An Uphill Battle
They had worked their way across some of the best rooftops in Boulder that night. The hot spots along the Pearl Street Mall, a few choice locations on the Hill, then a brief stop at Jimmy John's for subs before hitting the red-brick buildings of the University of Colorado. But there was one more challenge before they headed home: Savers Thrift Store, standing before them on Broadway like an irresistible mountain of hand-me-downs. Lance and Steve were into parkour, and had incorporated a passion for rock climbing into their version of the urban free-running sport, practicing their tactics for hours on end. No structure in Boulder was safe from the night-crawlers, who could leap, squirm and shimmy their way to the top of just about any building, then watch the clueless masses below, like a couple of all-knowing superheroes.
"Once you get to the point where you have some decent finger strength and you are not afraid of heights, you can do some really cool, crazy stuff," Steve says.
By four in the morning on August 7, 2004, the superheroes were on top of Savers, sitting on a roof hatch and discussing Lance's recent decision to join the Marines. They didn't realize that their weight on the hatch had depressed it, tripping a silent alarm. Suddenly they heard the sound of cars encircling the building.
"The police showed up and started shining lights around," Steve remembers. "We just thought they were after people scavenging in the dumpsters and bins. We never thought they were after us. We were just up there playing ninja spy, you can't see us, ha, ha, and if they were after us, we figured we were cool on the roof."
They retreated to the center of the roof and listened as a much larger vehicle pulled up outside Savers. They thought it might be a delivery truck making an early-morning drop-off to the King Soopers in the same Table Mesa Shopping Center complex. But it was a fire truck outfitted with a ladder bucket.
"We looked over the side and saw this officer in a bucket being raised up," Steve says. "And we got down in this dark corner, crouching, hiding, thinking, 'What are we going to do?' We were shaking with adrenaline. If I could change anything, I would have just calmed down and walked over to the officers and said, 'Hey, we're on the roof. Sorry.'"
Instead, the two fumbled and bumbled like a scene out of the movie Bottle Rocket.
"When he shined his flashlight on us, I panicked and actually said the line, 'Oh, darn, they've seen us.' Which is pretty awesome," Steve continues. "Lance looked at me and just had this look on his face, like, 'I don't believe you really just said that.' Then the two of us kind of simultaneously panicked. We jumped off the roof, right above the 'V' in Savers, and dropped two stories to the ground."
The officer later filed this report: "I saw two men wearing ski masks, running westbound from the northern edge of the upper portion of the roof. I identified myself as a Boulder Police Officer and ordered them to stop. The two men continued running, and jumped down to the lower quarter of the roof, and then over the northern edge of the roof to the ground (approximately fifteen feet).... I looked over the edge of the roof and noticed one of the men running westbound through the parking lot. Officer Foster, Officer R. Bostrack and Deputy Pohl (with K-9) were chasing on foot, and ordering him to stop. I then noticed Officer Nicholas and Sergeant Everett handcuffing the other man in front of Savers, on the ground...he had not resisted arrest."
But Steve had. He hit the ground running and blew through the ring the police had formed around the perimeter of the complex, thinking he was in the clear until he heard an irate shout behind him. "I remember an officer screaming, 'Get down, get down now! Stop! This is the police, stop! We're releasing the dogs!' And I remember not believing them. We're just trespassing, I thought. There is no way they are going to release the dogs. And then I heard the pitter-patter of little puppy feet on the concrete behind me, and that was probably the most intense, mortal fear I've ever felt in my life."
Then he heard Lance calling after the dog. "He was screaming, 'Here, puppy, puppy, puppy! Here, puppy, puppy!' And he got the dog to turn, which is totally not supposed to happen."
Steve kept running for about a mile, then hid in some bushes while he caught his breath and tried to calm down. He ran through a couple of scenarios for alibis, for how he was never at Savers at all, but soon realized how dumb the whole situation was -- and that he probably shouldn't have left his best friend behind to deal with the fallout. So Steve returned to the scene of the crime, where he was arrested and taken down to the station.
The two young men -- Lance was nineteen at the time, Steve eighteen -- were charged with criminal attempt to commit second-degree burglary, possession of burglary tools (a flashlight, a pocket knife and ski masks, which they had used earlier that night so that their blond hair wouldn't be spotted on the roofs of the Pearl Street Mall), criminal mischief of $100 or more but less than $500, and obstructing a peace officer. Through a series of polygraphs and meetings with the Boulder District Attorney's Office, however, Lance and Steve's attorneys were able to convince the DA that these were just a couple of Boulder kids climbing buildings, not two hardened criminals trying to rob a Savers.
"Why would you ever rob a Savers?" Steve asks with a laugh. "I mean, for anything. I was working in a machine shop full-time for $15 an hour back then. I could have bought the Savers."
They were ordered to do forty hours of community service and to pay restitution for any damage incurred. The sentence was deferred: No criminal convictions would appear on their records if they successfully completed their two-year probation.
They didn't make it.
Though they stayed out of trouble as well as they could -- neither Steve nor Lance were the drinking or drugs type -- a few weeks before their probation was up, on August 29, 2006, the friends made their way to Eldorado Canyon State Park intent on committing a crime: They were going to fake the death of Marine Lance Corporal Lance Hering. Two years earlier, Lance had called an attack dog off Steve. Now Steve Powers was going to return the favor.
Steve Powers, born and raised in Boulder, was far from an ideal student at Fairview High School. Sophomore year, he'd ditch his morning classes and hang out in the writing lab of the upper halls with the chess board he always toted around, playing anyone up for a game, generally smoking the competition. One day a junior he'd seen around, Lance Hering, wandered into the lab and asked if he could play winner. The winner was Steve, of course, so after patiently waiting his turn, Lance stepped to the board and destroyed his future best friend.
"We really didn't even speak the first few hours that we met," Steve remembers. They just kept playing, and Steve won the rematch. Several heated bouts later, the two realized their chess styles were uniquely suited.
"I think that was the point when I knew I was going to be friends with this person," Steve says. "In chess, there are moves that you can do for the sake of winning, and then there are moves that you can do because they're neat. And he was all about doing that move that was original and neat. Kind of playing for the style points. That was always how I tried to play chess, too, just doing those little things that are hilarious to force your opponent into."
The two started hanging out together. Lance had grown up in Saudi Arabia, where his parents were teachers at an American oil compound, and his family had moved back to Boulder a couple of years before. A onetime martial-arts enthusiast, Lance was bigger and stronger than Steve, and while Steve was quite comfortable on a chess board, that was pretty much the extent of his athletic involvement. That quickly changed. Lance introduced his new friend to rock-climbing, one of his hobbies until he and his last climbing partner had drifted apart.
"On an average day of high school, we would ditch a bunch of classes, then go to the Spot Bouldering Gym at about three in the afternoon, then climb until eight or nine," Steve says. "Then we would go get food, go back to the gym and climb until they kicked us out. We would climb solidly for six to eight hours a day -- real intense, technical climbing. Lance was really good when he started, and I got good fast because of the intensity with which we were doing it."
"Steve and Lance were both kids who used to use this place as a second home," recalls Dan Howley, the Spot's owner and general manager. "They were almost always here."
And when they weren't at the Spot, they were climbing outdoors together, usually at Eldorado Canyon -- "Eldo," they called it -- or playing video games together, or going to the latest action movies and then breaking down the stunts together afterward. Always together. They even dated girls who were friends. Every Friday evening, the four of them would rent a movie, buy some steaks and a cake mix, then hang out in a weekly ritual they fondly referred to as "steak and cake."
"It's easy to say that they spent more time together than Lance and I," says Kaley Sutton, Lance's high-school girlfriend. "I joked that the two of them should date. I knew that it was good for both of them to have someone they could talk to and do crazy climbing stunts with. Lance always told me that he could 'actually talk to Steve.' Someone like that is hard to find, especially for Lance, who is easily one of the smartest people I've ever met in my life."
"When we met, it was kind of like all our other friends dropped away," Steve says. "I think there may have even been a little bit of resentment there from other friends or his parents, who were like, 'You spend 95 percent of your time with Steve.' But I spent that much of my time with him. That was our choice."
By 2004, Lance had graduated from Fairview, and Steve was finishing up some credits in a fifth year there while also taking classes at the University of Colorado and working full-time at the machine shop. Steve wanted to get a degree from CU in business or electrical engineering, maybe both, then invent environmentally sound products and work toward the reduction of energy consumption. That, or he might teach kindergarten. Lance's plans were not nearly as practical; he was working as a waiter and living with another friend. For a while, he seriously considered moving to Hollywood and trying to become a stunt double. He also toyed with the notion of backpacking around Europe with a childhood friend as a way of reconnecting with that person. He wasn't really sure what his next move was going to be. It was all he could do to handle his current challenge: Graves' disease.
A rare affliction more common in women than men, Graves' is a thyroid disorder that can be fatal if not treated and is sometimes characterized by goiters, orangeish skin and occasionally bulging eyes. Symptoms associated with the affliction include anxiety, irritability, difficulty sleeping, muscular weakness, rapid heartbeat, heat sensitivity and general fatigue.
"It really just messed with his ability to function," Steve says. "Lance was always freakishly strong, and he just started losing a lot of that strength -- and that, I think, messed with his mind a bit. He went from being positive and upbeat to having this more negative, sarcastic side to him. And he kind of went downhill from there. He was working as a waiter then, and it got to the point where he couldn't get up to go to work. I remember trying to give him a ride one morning, and he physically could not get out of bed."
One day Lance zoned out behind the wheel, running a red light and T-boning another car in an intersection. His chess game dulled, and in one jarring incident, the hyper-athletic young man fell off his bike onto flat pavement for no reason at all. He stopped going to work, ran out of cash and was unable to pay his share of the rent. Not wanting to return to his parents' house, he turned to Steve, who was still living at home and putting away a fair amount of money. For the next eight months, Steve gave Lance enough for food and rent. "I knew he was going to get better, so I had no problem supporting him," Steve says.
And Lance did get better. As he finally began to rebound from the disease, he became obsessed with regaining the superior physical strength he'd once had, strength he'd displayed through multiple one-armed pull-ups. He started running in the mornings, and when Steve got off work, the friends would go climbing long into the night, sometimes until five in the morning. As they were returning to Boulder after one marathon climbing session, Steve recalls, Lance asked him to pull over about ten miles from home so that he could run the rest of the way.
Steve figured his friend was just trying to get back into peak form to prove he could conquer Graves'. But Lance had another goal in mind: joining the Marines.
Lance, whose father is a Vietnam vet, had talked about joining the Marines before, and had even approached a recruiter at a high-school fair his senior year. After Lance was diagnosed with Graves', Steve thought he had given up that ambition. But in the summer of 2004, Lance started talking about it again. And even their brush with the law after that night on the Savers roof didn't deter him.
That December, Lance told Steve that he'd been riding his bike to the recruitment office to drop off an application when a van rolled up, and two guys inside asked if he had any interest in joining the Marines. When he said he was on his way to the office, the recruiters gave him a ride, and Lance signed up on the spot. Steve thought the story was a joke until Lance made him swear up and down not to tell anyone.
"When Lance told me that he had signed up for the Marines, there was a real tension between us," Steve says. "Because if he had been doing it at a time of peace or under a different leader, I would have been all about that; I support the Marines. But when I talked to him about why he was doing it, his angle was, 'Look, I have to do something that is going to keep me in shape, and I really want the structure.' He really wanted that you-will-be-up-at-this-time, you-will-be-active-all-day, you-will-be-on-our-schedule thing. So I was like, 'If you want someone to run your life for you, I'll do it. I'll tell you to be up at six, to go running,' but he wasn't hearing it. I also think, for him, it was the challenge of it. Coming from a weak point in his life with Graves' disease and knowing what it was like to be truly strong, to be a phenomenal athlete, he wanted that back. He knew they would grind him down and build him back up, and I guess he needed to do that."
Lance never told the Marines about his disease. Nor did the Marines know that he was still on probation, with a deferred sentence hanging over him in Boulder.
In 2005, Lance headed off to boot camp at Camp Pendleton in California. He returned to Boulder before shipping off to Iraq on January 2, 2006.
"We spent New Year's together," Steve remembers. "We were at this huge party with everybody who went to our high school. They were all drinking like crazy, so Lance and I found a chess board and started playing in the living room. Everyone was walking by and saying, 'This is just like high school.' I was like, 'Yeah, except instead of going to class, now you just drink.' But that night, Lance was so ready to go to Iraq. He had such high energy. It had nothing to do with the violence of war; it was the camaraderie. He was going to go back to his brothers who he had just trained with at Camp Pendleton. At that point, to him, the war in Iraq was something that was necessary. He saw those points and I didn't, but he was excited to go back to all these people who were so driven to do a huge goal and risk their life for our country. He was really committed to that."
Even from Iraq, Lance stayed in touch with Steve. About once a month, he'd slip away with a cell phone and give his buddy back in Boulder a call. They wrote to each other, swapped e-mails, even played a couple of games of chess online, Lance's distinct style beaming loud and clear across thousands of miles of desert, ocean and mountains. And Lance would send Steve lists of things he needed -- basic things like paper, pens, candles, string, climbing shoes, a type of sweet pasta from an Oriental market in Boulder, curry cubes to make MREs (Meals-Ready-to-Eat) more palatable, a better flak jacket. Steve even sent Lance a video camera with a helmet mount so that he could take footage of himself climbing in and around bombed-out buildings wherever he was stationed, keeping up his passion for parkour.
It wasn't until Lance returned to Boulder that summer on leave that Steve found out what life had been like in Iraq -- and that Lance didn't plan to go back. Lance didn't tell Steve of his plans right away. But he did talk about Iraq. He described being shot at for the first time. He'd been the radio guy, standing in front of a building with two superiors, totally exposed, when a sudden hailstorm of bullets rained down around them. Lance just stood there, frozen.
"Apparently, the first time being shot at, a lot of guys do that," Steve says. "Lance said that he didn't think that would happen to him, but it did, and he didn't hit the ground. He told me he remembered looking over at the bullets slamming into the dirt next to him and thinking, 'That's death. Right there, that is death.' Then some guy grabbed him and pulled him out of the fire."
Lance also talked about all the guys he'd met in Iraq. "He would tell stories about them, and you could tell he and his fellow Marines had really bonded, that they were like brothers," Steve remembers. "He would talk about his experiences with them with the same tone and energy as he would about climbing. But he had some really negative feelings about everything going on there, too, most of which had to do with the brutality and the waste and the feeling that they were not being protected."
Lance had brought his flak jacket back with him, and he and Steve went to price better ones. "I wouldn't have trusted that thing to get into a bike wreck, let alone to be shot at. They were absolute shit," Steve says. "But even then, it wasn't, 'Can you help me get a good flak jacket?' It was, 'Can you help me get ten good flak jackets for my brothers?"
After a couple of weeks, though, Lance's stories changed. He told Steve that it wasn't the Iraqi insurgents who frightened him. It was a handful of fellow Marines.
On April 26, seven Marines from Lance Hering's unit -- Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, based out of Camp Pendleton -- had been charged with conspiracy, kidnapping and the murder of Hashim Ibrahim Awad, a 52-year-old Iraqi man whom the Marines had reportedly dragged out of his home near the village of Hamdania and shot to death. Lance didn't tell Steve much about that, but he made some broad hints, and Steve thought that the video camera he'd sent his friend might have caught something it shouldn't have.
Steve says that Lance told him he'd gone to higher-ups with some damning information and they'd told him to shut the hell up. After that, Lance said, he began to fear for his life -- so much so that he didn't want to go back to Iraq. Or Camp Pendleton.
"I never talked to anyone who said, 'Yeah, I'll kill Lance if you don't make him disappear.' But Lance did," Steve says. "I feel very strongly that the fact that Lance had a video camera there is a main reason behind why Lance wasn't able to just continue on as a Marine."
But rather than just go AWOL, Lance now asked his friend to help him fake his death.
The two kicked around a few scenarios. They thought about a boating accident involving alcohol -- but neither one of them really drank or boated, and Steve didn't feel that he could go to Lance's parents and say that he'd gotten drunk and accidentally killed their son. He thought he might be able to tell them that Lance had died in a climbing accident on Mount Rainier when Steve had to "cut the rope," cutting the tie to his climbing partner in order to save himself. But they discarded that idea, too: Nobody would believe that Steve would cut a rope if Lance was on the other end, Steve says, and besides, a search-and-rescue operation on Mount Rainier might be dangerous. The last thing they wanted was for their hoax to endanger other people. Finally, they decided to keep it simple: a climbing accident in Eldo.
So a few weeks before Lance was to report back to Camp Pendleton, they told friends and family they were off for a day of climbing and rock-jumping in Eldorado Canyon, then headed into the state park. The park officially closes at sunset, but the two stayed long after the sun went down, arranging an elaborate scene with signs of a scuffle, blood and fingerprints. It was a scene that was intended to look fake all along.
"The plan had multiple scenarios," Steve says. "We intended the fall site to look fake, to make it look like a murder while limiting search and rescue. One take was that the detectives would look at the site, see the inconsistencies we'd set up and call it murder."
As Steve explains it, the idea was to buy time for Lance to get away -- and also draw media attention to the case. Then, if Steve was put on trial for Lance's murder, Lance would show up -- and tell his story about Iraq to the world.
They left the park a little after midnight, and Steve drove Lance to the Greyhound station in downtown Denver. He said goodbye to his friend, then drove back to Eldorado, parked and waited for the engine to cool. He knew that if he called the police about a friend who'd supposedly taken a spill in the park hours before, a hot engine would look suspicious. So for a couple of hours he just sat there, alone in the dark beneath the stars, thinking about all that had happened between him and his friend and all that would be happening, waiting until the time was right to make the call.
"That was one of the hardest decisions I've ever had to make," Steve remembers. "I sat there and just had a long hang-out with myself, and I was thinking, 'Well, my buddy is going to get on that bus and he is going to leave and he is not going to be able to come back. I could just not call to report him missing, and then it would all be on him. There is nothing he could do to communicate with me if I didn't go through with the plan. It's on me, it's on my shoulders, this is my decision right here. Do I make this phone call?'"
Just after four in the morning, he did.
At about 5:15 a.m. on August 30, 2006, a deputy from the Boulder County Sheriff's Department arrived at Eldorado Canyon, where Steve was sitting in his car, the flashers on. The deputy took Steve's statement: He and his friend, Lance Hering, had come to Eldo the day before to go rock-hopping and bouldering, then watched the sunset from the Eldorado Springs Trail. Heading back to the parking area along the trail, Lance had fallen backwards and slid down an embankment. Scrambling down to help, Steve spotted the blood where Lance had hit his head in the tumble. He'd administered first aid and stemmed the flow of blood, ripping off a piece of Lance's shirt and tying it around his head, then had sat with his friend for hours until he'd regained consciousness. He'd told Lance to stay put while he went for help, then went off through the brush, got lost and finally found his car, where he placed the call.
But when sheriff's investigators went to the spot where Steve said he'd left Lance, there was no sign of him. At first they assumed he'd wandered off into the wilderness, that as a Marine who'd recently been in combat, he might have reverted to "survival mode." Adding credence to that theory was the revelation by his family that Lance had fallen and hit his head ten years before and had suffered a temporary loss of his vision and speech. Perhaps that had happened again.
An exhaustive search-and-rescue operation was launched, and media outlets from across the country flocked to Boulder to cover the story. Lance's parents were almost always there. Lloyd Hering, Lance's father, held up photos of his son for the camera; his mother, Elynne, wore a "Semper Fi" T-shirt. Air Force lieutenant Brendan Hering, Lance's brother, came in from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. Lloyd seemed skeptical of Steve from the get-go, referring to him only as "this man" in interviews. "The truth is that no one we can depend upon has seen Lance since that moment he left the house," he told reporters.
As the search dragged on, others grew skeptical, too -- and not just about Steve. Some thought the missing Marine might not be in Eldorado Canyon at all.
"Their whole story started to look suspicious around the second day of the search," says Detective Commander Phil West of the Boulder County Sheriff's Department, who led the search. "The sequence of events as related by Mr. Powers just didn't add up. We had invested a significant amount of time at that point in doing a thorough ground search, and no other evidence was found."
Investigators interviewed Lance's old girlfriend, who told them that Lance had once spoken about faking his own death, moving to another country and then having his brother -- as the beneficiary of his life-insurance policy -- funnel money to him. It was just a hypothetical notion, but it got blown way out of proportion. "I was furious that was ever repeated, especially so inappropriately," Kaley Sutton says now. "Lance had mentioned some fleeting thoughts about 'starting over' years ago, but it was a regular Tom Sawyer dream that everyone has -- simply to start over. He didn't mention it again, but during the search I thought that because of the possible severe brain trauma, he might have disappeared -- because he'd thought about the concept once before.
"The media portrayed me as Lance's tattletale girlfriend, when all I wanted was to bring to light an old conversation that might help me find my hurt, confused, injured boyfriend who had sustained severe brain damage and wandered off," she adds. "I don't know where Lance is or what happened that made him fear for his life. I think everyone needs to keep in perspective that no one knows what happened."
Even as doubts grew, the search continued. Rescue squads from Douglas, Garfield, Gilpin, Grand, Larimer, Park, Teller and Summit counties all joined in the search, as did Vail Mountain Rescue, Western State Mountain Rescue, Boulder Emergency Squad, Alpine Rescue Team, Front Range Rescue Dogs, Rocky Mountain Rescue, some Marine volunteers and numerous citizens.
"It was really amazing to see the amount of people who came to help," Steve says. "I feel a little weird thanking the organizations that helped out, because it was a fake, but at the same time, it was so impressive of them to come help out."
Steve says there was another group of searchers that he didn't appreciate -- some members of Lance's unit. "I really would love to believe that everyone there at the search-and-rescue was there to help Lance," he explains. "But some part of me knows that there were guys there -- Marines from Camp Pendleton -- and that I looked into their eyes and just got the feeling that if they saw Lance first, it would have been a different outcome."
Finally, on September 3, the sheriff's department called off the search. By then the cost of the efforts had grown to $33,000, making it the most expensive search in Boulder County history. Investigators refocused their attention on Steve, and he finally told them that he'd faked the whole scene.
Steve Powers was arrested on September 6, 2006, on misdemeanor charges of false reporting. Over the course of the investigation, he'd failed four lie-detector tests. According to a sheriff's department affidavit, "Powers' story constantly changed, but the fact he drove Hering to the bus station and that Hering's disappearance had been collaboratively staged between them remained consistent."
Steve now says that he was still trying to make it look like he might have murdered Lance, but West doesn't buy it. "Mr. Powers makes up stories to suit his personal interest," he says. "I don't believe anything that Steve Powers tells me or anybody else. They would be well advised to take anything he says with a large grain of salt."
Lance's father did. "Lance's dad is one of the most level-headed, rational people I've ever met," Steve says. "He understands that stress situations happen. And I had this conversation with him after the fact, and he told me that the way he saw it was either I helped his son or I killed his son."
Neither Lloyd nor Elynne Hering responded to requests for an interview. Steve's father, Lyle Powers, also declined to be interviewed. "Steve is living his own life," he says. "He's been that way since he was twelve years old. I just give him love and support, but he's living his own life."
A few weeks after Steve was arrested, investigators uncovered video footage of Lance boarding an Iowa-bound bus at the Greyhound station. And at that point, any suspicion that Steve might have murdered his best friend disappeared.
After drawn-out negotiations between his attorney and the Boulder district attorney, Steve was able to avoid jail time. He was sentenced to 200 hours of community service, ordered to repay the sheriff's department the entire cost of the search-and-rescue effort, and write a letter of apology that was published in the Boulder Daily Camera last month.
"My dearest community and all those affected by my actions last August and September," Steve Powers's apology begins, "I am very grateful and in debt to each and every individual and organization who put their hearts and time into helping with the search for my friend Lance Hering. I wish to apologize for falsely reporting Lance as missing with a head injury. I understand the deep and long lasting impact of my lie instigating and maintaining the search-and-rescue mission in Eldorado. I understood the impact at the time, as well, and ask you all to understand how immensely difficult it was for me to maintain that deception. I did so for one reason, and one reason alone: my firm belief that I must help a friend. I must therefore humbly ask your forgiveness."
But Steve's attorney could not save his client from being labeled a felon. Because he had not competed his probation in connection with the Savers incident -- he had three weeks left to go -- he'd violated the terms of the deferred-sentence deal, and those original convictions went on Steve's record permanently.
Citing the same Savers case, Boulder authorities issued an arrest warrant for Lance Hering on a felony charge of failure to comply with the terms and conditions of a deferred sentence. He was also charged with conspiracy to commit false reporting. The Marines have classified Lance as "unauthorized absent" from his unit, their version of AWOL.
"There were any number of other courses of action that wouldn't have landed Lance in trouble and wouldn't have put him at odds with the military," says West. "It was the supreme act of selfishness on both their parts."
Eyewitness accounts place Lance in Iowa a few days after his disappearance, with the last reports describing him walking along a road. But since then, there's been no sighting of the 6-foot-1-inch, 180-pound, 21-year-old Marine -- despite the constant efforts of his parents, family and friends to reach him. They've even set up a website, www.lancehering.com, but so far no useful information has come in.
Lance and Steve's original plan may have gone awry, but one part of it worked perfectly: Lance Hering has completely disappeared.
Steve Powers knows he's lucky to live in left-leaning Boulder, where people are more likely to view his actions in a positive light than, say, people in Colorado Springs. But life without Lance has not been easy. "I have people whose first reaction when they see me is to come over and hug me and offer me support," he says. "And then I have people who literally say they never want to talk to me again, 'If you come within ten feet of me, I'm going to beat the hell out of you.' I've had people scream in my face and people who want to shake my hand."
Steve's mug shot was in all the papers and even on CNN, so he's switched from contacts to glasses to avoid being recognized. Still, at a busy coffee shop in Boulder, people walk by and stare at him. Unable to afford classes, he's dropped out of CU. And all of his goals now look very out of reach.
"I went from a student at CU who was going to have a professional career to working very hard to find low-end labor jobs," Steve says. "As a felon, I can't be a kindergarten teacher, that's for sure. I couldn't get a job at this coffee shop, because there is that community-interaction element. Say you serve one hundred drinks a morning. There's pretty good odds that eventually one of those people is going to be a member of the search-and-rescue effort who hates me. They can't risk that."
Steve recently found work spraying foam insulation. It's not the type of work he envisioned himself doing for a career, but it's work he'll gladly do to help pay his massive debt. "The $30,000 I'm paying for restitution, I have no problem with that," he says. "That's how much money I paid to save my friend."
But did he truly save Lance? Steve isn't sure. The friends had set up an elaborate system so that Lance could get in touch with Steve, let him know that he was okay. The first day out, Lance was supposed to send Steve a blank e-mail. A few days later, he was supposed to appear in one of the numerous online video games they played -- no special message or anything, just approach Steve in the game and utter one of the numerous inside jokes that best friends have, so that Steve would know it was Lance and nobody else. But Steve says he hasn't heard anything from Lance since he dropped him off at the bus station. November 1, 2006, was the date that the two had set as a cutoff: If Lance had not contacted Steve by then, Steve was to consider him dead.
But Steve holds to a glimmer of hope. He says that Lance still had his video camera and tapes when Steve dropped him off at the bus station, and thinks that his friend might have blown the whistle. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't hope that Lance turns up one day," he says. "Maybe something changed. Maybe he left town and went and tried to negotiate some sort of deal -- I don't know what. But he had this very sensitive information, and maybe he used that as leverage, maybe he went to the CIA screaming, 'Protect me!' And maybe in that scenario, they say no communication with Steve, you know?"
When Steve first floated the idea that his friend had witnessed something connected to the murder of the Iraqi citizen, a Marine spokesman said that Lance Hering was not even in the region when the crime was committed. Steve admits that his story seems like a crazy conspiracy theory, and he knows that a lot of what he says sounds incredible. Someday, he hopes to write a book that will set the record straight, reveal everything that Lance told him in confidence. But now is not the time.
"If this is all paranoid delusion, I would be happier," he says. "But to me, the question is not whether or not the information was true, but whether it was possibly true. If it turns out we did this whole thing for some really dumb reason, which I don't think is possible, I'm still going to say that with the time I had and the information I had, I made the right choice."
He did the only thing he could -- what his best friend asked. "I absolutely miss him," Steve says. "I miss him every day. But it's weird, you know? Even though I know he's gone, I still always expect him to call me up out of the blue one day and say, 'Hey, Steve. It's Lance. You want to go climbing?'"