the FBI, he becomes desperate. Over a period of two days he calls his mother, claiming although he did nothing wrong, he doesn't want to turn himself in.

On September 10, 2002, as Partrick Byrne is driving to meet Miles in Tijuana, Miles' mother receives a tearful message from her son on her answering machine. He simply says, "I didn't do this, Mom," and hangs up. This is the last time anyone hears from Miles. Three days later, Patricia learns he was found passed out on a Mexican beach, without ID. Mexican authorities transfer him to a San Diego hospital, where he dies of an insulin overdose.

Without Miles, the truth about what happened to Serena and Bison may never be known. Bison's friends Kevin Porter and Patrick Byrne replay the tragedy over and over in their minds, wishing they could have done something to stop it. And for Serena's mother Gael, the pain of losing her only child is as real today as it was when she first realized something was wrong. She considers Serena the most innocent victim of all -- unwittingly caught in the middle of a battle between two brothers.

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