That was a crazy game of poker
I lost it all
But someday I'll be back again
And I'm never to fall
Never to fall never to fall.
'Crazy Game of Poker,' OAR
Billy Flores had just finished dinner with his grandparents in California when he checked his voice mail. The voice was that of Michael Lanahan, but it sure didn't sound like something Lanahan would say.
"I just want to tell you I love you, buddy," the voice said. "I'm not going to be around for a while, and I just really, really, really want you to take care of yourself. Please, please take care of yourself. I miss you. Goodbye."
It was Saturday, October 22, 2005. Flores and Lanahan had become close friends on the University of Colorado's swim team. Flores had graduated last winter and left Colorado. Lanahan had dropped out, and there was a whole story behind that, a Very Boulder story about booze and bad behavior, a date-rape charge and life on the lam and in jail.
Flores had been back in Boulder twice in the past few months and had hung out with his old buds, and Michael had been putting his life back together. He was working for a moving company. He was sober. He was longboarding down mountain passes and riding an inner tube through Class 5 rapids and doing all kinds of extreme-sports craziness. He seemed fine. But now something was horribly wrong.
Flores punched in Lanahan's number and heard him pick up. "So I got your message," he said. "What's wrong? If there's anything at all I can do, I'll do it. What can I do?"
The voice on the other end sounded far away. And outside. And drunk. It said it didn't need anything. It just wanted to tell him goodbye.
"Billy, I'm in such deep shit," Lanahan said. "All this shit for something I didn't even do."
"Calm down," Flores said. "What's going on?"
Lanahan muttered something about probation. He was seeing this girl, he said, and he was going to end up in jail for it.
"There's only three ways out of this," Lanahan said. "I can go back to jail. I can run -- and that destroyed me last time. Or I can do what I'm about to do now."
"So you're thinking of killing yourself."
"Billy, I am going to kill myself."
And that was when Billy Flores found out that his friend had a rope around his neck. Lanahan was in the mountains somewhere. He'd found a high tree and a rock to jump from, and he had the rope around his neck. And there was nothing anybody could say that would stop it. He just wanted everybody to understand why he was doing it. He felt Billy could handle it. Billy could give them the message.
Frantic, Flores tried to keep him talking. "Dude, just take the rope off your neck," he said. "I'll get the next plane out and we'll talk about this."
"Billy, I'm completely wasted. Even if I wanted to, I can't stand up much longer. I just wanted to say goodbye. I'm really sorry."
He kept apologizing. Flores pleaded with him. He could feel the voice slipping away. "I'm going to hang up the phone now," it said. Then it was gone.
Flores called back.
Well you can lose all ur money,
you can lose all ur gold,
You can never lose ur heart,
you can never lose ur soul,
That's why I'm not gonna quit
and I'm never gonna stop
I could not give a shit
because I have the drop...
'Crazy Game of Poker'
The Life of the Party
Despite the ongoing media obsession with CU's darker side -- the endless stories about binge drinking, campus scandals and alleged sex crimes involving athletes -- the strange fate of Michael Lanahan has been completely ignored. His sex-assault case generated a burst of self-righteous condemnation from a Boulder Daily Camera columnist, but his shocking death on the Flatirons last fall drew not a whisper from the same paper, aside from a paid funeral notice ("Michael Patrick Lanahan of Denver, formerly of Boulder, died Sunday.... He was 23").
The dailies have been far more generous with another Michael Lanahan, the stepfather of Gordie Bailey, a CU student who died from binge drinking during a 2004 fraternity initiation; Bailey's parents have become crusaders for change on the Boulder campus. Yet what happened to the other Michael Lanahan may say more about the confusions of college sex, the way a single drunken evening can scar many lives, the vagaries of crime and punishment for a young man heading nowhere on full throttle, than the guardians of CU's morals want to hear.
His friends remember Lanahan for reasons that go well beyond his court troubles and his death. "That's not who he was," says Emylie Patten, a co-captain of the swim team with Lanahan. "He was always open and excited to meet new people and get out there and see new stuff. He wanted everyone to share in his adventures. Everyone was always invited."
"He had such a good heart," adds Jeff Malin, another swim-team alumnus. "He had this amazing ability to get you to like him and to have fun with him. If he'd gone into the business world, he would have been incredible. Sometimes he caused people problems and didn't even realize he was doing it. But he turned some of his worst enemies into his best friends."
From his freshman year on, Lanahan was a fixture of the party scene on the Hill. He didn't make an indelible first impression; it just seemed like he was always there. He could walk into a house knowing no one, his invitation the bottle of ninety-proof Weller bourbon under one arm, and become the undeniable presence at the center of the room.
He was an instigator, an organizing force -- this tall, rangy dude with the big grin and the wild hair and the crazy light in his eyes, drawing people into his schemes like a CIA recruiter wiggy on nitrous oxide. Organizing drinking games like "shot pool," which he refined and perfected (metal jiggers scattered on the break; every time a ball touches one, the shooter takes a shot). Telling stories. Playing poker. Plotting road trips, pranks, feats of derring-do. And being pretty damned insistent about it all.
"Mike's big thing was, if you told him no, he made it his personal mission to make that a yes," Malin says. "If you said he couldn't do something, he went full-bore toward it."
Lanahan had come to CU from Roanoke, Virginia. His father was a psychologist, his mother a social worker. His college friends picked up hints of a wild and headstrong youth, the kind of adolescence that leaves parents alternately inspired and appalled. (Lanahan's parents declined to comment for this article.) But Lanahan rarely went into details about his past, except to tell a yarn or two that emphasized his resourcefulness -- for example, the time he and other members of his high school swim team went to the mall, shortly after they'd all shaved their heads for a big meet, and got cornered by some angry young black men who thought they were skinheads. Lanahan started sobbing, and his tormentors moved in for the kill.
"We're sorry," Lanahan bawled. "It's the chemotherapy. We all have leukemia."
You can imagine the rest. The black guys apologized and bought all these sick, sorry-ass white boys ice cream or something. That was Lanahan, all right. But did it really happen that way? Who knows?
"When you heard stories from Michael, he would tell you exactly what he wanted you to hear and leave out the stuff he didn't want you to know," says Brian Julsen, a former roommate. "After he died, I started comparing notes with his dad, and it was clear he'd told us different stories. We didn't know which parts were true."
Maybe the legend was embellished, as all legends are, but there was truth behind the stories. Lanahan was resourceful -- and sneaky. He was a geology major but almost never talked about classes; toward the end of his CU career, even his closest friends, including Julsen, didn't know he'd been blowing off classes for weeks. He could be just as devious about his most passionate pursuits -- swimming, partying, women.
Lanahan loved swimming, loved the competition and camaraderie, but he had an odd way of showing it. "He didn't go to all the practices," Billy Flores recalls. "He'd get out early. But he broke five minutes in the 500 [meters] -- that's fast. That shows me he worked off raw, inborn athletic talent, and he wanted it so bad he made it happen."
Swimming is a club sport at CU, supported through user fees rather than the athletic department. It appeals to students who might shun more rigorous, NCAA-sanctioned programs, but it also attracts top athletes. Lanahan hated to lose, and he developed what his extreme-sports partner Oliver Spees calls a "spiteful" racing style. "He'd let the guy next to him get ahead," Spees explains, "and draft him the whole way. Then he'd sprint the last hundred and bury the guy."
He was equally adept at slipping past club bouncers and liquor-store clerks. He had a fake ID that transformed 19-year-old Michael Lanahan into 22-year-old Michael Melton; it was so good he started selling copies to friends, until dozens, maybe hundreds, of Michael Meltons were getting served all over the Hill.
Lanahan and one of his party-mates put in beaucoup hours experimenting with various libations before they came up with the perfect party drink, dubbed the Coondog -- equal parts tequila, bourbon, sour and orange juice. The quest for female companionship involved equally rigorous field research.
"His freshman or sophomore year, he and a friend would go out every week, Thursday through Sunday," says Spees. "Every night they would change a variable -- the way they talked to a girl, their appearance. Little by little, they got picking up women to a science. He was no pretty boy, but he had no trouble. He made girls feel special."
He could be beguiling, even seductive. Women who joined the swim team were warned about him. But Emylie Patten rejects the idea that he was ever a predator.
"He definitely tried to date girls on the team," she says. "All the guys did. When we first met, he was 19 and I was 22. I had grown up with guys, always been one of the guys, so I was never uncomfortable with him. At some point he tried to hit on me, and he quickly learned that it wasn't going to happen.
"But he lived a block away from me, and he'd just walk into my place, walk past me, grab something to eat and then come back and say hello. And then he wouldn't leave until the next day. That's how our friendship was."
In Patten's experience, Lanahan was as harmless as a frisky puppy. If he tried to "get friendly" and you weren't into it, you just told him no, and that was the end of it.
But in another situation, with another woman, the line between no and yes wasn't quite so clear. After a few drinks, nothing was clear at all.
Excerpt from a University of Colorado Police Department report, May 9, 2002:
On 5/8/2002 at about 0205 hours myself and Ofc. McAninch were en route to a criminal mischief call that had just occurred in Baker Hall when we noticed a visibly intoxicated male with lacerations on his hands and right leg that were still bleeding...
I noticed the strong smell of an alcoholic beverage coming from the male's breath. The male's eyes were watery and bloodshot and his speech was slow and slurred...The male said that he lived over on East Euclid and was walking home when he fell on a broken bottle of Southern Comfort. The male said that he was an Eagle Scout and had applied pressure and bandages to the wound to stop bleeding.
I asked the male if he had any identification. The male pulled out a wallet and quickly flashed me a red driver's license...I grabbed the wallet from the male...the driver's license was from Ohio and listed the male as Michael Merton [sic] with a date of birth of 4/28/79. I asked the male how old he was. The male said he would not answer any questions without equal representation.
The Ohio driver's license was visibly fraudulent...Upon further inspection of the wallet I noticed an RTD bus pass with the name Michael Patrick Lanahan...The male admitted that his name was Lanahan. Lanahan informed me that his correct date of birth was 4/28/82.
Lanahan was issued MIP summons number 12788. The fraudulent identification card that Lanahan possessed under the name Melton was seized.
"Alcoholic? No, I wouldn't say that," Jeff Malin says. "He was definitely an alcohol abuser. He liked to binge, and that's such a culture these days. He was an extreme social drinker, and he saw virtually no consequences from it. I remember dragging him by his neck after he got shoved out of a party, and a flask in his pocket smashed and cut his leg up. We took him down to the hospital for stitches. We walk in, and there's a cop there. The cop turns around and says, 'Hi, Michael.' It was the same guy who'd found him bleeding another time.
"There was never a point where he was drunk for weeks on end. But when he got in trouble, it was generally when he was drinking."
"He definitely had a problem with alcohol," adds Flores. "It's one of the things I feel guilty about, because I drank with him, too. It was college, and we just dismissed it. It was the time to be doing this."
"I never saw it as a problem," says Patten. "CU was the number-one party school in the nation. He was right there with the rest of us."
"Most of us wanted to say it wasn't an addiction," says Julsen. "I think the alcohol was a tool to fix a deeper problem that wasn't going to go away, something that had been with him for a long time. It was something he was trying to heal with the alcohol. With the women, sometimes. And with the extreme sports."
Amy Gosch joined the swim team during Lanahan's senior year and dated him for several months. "If he was at a party or around people, it seemed like he had to drink," she says. "I talked to him a couple of times about it, but he would brush it off. Later, when his parents came out, I talked to them. His mom's opinion was that he was doing it to numb his emotions so he didn't feel anything at all.
"That made perfect sense. He didn't talk about his feelings much. He would come across as very sincere, but sometimes you could tell he was just saying the right thing or whatever. He was a very caring person, but he didn't want to care too much."
Lanahan was cited at least three times in two years for underage possession of alcohol. He spent a few days in jail after failing to show up for a court hearing and failing to complete required alcohol-education classes and community service. But these setbacks didn't deter him. His wild behavior kept escalating. He was pushing the boundaries, seizing dubious opportunities to game the system.
Early in the summer of 2003, Malin got a call from Lanahan, who asked if he could store a big-screen television at Malin's house. "Being the nerd I am, I read the CU police reports in the newspaper, just to see what my fellow students are up to," Malin says. "The next day I read that two big-screen TVs had been stolen from the dorms. I offhandedly mentioned it to him, and he said, 'That wasn't us.' But that's the last I heard of the TV. I never did store it for him."
A few weeks earlier, Lanahan had been arrested, along with another CU student, after being stopped in a truck loaded with the carcass of a wooden dorm loft. The lofts were rented by private companies to students seeking extra sleeping space in the dorms; several had disappeared from loading docks that spring, and Lanahan and his friend were suspected of attempting to resell them and pocket the profits. Lanahan pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of attempted trespassing and received a deferred sentence, probation and a stiff restitution order.
The caper quickly became part of the Lanahan legend, along with other, quasi-apocryphal stories about him stealing road signs in Wyoming and convincing a state trooper to let him go. Nothing seemed to faze him. If he screwed up, he simply picked himself up and got back in the game, like the hero of OAR's signature tune, "Crazy Game of Poker." OAR, the former Ohio State frat band turned indie headliner, had a huge following on the Boulder campus, and none of its fans were more rabid than Lanahan. He didn't simply adopt the twelve-minute live version of "Poker" as his favorite song; he turned it into an essential pre-party ritual.
"That was something we started doing the first summer we were hanging out," Julsen recalls. "We'd go drinking on the Hill. We knew when the buses came, so we'd pour ourselves some bourbon, listen to the song, sing along. We wouldn't talk. Just listen, sing, catch the bus. Then people came back to school and started doing it with us. We'd do it before we left for a party -- go into a bedroom and shut the door, and everyone knew to stay quiet for the length of the song."
"Poker" was a touchstone for the swim-team crowd -- an anthem, a whiff of the sense of invincibility that comes with a nothing-to-lose attitude. "That's just how we all knew we were going to end up living," Julsen says. "I've got two degrees, but I'm a bouncer and a lifeguard. We like to be around a different lifestyle than the typical path, I guess. But we never talked about the song and what it meant to us."
Lanahan managed to stay out of legal trouble during the fall of his senior year. He was losing interest in school, but he was making headway on his various fines and court fees. A high point came early in 2004, when the swim team went to Florida to train for a week. There was lots of serious swimming by day, lots of serious relaxing at night.
"There were six of us in each condo, and we had the nicest condo of all," Malin recalls. "Plush carpet, glass figurines. Mike went around picking up all the glass things and putting them in the closet so they wouldn't be broken. I cooked a whole bunch of meals and put them in the fridge. My fondest memory of him is coming back after swimming 10,000 yards a day, absolutely exhausted and famished, bursting through the door of the condo -- and here's Mike Lanahan, the hell-raiser, lighting candles and dimming lights and putting on music and bringing out the food.
"We had the most ironically civilized dinners. He was capable of incredible crudeness and extreme sophistication -- whatever the occasion called for. He could be extremely responsible if the circumstances dictated."
But within a month, Lanahan's life had completely unraveled.
"He skipped out, and he didn't even bother paying for the trip to Florida," Malin says. "He left us on the hook for his portion of it and disappeared."
Well then dude walks in, black hat on top,
what a mop
I'm lucky it wasn't a county cop
Cause I'm just running out of time.
'Crazy Game of Poker'
When new female members of the swim team got warned about Michael Lanahan, one of the people doing the warning was another female swimmer, known here as Jane Doe. She and Lanahan first became involved in the fall of 2002, and the relationship soon turned bitter and complicated. She would later describe Lanahan as manipulative; he would ignore her in public, then call her at night and ask her to come over.
The bad blood between them was no secret on the team. "They had a love-hate relationship," says Julsen. "They wouldn't talk for a year, then one of them would call up the other and they'd hang out. They'd fool around, maybe, and feelings would get hurt, and they wouldn't talk again for months."
"I think the relationship had a little more gravity for her," says Spees, "and he thought it was more of a temporary thing. They'd drift apart, then he'd come back and be like, 'I screwed up, let's start over,' and they'd kick it back up again."
In January 2004, a few days after the training trip to Florida, there was a party at Lanahan's house. Jane was there, and Lanahan let her know he was interested in reviving their relationship. The next day, he showed up at the restaurant where she worked and invited her to go hiking. She declined.
After several phone calls from Lanahan, she invited him to dinner at her place. He brought a large bottle of wine. They watched a movie, finished off the wine, did some kissing. Then they decided to go to Lanahan's house to watch another movie, The Boondock Saints, a cult favorite. Along the way, Lanahan picked up another bottle of wine.
At Lanahan's, Jane found occasion to text-message her boyfriend twice, expressing concern that she might do something she would later regret. 9:53 p.m.: "I need help." 10:10 pm: "Real trouble Joe."
While watching the movie, the two started fooling around. Things went from PG to R to NC-17 on Lanahan's bed. He used a belt to tie Jane's hands behind her back, and intercourse followed -- all consensual, she would later tell the police. But she quickly stopped him, according to police reports, "and told him that this wasn't why she wanted to come over." Lanahan agreed. They got dressed, had a shot of whiskey and talked.
Jane and Lanahan went to sleep in his bed around two in the morning. His roommates heard some yelling from his room during the night but paid little attention; as one woman put it, "People fight in my house all the time." Jane left the house well before dawn and made several calls, leaving anguished messages on friends' answering machines. At 10:52 a.m. she text-messaged her boyfriend again: "OK this is easier. I was raped."
She told a Boulder police detective that she'd awakened in Lanahan's bed, lying on her side: "She was confused, and she reached behind her and felt that Lanahan was having sex with her anally. When she realized what was going on, she jumped out of bed and was yelling at him.... Lanahan was completely naked, and he put his head in his hands as he was sitting on the bed and said things like, 'I'm sorry, I'm a terrible person...I thought you wanted to...I'm terrible. I'm sorry -- you'll probably never talk to me again.'"
She got dressed and left. Lanahan called her several times that night and the following morning, apologizing repeatedly. Then she got a call from one of Lanahan's roommates, wanting to know what was going on. Lanahan had locked himself in his room, he said, left weird "farewell" messages on a dry-erase board, and copped the roommate's heart medication. But when his friends threatened to call an ambulance, he started acting normal again.
In a phone call a week later, Jane tried to confront Lanahan about what he'd done. He insisted he didn't remember much about their date. Excerpts from that conversation, which was taped by the police:
JD: Do you feel like you did something wrong?
ML: I do. Or else...yeah, I do. I feel like something really bad happened, and I-I'm pretty sure it was my fault.
JD: I woke up naked with your dick in my ass.
ML: Are you serious?
JD: And you don't remember that?
ML: No. I'm sorry. I'm sorry for that. I'm sorry for not remembering...
JD: Are you sorry cause you don't remember or are you sorry because you hurt me?
ML: I'm more sorry that I hurt you. I know that you took a huge risk, I mean emotionally, even talking to me...I don't know all the details but that, that story that you're telling me is believable, okay...I just wanted you to hear that I feel horrible for hurting you.
To his friends, Lanahan insisted that he was innocent. The swim team was split between his supporters and Jane's. "Initially, I took her point of view," says Spees. "I still don't know what to think. He never wanted to talk about it."
"He maintained to the very end that he didn't do it," says Julsen. "They're the only two who know, and I'm not convinced that they know. When they got together, they tended to drink a lot."
"A lot of people felt like they had to pick sides," says Malin, "but I don't think anyone really knows what went on that night. In the eyes of the law, he probably was guilty. If she was that intoxicated, there's no way she could have given consent. But that doesn't mean he deserved what he got."
Two days before he learned that Jane had filed a sexual-assault complaint, Lanahan wrote to the judge in his loft-jacking case, asking that the terms of his probation be modified so he could travel to Ireland with his parents. He was withdrawing from CU, he explained, and wanted to finish his studies in Virginia. "I have demonstrated that I can live within the construct of the law and I have shone [sic] that I am not a flight risk," he wrote.
The judge granted his request, then retracted it in the wake of protests from the prosecutor. The Boulder police sought an arrest warrant for the rape charge at the end of February, more than a month after the incident occurred. By that point, Lanahan had made new plans. He flew home to Virginia, then back to Boulder, making furtive visits to old friends. The CU football recruiting scandal and the Kobe Bryant case were all over the news, and Lanahan didn't want to be the next athlete-as-dickhead headline.
"He was supposed to give himself up," says Amy Gosch. "Instead he came to visit me and stayed three days. I had no clue what was going on. People had told me to stay away from him, but nobody would explain why. He had already been pretty well alienated from everybody else. He said he was leaving to go somewhere, but he didn't say where."
"I tried to convince him to stay," recalls Patten, who had dinner with Lanahan shortly before he took off. "He just didn't feel like there was any other option. He said that nobody was going to believe him with the track record he already had -- that he was already on probation, that CU was trying to blame some of the scandal on him because he had provided alcohol for some parties. He thought it was all going to crash in on him.
"He had this Captain Ron fantasy going on. He thought he was going to get a boat and sail the Caribbean."
Well now my feet are growing tired
My eyes are lookin wired
Don't know what to do unless I retire
He just said 'let's play some crazy poker'
'Crazy Game of Poker'
There were all kinds of stories about where Lanahan had gone and what he was doing. No one learned the truth for months. Spees later read the journal Lanahan had kept on the road, a tale that was part Kerouac, part Kafka.
"It was pretty wild," he says. "He left with a hundred dollars, a backpack full of clothes and his bike. He used his bus pass to get as far as he could. Then Greyhound. Then he hitchhiked from Oklahoma down to Texas, riding his bike part of the way. He stopped to try to help out a guy with a flat tire, and somebody jumped out from behind a bush to rob him, and he took off like Lance on Stage 17 of the Tour."
Using an assumed name, Lanahan found work as a bartender in Austin. He was soon making suggestions for how to improve the business. The place began charging a hefty cover and providing an open bar to an exclusive private clientele, made up of whoever happened to show up and sign the "guest list." Business was good -- maybe too good. One night in June, the Austin cops busted the bartender for being intoxicated, ran his prints and shipped him back to Boulder to face the music.
Lanahan would later tell people he was just a week away from a new identity when he got caught. One more week, he said, and he would have been in Mexico. But once again the booze brought him down.
Patten went to see Lanahan in the Boulder County Jail every week. He tried to appear upbeat. He was reading a lot of books, including One Hundred Years of Solitude. He was involved in peer counseling with other prisoners. He had made up his mind to give up drinking for good. And he was going to fight this thing.
But as the months dragged on, his resolve to clear his name wavered. After six months, he'd had enough.
"I was surprised when he took the plea deal," Patten says. "Right before that, he had talked about going to trial. He wanted to do that. Then something in him snapped, and he was like, 'I have to get out of here.'"
On January 25, 2005, Lanahan pleaded guilty in Boulder County District Judge Daniel Hale's courtroom to a felony charge of attempted sexual assault and a misdemeanor charge of unlawful sexual contact. Jane Doe read a statement to the court:
"I will always remember 2004 as the year that I went crazy and was called crazy. It was the year that I hated myself, the year that I stopped treating myself like a human being, because somebody else didn't treat me like one.... It was the year that my body started shaking uncontrollably and I started to find things to sniff, smoke or swallow. It was the semester that I started cutting myself, disappearing at parties to dismantle shaving razors in order to slice up my arms....
"I nearly self-destructed. I believed if someone would treat me like that, then I must be worthless. I lived with so much pain that I didn't deserve."
Lanahan said nothing. He stared at the defense table while Jane spoke, then stood as Judge Hale handed him a four-year deferred sentence, including intensive probation and participation in a sex-offender treatment program. His bland behavior outraged Daily Camera columnist Clint Talbott, who penned a furious indictment of his own, denouncing Lanahan as a rapist and a coward, a "predator" with a "heartless gaze."
"A real man would have apologized," he wrote. "If he felt even one scintilla of remorse, he sure didn't show it."
Many of Lanahan's friends consider the column a gratuitous attack on a young man who was already paying dearly for one drunken encounter -- not as dearly as Jane, but more than Boulder's liberal establishment could imagine.
Jeff Malin: "A real man would have apologized? Well, a smart man would have kept his fucking mouth shut, because that's what his lawyer told him to do.
"If they'd taken the opportunity at that point to send Michael in the right direction...instead there was this community outcry for blood. He was a college student who made a mistake, and he got completely screwed over for it. If he had any idea what hell the probation was going to be, maybe he would have fought it."
Well I said
'Johnny whatcha doing tonight?'
He looked at me with a face full of fright
And I said, how bout a revolution?
And he said right.
'Crazy Game of Poker'
One day last winter, Malin came home to find Lanahan in his kitchen, working his way through two pounds of bacon. He hadn't seen any bacon in jail, and he'd missed it terribly. He greeted Malin as if he'd just come back from summer break.
"He wasn't drinking," Malin says. "He made that very clear."
Lanahan was subdued, less impulsive, grateful to be back in the world. "He seemed a lot quieter," says Gosch. "This was the first time he'd really gotten into trouble for anything, and it him really hard. He seemed a lot more responsible."
"He was a lot more appreciative of things," adds Flores. "He said thank you a lot more. He always wanted to give me a hug. It was almost like he was a better person for it."
But Malin's roommates didn't know anything about the new-leaf Lanahan. "All they knew was the bad stuff," Malin says. "They were afraid of him. They didn't even want to be around when I asked him to move out."
He stayed briefly with Malin and Julsen, then with Flores. There were plenty of places in Boulder where he wasn't welcome anymore. At one of his favorite clubs, a bouncer who knew Jane showed him the door. He found an apartment in Denver and started working for a moving company with Julsen.
One of the people he sought out was Oliver Spees, the resident adrenaline junkie on the swim team. Spees was serious about his outdoor recreation and was getting into longboarding down Boulder's steeper streets. "He couldn't drink, but he still wanted that rush," Spees says, "so he came and found me."
Lanahan put some wheels on an old snowboard and began riding with Spees. "He was good, right off the bat," Spees says. "We started going around Boulder, looking for bigger hills. Then other people started buying longboards and riding with us."
Lanahan borrowed a friend's $180 longboard and loved it. He got on the phone with the company that made it and sweet-talked them into sponsoring his "team." Before long the group, now calling itself the WAC Longboarding Team, had a fistful of sponsors and its own website (www.waclongboarding.org) -- even though the acronym, which might stand for Wednesday Afternoon Club or Way Awesome Carving or something worse, was never explained.
The hunt for more challenging terrain took the group from city streets to treacherous canyon roads and even multi-level parking garages, which featured sharp corners, blind turns and the occasional SUV barreling right at you. A shrink might view such behavior as high-risk, possibly suicidal, but friends say Lanahan usually wore a helmet and took other safety precautions -- the precautions that can be taken, that is, while rocketing down a mountain pass at 45 miles an hour on a plank of wood.
Spees, who sports a plate in his collarbone from a fall on Table Mesa and various other scars on his chest, back, arms and legs -- including a left elbow dimpled from road rash, the "team tattoo" -- says the times he spent with Lanahan were about living well, not tempting death. The group's motto: "Ride Hard, Ride Safe."
"I was right there with him, and I had no death wish," he says. "It's more about living without fear, because fear is not going to save you from getting hurt. I'd rather have a life where I've got some scars at the end of it."
In the spring, Lanahan turned to another edgy form of recreation: whitewater tubing. Lots of people on the swim team liked to tube Boulder Creek; months before he fled to Texas, Lanahan had even talked Spees into spotting him in a kayak while he tubed down the creek at dusk during the spring runoff, when the water is at its highest and tubing is banned. ("I thought that was the stupidest thing I'd ever done in my entire life," Spees mutters. "Then he talks me into doing the tube with him.") Now he wanted to take it further. He talked to kayakers about where the real action was.
Clear Creek, Poudre Canyon, North St. Vrain -- he and Spees went from Class 3 to Class 4 and 5 rapids. They wore helmets and two wetsuits each and pumped away with an eggbeater kick, hitting the rapids laterally, maneuvering between the rocks. Their ankles got the worst of it. "Once you got out of the water and warmed up, you just started bleeding," Spees recalls. "But we never hurt ourselves that bad. With tubing, you either get bruised a little bit or drown."
As with longboarding, Lanahan drew others into his new action. "He took me down Clear Creek, and I trusted him completely," says Gosch. "I knew if something would happen, he'd help me out and get everything back under control. But he would always talk about doing bigger things -- tubing and skydiving and all kinds of stuff. I said maybe he was taking it too far, maybe he was addicted to adrenaline. He just said, 'If I don't do it, who will?'"
There was something compulsive about the way Lanahan would stuff a Suburban full of inner tubes and people and head for the hills every weekend, looking for a new hole to check out, some monster course of chutes and haystacks. The obsession probably had to do with what was waiting for him back in Denver: long hours of moving furniture, meetings with his probation officer and regular participation in a sex-offender treatment program.
Lanahan had been assigned to Teaching Humane Existence (THE), a controversial Denver program that focuses on "containment" of sex criminals whose behavior is believed to be uncurable ("Arrested Development," December 5, 2002). Although he'd pleaded guilty to a low-level, Class 5 felony, he had many of the same constraints on his activities as pedophiles or serial rapists on parole. Among other things, he was required to register as a sex offender; avoid any contact with children under the age of eighteen; avoid schools, parks, swimming pools and other places that children congregated (thus ending a brief career as a swim coach); and tell his probation officer of all "significant" relationships with women. He was also expected to disclose his status as a sex offender to anyone he dated -- on the second date. And, of course, complete THE's get-tough therapy program, which critics regard as one-size-fits-all overkill that lumps first-time offenders with career felons.
"Some of the hoops they made him jump through were absolutely ridiculous," says Patten. "The amount of drug and alcohol testing, all the costs. The stipulations on dating somebody. It made me angry. But Michael gets around things; he's a schemer."
"Looking back on it, I can see that it was really hard on him," says Julsen. "He had a psychologist for a father, and he was pretty bright. He would talk to me about going to therapy, telling them what they wanted to hear -- and feeling completely different."
But Lanahan didn't like to discuss his probation. When he was out boarding and tubing, it was the last thing he wanted to think about. Only once in a great while did a note of fatalism creep into the conversation.
"He told me early on that he wouldn't make it through it," Spees says. "I translated that to mean he was going to run again."
Well I got a problem
Just one answer
Got to throw it all down
And kiss that shit goodbye.
'Crazy Game of Poker'
The Bruised Heart
Last summer, Spees and Lanahan entered the Gore Canyon Race, one of Colorado's most competitive down-river races, open to rafters, kayakers, sledgers, creature craft -- and two maniacs in inner tubes. The pair caromed like pinballs down the river, but they finished. The next day, they went to check out a national longboarding competition in Vail and ended up entering the fray on borrowed equipment. The day after that, they boarded the bike path between Vail and Copper Mountain, and disaster struck.
"Mike had several falls, but he was pretty much in control," Spees remembers. "You learn how to fall. Usually you sacrifice one arm and you roll. Or you find a patch of grass and lean back.
"The bike path was narrower than I hoped, but it wasn't as steep as I thought it was going to be. We were going faster than a biker would, and we were sliding around the corners. He passed me on a turn, and I passed him on one. On one pretty sharp turn I got pushed wide, and I saw a huge pile of sand on the inside of the turn. Mike started out wide and cut in, and he went right into the sand.
"The sudden deceleration didn't kick him off, but the board slid in the sand and stopped. He put his hands out and hit his hip. Broke his phone, which was in his pocket. Then he hit his chest. He didn't have much road rash, but he started screaming. I came over, and I was like, 'You baby. You got this baby gash on your arm.' But it was his chest."
Feeling dizzy, Lanahan went to see a doctor shortly after the fall. He was told he'd suffered a coronary contusion and developed an irregular heartbeat. He was going to have to take it easy, the doctor told him.
The thought of giving up longboarding depressed Lanahan. He consulted an herbalist, who suggested that he take warfarin, an anti-coagulant marketed under the brand name Coumadin, to help manage his condition. But patients who take Coumadin are also supposed to avoid hazardous activities; when you're taking a blood thinner, any injury has the potential for profuse bleeding.
Yet Lanahan was finding hazards everywhere he turned. Shortly after his fall, he struck up a conversation with a neighbor in his Capitol Hill apartment building, 21-year-old Annaliz Hilberg. She was having a problem with the lock on the building's back door, and he fixed it for her. After a few more chance encounters, he asked her out.
They walked downtown to Maggiano's for dinner, then continued walking and talking for hours, oblivious to the time. Lanahan took her to the top of a parking garage, where they had a panoramic view of the skyline. They discovered they were total opposites: She was a smoker and a bookworm, he jumped off cliffs into roaring white water. But something clicked.
A few days later they watched a movie together. It was the second date, so Lanahan did what he was required to do. He told her about his conviction.
"It was difficult for him," Hilberg says. "He said he was scared I would just tell him to get the hell out. But he told me what happened, and it didn't change my opinion of him at all, actually. He was a great guy who had incredible intentions and made me feel like the world and took me out on the best date of my life."
Lanahan explained that he would have to get permission from his probation officer and his THE counselor to continue seeing her. He seemed excited about having it all work out. But when he called her after his next therapy session, he was sobbing.
"I can't see you or talk to you anymore because I'm making bad decisions," he said.
Hilberg thought the call sounded scripted, but she wasn't going to argue. He showed up at her door the next night.
"Aren't you going to get into trouble for this?" she asked.
"It could be six months before they decide we can even be friends," Lanahan told her. "Or we can see each other and hope that things work out."
They talked about the consequences he could be facing. Lanahan boasted that he could beat the polygraphs he had to take regularly. In fact, he said, he'd already found semantic loopholes to leap through. The terms of his probation required that he not "sleep" in Boulder, so when he went up there on weekends he stayed up all night. By the same logic, he could tell his inquisitors that he hadn't been on a "date" with Hilberg, as long as they didn't kiss at the end of it. Hilberg wasn't convinced this would work, but she'd had a crush on Lanahan long before he'd asked her out, and she had since fallen hard.
"I left it up to him," she says. "He said something about how he'd rather regret a decision he'd made than one he didn't make."
They spent long evenings together, watching movies at her apartment or his. They sat in the dark and listened to "Crazy Game of Poker," and he told her about the ritual he and his friends had built around the song, how connected it made him feel to the people who mattered to him.
One night he complained about a pain in his side. He had nosebleeds that wouldn't stop. His urine turned bright red. Oliver Spees hauled him to the hospital, over his protests, and it turned out he was taking nearly toxic levels of Coumadin; his blood had all but lost the ability to coagulate. The doctors gave him plasma and put him on massive doses of vitamin K to counteract the Coumadin.
There were several more trips to the hospital. He missed his THE treatment sessions. "It was the happiest I'd seen him," Hilberg says. "They made him feel so awful [in therapy] and just constantly told him he was this piece-of-crap monster."
He missed therapy, he missed work. Yet he continued to longboard with the WAC regulars. Miraculously, he didn't get cut and bleed to death. Same old Lanahan.
But he wasn't the same. He was making moves, moves that would seem ominous only in retrospect. He joked with Spees about how all the hospital time had prompted him to draw up a will -- "I can go kill myself now," he said. He insisted that Hilberg watch Harold and Maude, a movie about a young man whose hobby is staging suicides.
In mid-October he went to Steamboat Springs with a buddy and longboarded down Rabbit Ears Pass, a perfect adventure that had a ring of finality to it.
On Friday, October 21, he went to see OAR at the Fillmore Auditorium. Hilberg was ill from bad sushi, and nobody else was around to go with him.
His friends didn't know he started drinking again that weekend, getting a buzz on for the concert -- a violation of his probation that could land him in prison. They didn't know that his handlers suspected he was making many bad decisions. They didn't know that he was scheduled for a polygraph the following Monday.
On Saturday morning he told Hilberg he was going up to Boulder to see friends. She walked him to the door. They kissed and hugged. He lingered.
"It took him a long time to leave," she recalls. "Nothing you'd notice, but in retrospect, it was a long time."
He caught a bus. In his backpack he carried six bottles of beer, a bottle of Eagle Rare bourbon, a water bottle, his journal and several feet of nylon rope. In his pockets were plastic zip ties, a knife, his cell phone and his CD player, loaded with the second disc of OAR's Any Time Now.
On the bus ride to Boulder, he took out the journal and began to write:
I do not expect people to understand my decision to end my life. I imagine that most of the people close to me will be hurt and angry but I can do nothing about that. I made a choice that set me on a path with only one destination.
He got off the bus and walked to Chatauqua Park. He hiked, drank, wrote some more. He filled six pages by the time the sun went down.
Then he dug out his cell phone and began to leave voice-mail goodbyes.
I don't know what to say anymore
So I'm just gonna go out that door.
'Crazy Game of Poker'
After Lanahan hung up on him, Billy Flores started dialing anybody he could think of in Colorado, hoping someone could find his friend before it was too late. The first person he reached called Jeff Malin, who left messages for several of Lanahan's friends, trying to figure out where he went.
Sneaky Lanahan had told Flores he was in Rocky Mountain National Park. Malin called a dispatcher there and explained the situation; since Lanahan didn't have a car, he must have started out from a trailhead accessible by bus.
But as the evening wore on, it became apparent that Lanahan was a lot closer to Boulder than he'd let on. Spees came home late from a swim meet and found ten messages on his phone: a weird message from Mike ("I wish things could have worked out differently...ride hard and ride safe"), followed by urgent calls from Malin, Flores and a bunch of other Lanahan confederates. He checked his text messages and found one from Lanahan that had come in around 7:30 p.m.: 2ND FLATIRON ASAP.
Shortly after eleven, Malin and Spees drove to Chatauqua Park to search the trails leading to the Flatirons. Spees ran up the trails shouting Lanahan's name. He came across a sign pointing to the climbing amphitheater that had "Oliver" carved on it and headed in that direction.
"I thought he might be sitting on top of one of the spires and was going to jump, so I free-climbed some in the dark," Spees says. "It was stupid."
The police didn't arrive until midnight. They lit up the Flatirons with a light truck and kept Malin and Spees occupied with endless questions. Other friends checked in; Lanahan had left text messages at least until eight o'clock or so. Gosch got one that said CALL ME ASAP, called back four minutes later and got no answer.
After seeing a mysterious light on the first Flatiron, a rescue team hustled to the top, only to find a young couple on a midnight hike. Around four in the morning, the team decided to break off the search and wait for daylight.
"I was actually relieved we didn't find him," Spees says. "I liked the idea that he wasn't there and he was just being Lanahan, being a dick. Maybe this was just a cover and he was going to run again."
The Hanged Man
Christopher Bunick runs trails all over the Flatirons. One day last fall, the 33-year-old somatic educator and rolfing practitioner missed the trail he wanted and ended up in a gorgeous spot under the lower end of the second Flatiron, a place with tall pines and sweeping vistas.
He came back two days later -- Sunday, October 23 -- with a friend, eager to show him the spot. They were about twenty minutes from the Chatauqua trailhead when they came across the hanged man.
The rope had been wrapped around a tree limb ten feet off the ground. The man's feet were just touching the ground.
There were no signs of life. While his friend ran down the trail to find help, Bunick stayed with the body. A former Outward Bound instructor, he'd spent more than a thousand nights in the wilderness, had seen all kinds of trauma and accidents, but he'd never seen anything like this. He couldn't stop staring.
He searched the backpack beside the body and found a notebook. He read:
I have not led a happy life. This is not to say that my parents were not wonderful or that my life was not filled with problems, but that I have been depressed to one degree for as long as I can remember...I find myself a very lonely person with a great inability to form close, intimate relationships.
I am now, while alive, very much dead inside. Only the extreme ends of the spectrum seem to impact me. I fight to feel, I tube to feel, I board to tell me that I'm still alive. But it is all mute to me now. I am in so much pain that any life I could salvage is not worth the process...
I was never going to make it through probation. How can I when I know I am not guilty. I shall not go into that. To live your life with that much structure and restriction is to be dead.
There were private messages to several people. Lots of references to OAR. (My happiest moment...the OAR ritual. ) The recipe for a drink called Coondog. And more:
This move has been planned by me for some time. I was just waiting for everything to line up correctly. I rode one last, awesome time with Nick in Steamboat. I saw OAR again. I for the last four nights have enjoyed a healthy buzz from some of my favorite beer.
The parallels to Bunick's own life were eerie. The writer sounded a lot like him. (Later, Bunick would discover that he and the dead man shared the same birthday.) A year earlier, Bunick had been in a similar state of mind, contemplating the end and feeling helpless and alone. But he had reached out, found a support network, embraced sobriety. Now he runs trails and longboards.
You could say that I created a situation that forced my hand. I know that I might not have followed through if nothing was riding on it. But now I have only one option (jail is not an option). I woke up this morning (a bit hung over from the show) and said aloud, "I am going to die today." It is empowering to know something that no one else knows.
The man's right arm was cuffed to a belt loop with a zip tie, Bunick noted. So he couldn't fight the rope.
It's 6:00 pm, I'm pretty drunk now. I just uncorked the Eagle River I wish it was Weller. I am listening to OAR and drinking great beer...I picked out my branch and rock to stand on. I should be ready in about 1 hour. I need to wait for Poker to cycle back. So I can go out on my favorite song.
There was a humming from the man's headphones. The music was still playing, but Michael Lanahan could no longer hear it.
A memorial service was held in Boulder four days later. A preacher who never knew Michael Lanahan said he was in a better place, a place of many mansions. People who did know him spoke tearfully of a true friend, loving son, cherished brother, a man of passion and joy. Then everyone sat in silence, listening to the song that wrapped around his life and death.
His friends scattered his ashes on Boulder Creek and gathered later to tell Lanahan stories. No one could understand how someone so close to them could have held so much back; how someone so full of life, so determined never to fall, could feel so damned and fall so hard.
Jeff Malin: "I'm not mad at him. I'm just really disappointed, because I thought he was going somewhere. Killing himself was the ultimate admission that the world had won. It just seemed out of character to me."
Amy Gosch: "I'm still a bit in shock. I know I won't be seeing him again, but sometimes I want to call him, and then I realize I can't."
Billy Flores: "The thing I learned from him was to take risks. You never know, something great could happen from it. It was inspirational how much he was able to accomplish in spite of everything. If none of this ever happened, he would probably be in law school right now. Knowing how smart and sneaky he was, I think he would have been a wonderful lawyer."
Brian Julsen: "As much as I like to think I knew Mike, I'm probably wrong. That's been the hardest thing. We talked about being brothers, but he's going to remain a mystery to me for as long as I'm around."
Jane Doe: "I never wanted anything like this to happen, but I was surprised that I felt a loss -- because I'd made him into less than a person. Over time, though, I realized that while it's tragic, it's also about how manipulative he was. He was lying to the end, even in his suicide note. He never took responsibility for anything he did."
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Annaliz Hilberg: "I don't understand why he did it. My therapist told me to stop trying to understand it because I never will. It bothers me most that he didn't reach out to anybody he cared about."
Oliver Spees: "I thought that if I could have found him, maybe I could have changed it. But he was of sound mind. He planned it. It was his choice to make. That sex-offender jacket was such a burden on him. I could see it. I thought he was strong enough and smart enough not to take such a permanent solution to a temporary problem. But he didn't want to go back to jail."
The WAC team held the first Michael Lanahan Memorial Race a few weeks ago. Spees wrote a poem to his absent friend and posted it on the team's website:
so many were assuming
that the young forget despair...
God will not look you over for medals,
diplomas or degrees
But for scars testament to a life wholly lived