The Perfect Crime May Be Possible in Yellowstone Park

IStock
IStock

If it wasn’t for the fact that he and his wife had a baby on the way, Brian Kalt may never have discovered how to commit the perfect crime.

A law professor at Michigan State University in 2004, Kalt needed to publish one article annually in order to be considered for tenure. He began researching the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, which stipulates that jurors in federal criminal trials must live in both the federal judicial district and the state where a crime was thought to be committed. His original idea had been to examine how some states allowed for a trial in one of two neighboring counties depending on how close the criminal act was to the dividing line: It’s a small but pivotal loophole that gives some prosecutors the unusual choice of being able to pick a location more receptive to their case.

Kalt kept seeing repeated reference to the fact that district boundaries typically followed state lines, with one exception: the District of Wyoming. Time and again, the authors would indicate that it was of little significance. But Kalt was curious. What was different about Wyoming? And was it really so insignificant?

With limited time to write a paper before his baby arrived and diverted all his attention, Kalt decided to postpone his more involved initial idea and pursue the second. After more research, he discovered that Wyoming’s district geography was unique among the 50 states. As a result of some sloppy Congressional maneuvering, there exists a 50-square-mile zone in Yellowstone National Park where someone could—hypothetically—commit a crime and get away with it. Including murder.

Kalt knew what his legal theory paper was going to be about.

“I like to say that there are two kinds of people who sit around thinking about how to get away with murder,” Kalt tells mental_floss. “Psychopaths, and then neurotic people who are afraid of psychopaths.”

Kalt is in the latter category. The scenario he presented in his 2005 paper, “The Perfect Crime,” [PDF] was written as a cautionary tale, not an instructional manual. The theory goes like this: Yellowstone, a federally-supervised national park that resides mainly in Wyoming, has small patches of land bleeding into neighboring Idaho and Montana. Together, both make up roughly nine percent of the park; the Idaho portion is uninhabited land with few visitors. But because the entire park is considered to be under the jurisdiction of the District Court in the District of Wyoming, that means anyone in that area who commits a crime would be doing so both in the state of Idaho and the District of Wyoming.

This is where a federal prosecuting attorney’s head would begin to throb. The Sixth Amendment instructs that a federal jury must be assembled from both the district and state in which the crime was committed. In order for that to work for that particular area of Yellowstone, there would have to be residents—and there aren’t. You can’t form a jury from anywhere else in Idaho because they’re not in the District of Wyoming; likewise, the District of Wyoming has no Idaho residents. (The Montana portion has a few dozen, though it would still be problematic to get a full panel of 12 jurors.) And you can’t hold a trial in Wyoming because Article III of the Constitution insists that it take place in the state where the offense occurred.

No court could assemble a jury from an empty jury pool. With no jury, there’s no trial. And someone who decides to strangle someone else in what Kalt dubbed “the Zone of Death” stands a better-than-fair chance of going free as a result.

“The trial judge could probably find a way to convict the person,” Kalt speculates. “The prosecutor would look at my theory and say the purpose of the provision is to let communities govern themselves, not to follow pointless formalities and let a killer go free. But the defense could say that the constitutional text is perfectly clear as written and must be followed.

"It would get appealed up to the 10th Circuit or the Supreme Court. They might allow the prosecution to go forward, but they might agree with me that we just can’t pretend the Sixth Amendment isn’t there and that there is no excuse for Congress not to pass a simple fix.”

If the Constitution is respected, the murderer would walk.

There are qualifiers, though: if someone violated weapons laws outside the state, or was somehow proven to have premeditated a murder, they’d be on the hook in whichever district those offenses were committed. But if two hikers took a stroll and one snapped, smashing the other with a rock, it would be a geographically self-contained crime, and probably as close to a perfect murder as any psychopath could hope to achieve.

Kalt felt this made for a fine—if morbid—legal quandary, and one he could fully analyze before his wife gave birth. But he also feared that it could incite someone with malicious intent to potentially take a risk and try to commit homicide without consequences. Before publication, he attempted to get the attention of Congress and the Department of Justice to see if the loophole could be closed. He wrote to senators and congressmen—more than two dozen people in all.

He was almost totally ignored. “They didn’t even acknowledge the correspondence,” he says. But once the article came out, NPR and the National Enquirer came calling; a novelist, C.J. Box, wrote a suspense thriller, Free Fire, based on the premise. The latter caught the attention of Wyoming senator Mike Enzi, who was a fan of Box’s book series and reached out to Kalt. After some promising exchanges, nothing happened there, either.

Although Kalt understands that the government doesn't usually take action against hypothetical threats, he has no idea why there is no interest in closing this deadly loophole. The simple solution, he says, would be simply to pass a law redrawing the District of Wyoming to include just Wyoming, and the District of Idaho to include all of Idaho.

No one has taken the initiative. Many who read his theory, both legal and layperson, shrug and say a judge just wouldn’t let a killer go free.

This rationalization bugs Kalt. “That’s not a legal argument,” he says. “Tell me how the Sixth Amendment wouldn’t apply.”

Before he wrote a follow-up paper in 2007 [PDF], Kalt got wind of a case that had the potential to finally address the issue once and for all. It involved a killing in Yellowstone territory—and just as he had feared, the accused invoked Kalt’s legal argument as a defense.

In December 2005, shortly after the publication of Kalt’s first paper, a man named Michael Belderrain took aim and shot an elk while standing in the Montana section of Yellowstone (although the elk itself was just outside park boundaries). But because he fired from within the park and dragged the elk’s head through the park, the crime was deemed to have occurred in Yellowstone and Belderrain was brought up on charges in the District of Wyoming hundreds of miles away in Cheyenne.

But Belderrain and attorneys argued that it would be unconstitutional to try him in Wyoming when the crime was committed in Montana. If a judge declared he’d be tried in Wyoming anyway while referencing Kalt’s theory, it might have motivated Congress to resolve the issue.

Instead, the judge circumvented the whole matter, rejecting the “esoteric” notion put forth by Kalt and ordering Belderrain to stand trial in Wyoming without any exploration of the Park’s theoretical no man’s land of unpunishable criminal territory.

“He didn’t say what his interpretation was, or why I was wrong,” Kalt says. “And then the prosecutor conditioned Belderrain's plea deal on him not appealing this issue. They just left it wide open to try in a higher-stakes case.”

This is Kalt’s recurring fear: That even if a murder were to take place in Yellowstone that motivated Congressional action, it wouldn’t be of much use to the dead person. Nor would some of the other prospective ways a prosecutor might deal with a criminal matter in the Zone. The criminal could be charged with a misdemeanor that wouldn’t require a jury, but the sentence would be light; the victim’s family might sue in a civil case, but money is a poor substitute for a human being. Wyoming could also try and hastily assemble a jury pool by moving in residents to that unoccupied area of Yellowstone, but it would be transparent at best, and defense lawyers would have a field day with the implications of a biased panel.

That leaves Kalt’s own work as a possible smoking gun. What if someone were to kill in the Zone, use Kalt’s argument as a defense, and investigators could prove the defendant had read his theory prior to going to Yellowstone to bludgeon someone with a rock?

“They might try it,” Kalt says, “but you’d have to prove that beyond a reasonable doubt. Searching his laptop and seeing he read the article might be pretty good evidence, but they could just say they were aware of it. You can’t prove that’s why they did it. Plenty of people go to that part of the park.”

More than usual, in fact. Kalt says he’s heard there are more visitors to that area of Yellowstone since his article made the rounds. They’re curious, he hopes, and not casing. “It’s hard for me to stop worrying about the possibility,” he says. “Even if it didn’t inspire someone to commit the crime, it might help them go free.

“But I don’t think the blame lies with the person who discovered a problem, wrote something 11 years ago, and has been trying to get it fixed ever since. It would lie with a system that doesn’t take things seriously until it’s too late.”

All images courtesy of iStock.

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The 20 Best Docuseries You Can Stream Right Now

Chef David Chang stars in Netflix's Ugly Delicious.
Chef David Chang stars in Netflix's Ugly Delicious.
Gabriele Stabile/Netflix

If your main interests are true crime and cooking, you’re in the middle of a Renaissance Age. The Michelangelos of nonfiction are consistently bringing stellar storytelling to twisty tales of murder and mayhem as well as luxurious shots of food prepared by the most creative culinary minds.

But these aren’t the only genres that documentary series are tackling. There’s a host of history, arts, travel, and more at your streaming fingertips. When you want to take a break from puzzling out who’s been wrongfully imprisoned, that is.

Here are the 20 best docuseries to watch right now, so start streaming.

1. Tiger King (2020)

The seedy underbelly of the exotic animal trade is juxtaposed against some of the most outrageous non-fictional characters you're ever likely to encounter in this series that just keeps escalating. Follow Joe Exotic as he juggles polyamory, tigers, and a bitter feud with animal activist Carole Baskin.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. The Confession Tapes (2019)

A spare room. One or two detectives. A weary suspect. That's the set-up for this series that lets archival footage of police interrogations tell its own arresting stories.

Where to watch it: Netflix

3. Our Planet (2019)

Be amazed at the sensational vistas and eclectic wildlife with this beautifully-photographed trek through some of nature's most astounding sights—and the environmental perils that affect them. David Attenborough narrates.

Where to watch it: Netflix

4. The Devil Next Door (2019)

In 1980s Cleveland, John Demjanjuk was living a quiet life as a grandfather and auto worker. Suddenly, he was being extradited to Israel over accusations he was once notorious Nazi concentration camp monster Ivan the Terrible. As Demjanjuk mounts a defense, the trial captivates a country—but was he really the monster? This riveting series will have you guessing until the very end.

Where to watch it: Netflix

5. Ugly Delicious (2018-)

David Chang, the host of the first season of The Mind of a Chef, has returned with a cultural mash-up disguised as a foodie show. What does it mean for pizza to be “authentic”? What do Korea and the American South have in common? With his casual charm in tow, Chang and a variety of special guests explore people the food we love to eat as an artifact that brings us all together.

Where to watch it: Netflix

6. Bobby Kennedy for President (2018)

This four-part series utilizes a wealth of footage, including unseen personal videos, to share the tragic story of Robert F. Kennedy’s run for president in the context of an era riven by racial strife. Watching this socio-political memorial told by many who were there (including Marian Wright and Congressman John Lewis), it will be impossible not to draw connections to the current day and wonder: What if?

Where to watch it: Netflix

7. Evil Genius (2018)

At approximately 2:20 p.m. on August 28, 2003, Brian Wells—a pizza deliveryman—walked into a PNC Bank in Erie, Pennsylvania, and handed a note to a teller demanding $250,000 in cash. Wells had a bomb, which was strapped to his body via a metal neck collar, and a loaded shotgun that was fashioned to look like a walking cane. Approximately 12 minutes later, Wells strolled out of the bank with $8702 in cash, then made his way to the McDonald’s next door, where he retrieved a detailed note that told him where to go and what to do next. Within 15 minutes, Wells would be arrested. At 3:18 p.m.—less than an hour after he first entered the bank—the bomb locked around Wells’s neck detonated as police watched (and waited for the bomb squad), killing the 46-year-old in broad daylight. The bizarre incident was just the beginning of Evil Genius, which documents the peculiar case that would eventually entangle a range of unusual suspects, including Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, and has had armchair detectives—and the FBI—questioning whether Wells was in on the bank robbery, or a genuine victim, for more than a decade.

Where to watch it: Netflix

8. Wild Wild Country (2018)

What happens when an Indian guru with thousands of American followers sets up shop near a small town in Oregon with the intent to create a commune? Incredibly sourced, this documentary touches on every major civic issue—from religious liberty to voting rights. When you choose a side, be prepared to switch. Multiple times.

Where to watch it: Netflix

9. Flint Town (2018)

If your heart is broken by what’s going on in Flint, Michigan, be prepared to have that pain magnified and complicated. The filmmakers behind this provocative series were embedded with police in Flint to offer us a glimpse at the area’s local struggles and national attention from November 2015 through early 2017.

Where to watch it: Netflix

10. The Innocent Man (2018)

After two brutal murders in 1980s Oklahoma, four men are convicted of the crimes. All of them maintain their innocence, causing observers to question whether they were guilty or themselves victims of police coercion. This drama is based on John Grisham's 2006 book of the same name; Grisham executive produces.

Where to watch it: Netflix

11. The Staircase (2004-2018)

In 2001, author Michael Peterson reported to police that his wife, Kathleen, had died after falling down a set of stairs, but police didn’t buy the story and charged him with her murder. Before the current true crime boom, before Serial and all the rest, there was The StaircaseJean-Xavier de Lestrade’s Peabody Award-winning docuseries following Peterson’s winding court case. The mystery at the heart of the trial and the unparalleled access Lestrade had to Peterson’s defense make this a must-see. And Netflix's addition of new episodes in 2018 led to a resurgence in interest in this mind-boggling case (with armchair detectives even positing that an owl was the real killer).

Where to watch it: Netflix

12. The Toys That Made Us (2017-)

Who knew the origin of classic toy lines could be so dramatic? This series puts the spotlight on the creative friction that led to some of the most iconic playthings of the 20th century, from Transformers to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Where to watch it: Netflix

13. Wormwood (2017)

Documentary titan Errol Morris turns his keen eye to a CIA project that’s as famous as it is unknown—MKUltra. A Cold War-era mind control experiment. LSD and hypnosis. The mysterious death of a scientist. His son’s 60-year search for answers. Morris brings his incisive eye to the hunt.

Where to watch it: Netflix

14. Five Came Back (2017)

Based on Mark Harris’s superlative book, this historical doc features filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro discussing the WWII-era work of predecessors John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens. Also narrated by Meryl Streep, it looks at how the war shaped the directors and how they shaped the war. As a bonus, Netflix has the war-time documentaries featured in the film available to stream.

Where to watch it: Netflix

15. Last Chance U (2016-)

Far more than a sports documentary, the story of the players at East Mississippi Community College will have you rooting for personal victories as much as the points on the scoreboard. Many of the outstanding players on the squad lost spots at Division I schools because of disciplinary infractions or failing academics, so they’re seeking redemption in a program that wants them to return to the big-name schools. Later seasons switch focus to a team out of Independence Community College in Independence, Kansas.

Where to watch it: Netflix

16. Making a Murderer (2015-)

One of the major true crime phenomenons of 2015 was 10 years in the making. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos uncovered the unthinkable story of Steven Avery, a man wrongfully convicted of sexual assault who was later convicted of murdering a different woman, Teresa Halbach. Not just a magnifying glass on the justice system and a potential small town conspiracy, it’s also a display of how stories can successfully get our blood boiling. Three years after the docuseries became a surprise hit for Netflix, it returned for a second season in 2018.

Where to watch it: Netflix

17. Chef's Table (2015-)

From David Gelb, the documentarian behind Jiro Dreams of Sushi, this doc series is a backstage pass to the kitchens of the world’s most elite chefs. The teams at Osteria Francescana, Blue Hill, Alinea, Pujol, and more open their doors to share their process, culinary creativity, and, of course, dozens of delicious courses. There's no shame in licking your screen.

Where to watch it: Netflix

18. The Jinx (2015)

After the massive success of Serial in 2014, a one-two punch of true crime docuseries landed the following year. The first was the immensely captivating study of power, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, which chronicled the bizarre, tangled web of the real estate mogul who was suspected of several murders. The show, which could be measured in jaw-drops per hour, both registered real life and uniquely affected it.

Where to watch it: HBO Now

19. Vice (2013-)

The series is known for asking tough questions that need immediate answers and giving viewers a street-level view of everything from killing cancer to juvenile justice reform. Its confrontational style of gonzo provocation won’t be everyone’s cup of spiked tea, but it’s filling an important gap that used to be filled by major network investigative journalists. When they let their subjects—from child soldiers suffering PTSD after fighting for ISIS to coal miners in Appalachia—tell their stories, nonfiction magic happens. The first six seasons are available on HBO, with a seventh airing on Showtime in 2020.

Where to watch it: HBO Go

20. The National Parks: America's Best Idea (2009)

The cheapest way to visit Yosemite, Yellowstone, Muir Woods, and more. This Emmy-winning, six-part series is both a travelogue and a history lesson in conservation that takes up the argument of why these beautiful places should be preserved: to quote President Theodore Roosevelt, “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime