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Charles Bethea

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12 Great Georgia Hikes

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The view from Rabun Bald

Photograph by Ryan Hayslip

One of our top sources for interpreting the vast Georgia wilds was Jonah McDonald, adventure leader and author of the book Hiking Atlanta’s Hidden Forests: Intown and Out. We came up with this shorthand field guide, with our top picks broken down into three levels of difficulty. Plus, finding trailheads can be tricky, so we navigated them for you.

Level of difficulty key
● Easy (and close by!) 3 miles or less, minimal elevation change, and within 20 miles of Downtown
■ Moderate 4 to 10 miles, less than 800 feet elevation gain
▲ Strenuous More than 1,000 feet of elevation gain

Amicalola Falls State Park
Hike Inn Trail
Level of difficulty ■ Moderate
Mileage 10 miles round-trip
Elevation gain Less than 800 feet
Why go  This hike has long been a favorite of Backpacker magazine, and we understand why. The Chattahoochee National Forest is at its best here, offering a rich cast of flora for all seasons and consistent terrain. But the cherry on top is the rustic inn itself (see page 79), where you can stay the night in a bunk room and have two meals for a bargain price—or stop and rest, have a snack, and turn right back around. Ten miles in a day on this trail is very doable.
Don’t miss Just below the trailhead is Amicalola Falls, a 729-foot waterfall that’s the tallest in Georgia and one of the state’s “seven natural wonders.” On the trail itself, look out for enormous trees: hickory, pine, oak, and more. There’s a yellow poplar about a mile in that takes at least two people to lock arms around. In spring and summer, you’ll be tempted to pick wildflowers like dwarf iris and trillium. After a good rain in July and August, you’re likely to see chanterelle mushrooms popping up.
Best for Avid intown walkers looking for a moderate hike within ninety minutes of Atlanta that will convince them the woods are even better than the neighborhood park.
➽How to get there The trail begins at the Hike Inn parking area at the top of Amicalola Falls. If you’re staying at the inn, you need to check in at the Amicalola Falls State Park visitors center, just inside the park entrance, by 2 p.m. Reservations encouraged. $5 daily parking fee; annual passes providing access to all state parks are $50. Top of the Falls Road, Dawsonville; gastateparks.org/amicalolafalls, hike-inn.com

 

Davidson-Arabia Nature Preserve
Davidson-Arabia Nature Preserve

Davidson-Arabia Nature Preserve
Mountain View Trail (plus Mountain Top Trail)
Level of difficulty ● Easy (and close by!)
Mileage 2.5-mile loop (+ .5 mile out and back)
Elevation gain Minimal (+ 180 feet)
Why go  Many have climbed to the top of this monadnock (a rock outcrop, like its younger brother, Stone Mountain) east of Atlanta, but the Mountain View trail is just two years old and little known. The gently rolling path starts across a stretch of unadorned granite that feels otherworldly (one in our party asked, “Why haven’t they filmed The Walking Dead here yet?”). Then it tucks in and out of a forest along a small lake and plops you back out at the junction with the Mountain Top trail. From there, follow the cairns .2 miles up the granite field to the summit, where there’s nothing but treetops in sight.
Wildflowers  Take care to step around the small pools stippling the granite. The “solution pits,” as they are unromantically called, are the primary habitat for a rare plant called diamorpha, which appears as low-slung, bright red succulents in winter; spectacular white flowers in late spring; and dry brown stems in the summer. Also spot mountain laurel, rare to metro Atlanta.
Good to know  Leashed dogs are welcome at Arabia, but we wouldn’t bring a pup out there on a hot day: The sun-baked granite looks like it’d be hard on the paw pads. Also, watch for the blue blazes marking the way; they’re easy to miss at times.
➽How to get there For this trail, park by the AWARE (Atlanta Wild Animal Rescue Effort) at 4158 Klondike Road (not by the nature center at 3787 Klondike Road). arabiaalliance.org

 

Dick's Creek Falls
Dick’s Creek Falls

Photograph by Ryan Hayslip

Bartram Trail
from Sandy Ford to Warwoman Dell
Level of difficulty ■ Moderate
Mileage 9.3 miles round-trip
Elevation gain Less than 500 feet
Why go  The Bartram Trail may offer some of the prettiest terrain in North Georgia, judging by this section along the Chattooga River. If you like scenic camping, particularly near smooth-running water, this is your Shangri-la. Bugs aren’t bad. Campsites are large but clean. A variety of deciduous and evergreen trees offer a cooling canopy. And it’s both easy to reach by foot (the first sites appear within a mile along the yellow-blazed trail) and remote enough by car (expect to traverse a few dirt roads) that you may find yourself alone.
Don’t miss  Less than a quarter mile into this hike, you’ll come across a side trail (marked with green diamonds) to Dick’s Creek Falls. Take it. You’ll meander a few tenths of a mile downhill to the Chattooga River, where you can look up at the four-tongued descent of the falls. There are a number of places to wade, dip, and slide. Watch for fish swimming around your ankles, including the Bartram’s Bass.
Famous for  The full trail, more than 100 miles, is named for the eighteenth-century botanist-artist-writer William Bartram, whose book Travels chronicled his adventures in the pristine natural landscapes of the pre–Civil War American South. Later, the Chattooga River provided a more sullied setting for the 1972 filming of Deliverance.
➽How to get there From Clayton, take Warwoman Road 5.9 miles east from U.S. 441, then turn right on Sandy Ford Road. A little over half a mile in, turn left onto a concrete bridge over Warwoman Creek; 3.3 miles later, reach a “splash-through” creek crossing over Dicks Creek. A few hundred yards later, the trail begins on the left side of Sandy Ford Road. You can do this as an out-and-back or by shuttling two cars from from point A to point B.

 

Providence Canyon
Providence Canyon

Photograph by Ryan Hayslip

Providence Canyon state park
Backcountry Trail
Level of difficulty ■ Moderate
Mileage 7-mile loop
Elevation gain Less than 500 feet
Why go  This geographic anomaly, forty miles south of Columbus, is another of the state’s seven natural wonders, and there’s nothing like it east of the Mississippi. But Georgia’s Little Grand Canyon isn’t natural at all, formed initially by erosion from poor nineteenth-century farming practices and now cutting as deep as 150 feet in the loamy Georgia soil. The backcountry loop offers six campsites with fire pits and smooth ground for tenting. You’ll find some of the starriest skies in the state down here, and mild temps in winter.
Don’t miss  There are sixteen canyons in the state park, but we especially liked the first five, where the three ancient soil layers—Clayton (red), Providence (white), and Ripley (often orange)—are most dramatically on display from above. Look for the rare red and orange wild plumleaf azalea along the canyon floor.
Best for  Everyone who thinks that South Georgia is nothing but the Statesboro Blues. Also, if you’ve always wanted to see the great canyons out West but haven’t had the time or resources, this is the cheap and easy way to enjoy a smaller rendering.
➽How to get there The trail begins just beyond the state park’s visitors center, less than a tenth of a mile from the main lot. $5 daily parking fee; annual passes providing access to all state parks are $50; $10 for a backcountry campsite. 8930 Canyon Road, Lumpkin; gastateparks.org/providencecanyon

 

Cloudland Canyon State Park
West Rim Loop Trail (Plus waterfalls Trail)
Level of difficulty ■ Moderate
Mileage 4.8-mile loop (+ 1 mile out and back)
Elevation gain 300 feet (+ 300 feet)
Why go The West Rim Loop, so named because it follows the rim of the deep gorge on the western edge of Lookout Mountain, provides vista after rewarding vista. We recommend adding the short trail into the gulch to Cherokee Falls, down and up 223 steps (we counted!), to see the sixty-foot falls cascading over sandstone and shale into a blue pool decorated with mossy rocks. If that’s not enough, you can add close to a mile to see the ninety-foot Hemlock Falls.
Don’t miss  Many go to Cloudland just for the falls, where large families brave the heart-attack warning (it’s chiseled into a very official-looking wooden sign) and gingerly tackle the metal-grate stairs. The falls are worth a visit, but the view from atop the steep west-rim escarpment is a prime place for fall leaf-peeping.
FYI  Don’t bother with your bathing suit: Swimming beneath the falls is strictly prohibited, despite being extremely enticing. Do consider getting lunch or a beer afterward in Chattanooga, about twenty miles away via the scenic route on GA-189, or reserve one of the yurts along the trail for the night.
➽How to get there The West Rim Loop trail starts adjacent to the picnic shelters and visitors center and small museum. $5 daily parking fee; annual passes providing access to all state parks are $50. 122 Cloudland Canyon Park Road, Rising Fawn; gastateparks.org/cloudlandcanyon

 

Sweetwater Creek State Park
Yellow Trail
Level of difficulty ● Easy (and close by!)
Mileage 3-mile loop
Elevation gain 350 feet
Why go  Most Atlantans know Sweetwater Creek State Park, but fewer know its yellow trail, which takes you to the east side of the eponymous waterway and away from the morning dog walkers and sightseers who’ve come for the west bank ruins of the New Manchester Mill. Sandy bottomland hardens to clay and stone as you ascend the ridge covered by the thick canopy of oak and pine. Head back down to the broad creek that rushes over the natural rock dam; the rapids and ruins can be spotted downstream.
Don’t miss History buffs who’ve come for the mill, which was burned in the Civil War, will want to catch a much older shelter: a shallow cave worn into the bluff halfway up the hill, where ancient fire pits and smoke stains remain from use by Native Americans.
Terrain The river bottom trail is flat and winding but well marked with yellow paint. When you get to the hill fork, go left, taking the circuit clockwise for a more gradual ascent lined with plenty of benches for breathers.
➽How to get there Do not rely on GPS. Coming from I-20, pass the Bait Shack (in map below) on your left, then less than a quarter mile south, make a left onto Factory Shoals Road and follow the signs to the interpretive center and nature trails. $5 daily parking fee; annual passes providing access to all state parks are $50. 1750 Mt. Vernon Road, Lithia Springs; gastateparks.org/sweetwatercreek

 

Morningside Nature Preserve
Level of difficulty ● Easy (and close by!)
Mileage 2-mile loop
Elevation gain Less than 250 feet
Why go  The preserve is an ideal respite for intowners, with only an occasional train whistle or faint whoosh of traffic as a reminder that you’re in the middle of the city. This thirty-acre urban forest was saved from development by Morningside neighbors in the late nineties and is now part of the City of Atlanta parks system. Starting at the Lenox Road parking lot, the trail winds through towering walls of kudzu and dense stands of mature hardwoods. The most strenuous part is climbing a hillside staircase on the way back to the lot.
Don’t miss  About half a mile in is a wooden suspension bridge over the South Fork of Peachtree Creek. Before you cross, veer right for a path leading down to a sandy beach that’s particularly popular among dog owners.
Something extra  Head south from the parking lot and stroll past the well-manicured homes on Lenox Road on your way to brunch at Rosebud or Alon’s Bakery & Market (1.3 miles away) on North Highland Avenue. On your return, detour west to the tiny Morningside Nature Trail in Sussex Park.
➽How to get there Park in the designated lot on Lenox Road. 2020 Lenox Road.

 

Doll's Head Trail at Constitution Lakes Park
Doll’s Head Trail at Constitution Lakes Park

Photograph by Ryan Hayslip

Constitution Lakes Park
Level of difficulty ● Easy (and close by!)
Mileage 2.25 miles round-trip
Elevation gain Minimal
Why go  Unexpected curiosities await on this urban hike, which recently added a trail to make a loop. A green patch tucked amid industrial warehouses in south DeKalb, it was once a brick manufacturing site; the excavation pits for clay have filled and made for healthy wetlands, with turtles, herons, and kingfishers all a common sight. Folk art dots a loop, the Doll’s Head Trail, at the far end of the path.
Urban art  The Doll’s Head Trail was created by zealous volunteers who pick up trash (old TVs, barrels, dolls) washed up in the floods of the nearby South River and turn it into trail art in the spirit of Thornton Dial and Howard Finster. It’s creepy, thought-provoking, and funny, and you’re encouraged to add to the madness, as long as you use only objects found on-site.
FYI  The first half mile is paved and leads to an accessible boardwalk vista. Fishing is legal in DeKalb County parks, and you’ll see locals casting a line every evening at dusk. Sometimes the boardwalk gets a bit littered.
➽How to get there South River Industrial Boulevard dead ends into the trail’s parking lot after it crosses Moreland Avenue. South River Industrial Boulevard.

 

Vogel State Park
Coosa Backcountry Trail
Level of difficulty ▲ Strenuous
Mileage 12.5-mile loop
Elevation gain More than 4,000 feet
Why go  This is true valley-to-ridge walking—an old-school Appalachian experience. As such, it’s a tough trail; you won’t be following watersheds here. The Chattahoochee National Forest and Blood Mountain Wilderness are on full display as you head straight up two of the tallest mountains in the state: Slaughter Mountain and Coosa Bald (which is no longer bald). As you cross land where the Cherokee and Creek tribes once battled (hence the chilling names), you’ll encounter rhododendron-filled hollows and epic fall and winter views into Vogel State Park below.
Which way  We suggest hiking in a counterclockwise direction; otherwise the ups and downs of the trail’s first few miles will be especially killer—unless, of course, that’s what you’re after.
Best for  Experienced trail runners looking for a pretty, relatively people-free trail to train hard. It’s also a top-notch option for a two-day backcountry camping trip. There are a number of nice campsites about six miles in with flat ground and, occasionally, even stacked wood for a fire. If you choose the two-day option (recommended), it’s more moderate than strenuous.
➽How to get there The trail begins at a parking lot beside Lake Trahlyta in Vogel State Park. You’ll need a permit for backcountry camping. $5 daily parking fee; annual passes providing access to all state parks are $50. 405 Vogel State Park Road, Blairsville; gastateparks.org/vogel

 

F.D. Roosevelt State Park
Pine Mountain Trail (Dowdell’s Knob Loop)
Level of difficulty ■ Moderate
Mileage 4.3-mile loop
Elevation gain 665 feet
Why go  If you’re looking for a change of direction, you can actually head south of Atlanta for a serious hike on the twenty-three-mile Pine Mountain Trail system that threads the length of F.D. Roosevelt State Park. The descent from the mountain summit is steep, on a wending rock path occasionally speed-bumped with trees felled by a 2011 tornado. The valley is cool and canopied, with a small waterfall signaling the ascent by way of a narrow, sun-drenched ledge.
History The natural wonder of these foothills, along with the nearby warm springs, was a salve for the polio-stricken thirty-second president. The Knob was one of FDR’s favorite spots for both entertaining guests and solitary contemplation. He was so at ease here, it was one of the only places he wore his leg braces outside his pants, as the statue of him here shows—the only one of its kind.
Tip  The trailhead is a few hundred feet from Dowdell’s Knob, the highest point of the nearly 1,400-foot mountain, but save it for the end of the three-and-a-half-hour loop. The boundless view of the lush green valley is so much sweeter after the climb.
➽How to get there $5 daily parking fee; annual passes providing access to all state parks are $50. 2970 Georgia Highway 190, Pine Mountain. gastateparks.org/fdroosevelt

 

Cohutta Wilderness
Hemp Top Trail

Level of difficulty ▲ Strenuous
Mileage 12.4 miles round-trip
Elevation gain More than 2,000 feet
Why go  Some say this is the least traveled trail in the vast, remote Cohutta Wilderness of North Georgia, which continues into Tennessee with a different name, Big Frog Wilderness. Together, they comprise more than 40,000 acres—the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi. Give yourself a solid seven hours, at least, to soak up the solitude on this trail. Linger for lunch a little more than five miles in at Double Springs Gap, which sits at the Georgia-Tennessee line and offers a few nice campsites if you want to make it an overnighter.
➽Don’t miss  The wintertime views along the ridge are stunning—particularly from the 4,224-foot peak of Big Frog Mountain in Tennessee, which marks the highest westernmost land in the eastern U.S. (if you can wrap your head around that).
Best for  Experienced hikers who want to push themselves amid a remote swath of wilderness most wouldn’t expect to find in Georgia but is just two hours from Atlanta.
➽How to get there This trailhead doesn’t come with a clear landmark on a map. Coming from Blue Ridge, at the major intersection at Watson Gap, turn a hard right on Forest Service Road 22, then drive 3.6 miles to the trailhead at Dally Gap.

 

Bartram Trail
Rabun Bald
Level of difficulty ▲ Strenuous
Mileage 4 miles round-trip
Elevation gain More than 1,000 feet
Why go  At 4,696 feet, Rabun Bald is the second-highest peak in Georgia. But unlike Brasstown Bald—the state’s highest—you can’t drive a paved road to the top. There are three different paths, but we prefer this short trail, at times steep, approaching the summit from the north. You’ll traverse switchbacks early on, winding through the giant old oaks, but with a half mile to go, the trail gets fairly rugged and climbs straight up.
Don’t miss  The observation deck atop the mountain—built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s—provides sweeping, 360-degree views of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. On a clear day, you might even see Atlanta’s skyline. If you’re lucky, you could catch a glimpse of a rare peregrine falcon.
Foraging  Bring a little basket to collect the blackberries and blueberries you’ll likely find along the trail in spring and summer. Black bears like them too, however. Seeing a bear is unlikely (see sidebar on page 72), but toss some bear spray in your basket if you’re worried.
➽How to get there From the junction of Hale Ridge Road (Forest Service Road 7) and Warwoman Road, travel about 5.5 miles north on Hale Ridge Road. There, the trail begins on the left at about 3,280-feet.

Rabun Bald observation deck

Photograph by Ryan Hayslip

The Many Lives of Aubrey Lee Price

Illustrations by Lincoln Agnew

 

Around 586 B.C., the Israelite people had been conquered. Taken captive by the Babylonians, their earthly kings of lust, covetousness, pleasure, and greed had let them down. They lost everything they had, and were headed for years of slavery under a new foreign and brutal king. As they were marching to their new land of enslavement, they sat down by the rivers of Babylon and wept. They remembered their homeland and much better times.

In essence I did the same thing. When I first began writing this book, I was sitting on a rock near a foreign border, covered in sweat, blood, and dirt. I was looking back and thinking that if the bank investment would have been successful as planned, I would not be looking across a river and thinking of everything that was lost, and longing for better times of the past. While on the run for my life, I sometimes felt enslaved in this dark and evil world. I often dreamed of times past; times of laughter, happiness, love, family, and friends.

I came to realize that every day is a gift, and if I am alive at the end of each day, I ask God to help me be one step closer to completing my unfinished work of making full restitution to every one of my clients and to my creditors. I have had to relearn how to take one day at a time; pursue the love of the Creator; and embrace, connect, and protect His creation, especially His children. I still trust God to use me even in the darkest and most difficult of places, and with the most hostile of persons.

—Aubrey Lee Price, from the preface to The Inglorious Fugitive, his unpublished memoir

 

The last memory Hannah Price has of her father before he vanished is waking up to him praying over her. That itself was not unusual; Aubrey Lee Price had always been a demonstrative Christian. In the late 1990s he’d been a pastor at a small Baptist church in Griffin, Georgia—and after that, at Clear Springs Baptist Church in Johns Creek—where he tithed, mentored young congregants, and led mission trips to South America to build churches and distribute clothes to the poor. A Christian practices his faith through acts, Hannah’s father believed. A Christian also thanks God for the blessings bestowed on him, and Lee Price—no one called him Aubrey—was rich with them: four children, a wife, and a position of stature in the secular world.

For the past four years, Price had run his own multimillion-dollar investment firm, PFG. More than a hundred clients, many of whom had come through his church, entrusted with him their life savings. They saw a man whose great humility was outweighed only by his uncanny ability to outfox the markets. PFG had made him a wealthy man, even if the trappings of success—fancy cars, designer clothes, lavish vacations—held no great interest for him. His most expensive purchase was a five-bedroom home in Bradenton, Florida, with a heated pool, just a short walk from Sarasota Bay. He remodeled it with a friend and did the landscaping himself.

But the man who stood over her that early June morning in 2012 had become practically unrecognizable to seventeen-year-old Hannah Price. Once robust and focused, he’d grown distant and distracted. He’d gained weight. He looked haggard. The father who might utter “golly” when he was upset now cussed and fumed. Ashamed, he’d ask his children to pray for him. And they did, even as he sold their home in Florida and moved here to Valdosta, to a house half the size and a third the price. Eighteen months earlier, his firm had taken a controlling stake in Montgomery Bank & Trust, located in tiny Ailey, Georgia, halfway between Savannah and Macon. Hannah didn’t know the details, but she saw enough to conclude it had been the worst mistake of her father’s life. As she drifted between slumber and wakefulness, she figured her father was saying a prayer for her before leaving on another business trip. But why was he weeping?

The ferry from Key West to Fort Myers takes three and a half hours and leaves around six in the evening. By 7:30 in late spring, when the sun starts to set, there’s little to see. Fifteen miles out in the Gulf, you’ll pass the sparkling lights of Marco Island, Naples, and Bonita Springs as the ferry motors by the barrier islands of Estero Bay, home to bald eagles, gopher tortoises, and fiddler crabs. Five tributaries feed the bay, one of which is the Estero River.

On the evening of June 16, 2012, passengers likely paid little attention to the man in the khaki shorts and white shirt. As the ferry drew closer to the Estero, the man walked outside to the deck. The air was heavy with moisture. It felt like rain.

Estero had been my home when I was in the sixth grade. The Estero River is a tea-colored, brackish-water river that comes off the coast and trickles from the Everglades swamp. The banks of the Estero were lined with giant banyan, various oaks, and many tropical plants and trees. On the north side of the river that backed up to our restaurant was a large orange grove. The south side was just jungle and a state park, which was filled with hiking trails among the sand and oaks. To the immediate south was a small town called Bonita Springs and to the north is Fort Myers.

The river and coastal swamp were absolutely full of wildlife mysteries—mysteries that kept me awake at night. I dreamed of catching a ten-pound redfish or a thirty-pound snook. I wanted to see where the biggest alligator lived and how far the sharks made it up the river from the Gulf of Mexico. I ran as wild and free as a boy could ever dream.

Thirty-five years later, I made my plans to leave this world at one of my favorite places in life. I found a quiet spot on the outside second-floor deck of the ferry that was somewhat out of the wind and rain. I don’t remember anyone being on the deck with me. I just sat quietly, praying what prayers I could put together and wiping tears from my cheeks.

I intentionally [had] packed as though I was really going somewhere so my family would not think it strange that I was leaving for a week with no clothes. In addition, [the bag] was full of large envelopes and lengthy letters I would drop off at the post office before I left Key West. Now, I threw my small carry-on suitcase overboard along with my cell phone. I had nothing left but a backpack with diving weights and my driver’s license.

The mist was turning into a light rain. I moved to the third-floor deck, and I sat on the floor against a life jacket box. When the last light of day was gone, I became engulfed in a sea of great darkness—a darkness that would bring terror to any man’s heart. I immediately wished for my warm bed and that I would wake up and find that this was only a bad dream. But my condition was one of hopelessness and no amount of wishing could get me out. Depression had totally consumed me. It was time to go. I needed to make my way over the rails and off the edge of the boat. I would jump from the third-floor deck and be gone.

—From chapter four of The Inglorious Fugitive

 

Lee Price gave me a copy of the first eight chapters of The Inglorious Fugitive, his memoir in progress, at our third meeting. Over the course of four visits in February and March at the Bulloch County Jail in Statesboro, we talked for ten hours. The former pastor, financial adviser, and bank director is being held there until his trial on federal charges of bank fraud, related to the failing of Montgomery Bank & Trust in 2012. (Federal prosecutors in New York have also indicted him on wire and securities fraud charges.) When he disappeared on June 16, 2012, he left behind a bank whose collapse was imminent and dozens of investors whose life savings were gone. Lee Price became one of the FBI’s most wanted fugitives, with a $20,000 reward offered for information leading to his capture.

He reappeared last New Year’s Eve on I-95, after a routine traffic stop in Glynn County. This was eighteen months after he led everyone to believe he was on his way to die. Where had he been all that time? When he made his first appearance before a judge on January 2, he looked nothing like the clean-cut man of God he’d been for so much of his adult life. He’d lost weight, let his hair grow long, and sported a beard, dyeing both black. Journalists from New York to Paris wanted to know: Was this a Bernie Madoff of the South? Was he a fall guy? Just who was Aubrey Lee Price?

A few weeks after his arrest, I wrote him a letter. He responded with a phone call and an invitation to have a conversation, the only one he’s had with a journalist since his capture. Price was eager to tell his story. It was, quite literally, incredible. It included, in no particular order, a stint as a bag man for a Latin American cocaine kingpin, a vision quest atop a South American mountain, an almost obsessive devotion to fitness, a dependence on Adderall, and a collection of odd and occasionally endearing criminals and drug addicts with names like Kmart and Pico. His tale was, in many ways, like the script of a Hollywood film. The sort of movie you’d enjoy while shaking your head at its implausibility. In fact, Lee Price thought his adventure might make for a movie, in time. He said screenwriters had been in touch with him since he’d arrived in jail. A book agent had reached out too.

Could his “unbelievable story,” as he himself called it, possibly be true? Or was it a Walter Mitty–esque fantasy spun out of legal necessity and the imaginings of a man in the midst of the worst midlife crisis in history? As Price discussed the bank and his life on the run, fleshing out details from his book, he appeared composed and sincere, laughing and crying as he talked, quoting Scripture, Will Ferrell films, and weed prices alike. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder: When can you trust a man who admits he’s been a fraud? A man who, if authorities are correct, was essentially running a Ponzi scheme even before he got involved with the bank so many thought he’d save?

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In 1976, after a series of business setbacks, a former Marine named Jim Price moved his young family from Atlanta to Florida’s Palm Beach County, where they farmed squash and eggplant. His second son, whom they called Lee, was already a hard worker at ten. “He picked vegetables all day long,” Jim Price told me, “and never complained.”

They lived in Loxahatchee, then Naples, later opening a family restaurant by the Estero River and moving into an apartment above their business. Lee was a quiet, content boy. He was a good athlete at twelve, but small: five feet four, 110 pounds. He and his brother Greg bussed tables, fished, played tennis. It was a simple, bucolic life.

Jim Price still wasn’t satisfied, though. So they moved to Lyons, in southeast Georgia, near his mother. Toombs County was where Lee spent his junior high and high school years. “He was never cocky,” said his eleventh-grade chemistry teacher and tennis coach, Victor Wolfe, who admired Lee enough to name a child after him. “Very coachable. He had a good head on his shoulders. He was sensitive and hard-working.” Lee picked onions each summer until tenth grade, worked at the Handy Andy, won track races, and drove a 1973 red Vega hatchback he bought himself, which sometimes needed a push to start.


I paid my way through a four-year private college on my own. I was not a trust fund brat, and I did not like kids who got everything handed to them. I still do not. I worked for everything and anything I had. I only took out one small student loan, which I paid back before I even finished college. I personally hated any kind of debt and vowed in my early twenties to never owe anyone anything. Until my late thirties, I never really had any debt other than a mortgage. I never wanted to owe any man anything but the love of my heart, and that is how I lived most of my adult life.

—From chapter two of The Inglorious Fugitive

 

Beginning in 1987, Lee Price became deeply involved in church. He worked at a power plant for two years, making enough money to attend nearby Brewton-Parker, a Baptist college in Mount Vernon, Georgia, where he met his wife, Rebekah, and graduated in 1990 with a bachelor’s in ministry. During breaks he worked as a youth pastor. At First Baptist Church of Swainsboro, an hour north of Mount Vernon, he mentored Doug Brown, who was then fifteen.

“He liked to joke,” Brown said, “and make funny voices. This was a very evangelical church—people wouldn’t listen to secular music—and he was a deeply religious person. Really likable, though. He played the youth minister part well.”

Price went on to pursue a master’s degree from Columbia International University, before taking his first head minister job in Pelion, South Carolina, where his first two children, Nathan and Hannah, were born. Price was open and friendly with everyone. He helped people who didn’t go to church, who felt lonely or alienated.

As a pastor at Griffin’s Teamon Baptist Church during the late nineties, Price gave at least 10 percent of his modest salary back to the church and built a small house nearby. “He’s the best preacher I’ve ever worked under,” recalled Gail Cantrell, Teamon’s financial secretary at the time. “And he set a great example. My daughter is a missionary because of him.”

Price loved spreading the Gospel. Accompanied by members of his congregation, he took annual mission trips to Venezuela. But money was tight on his pastor’s pittance. Professors at Brewton-Parker had interested him in investing; he began pursuing licenses and studying the markets on his own.

In 2000 Price moved the family to Alpharetta and went to work for the brokerage firm Salomon Smith Barney. This surprised Doug Brown. “The guy was destined to be a preacher,” Brown told me. “Everything about him. He was very dynamic, convincing.” Those same attributes, of course, were useful in the financial world.

Price’s new office was off I-285, near Peachtree Dunwoody Road. Not far away was Clear Springs Baptist Church, where he also served as pastor for six years but directed that his $30,000 salary go toward mission work. “It all went to Global Discipleship, his charity in Venezuela,” said Paris Stone, financial director at Clear Springs and Price’s client for years. “He was very good to them.”

For eight years, Price’s family lived in Alpharetta. His sons became good tennis players; Samuel held a top ranking in the state. Every night, Price lay down in bed with each of his children and said a long prayer. By the end, they were usually asleep.

Price from a photo taken approximately six years ago
Price from a photo taken approximately six years ago

Lee Price took his work seriously, but when the market closed, his family could count on seeing him. He came to their soccer and football games, their tennis matches, their recitals and plays. He taught Hannah to play the guitar, piano, to sing. He did everything he could to make sure they were happy and big dreamers, Hannah said. That they knew right from wrong.

“He’s my hero,” his son, Nathan, who is studying to become a journalist, told me. “My favorite thing to do was watch my dad preach. I would just blow up with pride.” Lee Price was unusually generous, his family and friends said. Material things weren’t important to him. He loaned money without expecting to be repaid. He gave away a car to a family in need. He drove the same old truck, a 2001 Dodge Durango, for years.

In 2003 he left Smith Barney for Banc of America Securities; he’d have more clients and a better salary. His investor list soon ballooned to 500 and he worked constantly, became less involved with his church. He started PFG in January of 2008, a little over a year after obtaining his Series 24 broker license. He eventually had more than 100 clients. He moved the family to the 5,500-square-foot home in Bradenton, Florida, near some of his best memories as a child.

Clint Davis, a former Teamon deacon, visited. Price was the same man he’d come to admire more than a decade earlier, when they’d begun taking mission trips together: “A solid husband and father, one of the most giving men.” In 2011, when Davis’s wife was dying of cancer, Price wrote her a letter and read it to her at her bedside. “That’s the kind of man he is,” Davis said.

Ailey is a leafy hamlet in south-central Georgia with barely 500 people. The town’s claim to fame: Sugar Ray Robinson was born there. In 1926 the Petersons, a prominent local family, founded a bank in Ailey: Montgomery Bank & Trust. Through the generations, the Peterson family has produced congressmen and state senators, friends of Governor Eugene Talmadge and in-laws of Governor Richard Russell. Indeed, the town was originally named Peterson. “They have their own cosmos,” said William Ledford, editor of Vidalia’s the Advance.

Miller Peterson Robinson, known as Pete, is seen as the most powerful living member of the Peterson clan. Best Lawyers magazine recently named him the “Government Relations Atlanta Lawyer” of the year. Robinson came to know Nathan Deal when the two men were in the state senate in the early nineties, and he was on Deal’s four-man transition team after the governor’s election in 2011. Now chairman of Troutman Sanders Strategies lobbying group—recently named the top governmental affairs firm in Georgia—Robinson was elected chairman of MB&T in May 2009. His uncle, Thomas Peterson, was president (earning more than $500,000 in each of the two previous years); another uncle, William (Thomas’s brother), and a cousin, Mary Jeanne Fulmer (Thomas’s daughter), sat on the board of directors.

MB&T would never be a “big” bank, in any conventional terms, but when the economy heated up in the mid-2000s, it began looking beyond its small-town confines toward the coast, where developers were building waterfront homes. In 2006 it opened a branch on St. Simons Island.

Then came the Great Recession. By December of 2009, 66 percent of Georgia banks were unprofitable, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Twenty-five banks failed that year, twenty-one the next. In May of 2010, Thomas Dujenski took over as the Southeast regional director of the FDIC, based in Atlanta. At the time, Georgia had more bank closures than any other state. Dujenski deployed 564 staff to examine and resolve troubled banks, up from 364 in 2007. About 100 of them were tasked with scrutinizing Georgia banks.

Asked why Georgia led the nation in failed banks, Dujenski, who retired in May, cited loosened underwriting standards and a great deal of speculative lending in commercial real estate.

MB&T was a prime example. Its expansion to the coast couldn’t have been timed worse. As of December 31, 2009, a year before Price and his firm took a controlling interest in the bank, nearly two-thirds of MB&T’s nonperforming assets were clustered in Glynn and Camden counties. The bank closed its branches there. “Developers are defaulting on their loans with us,” bank officials said in the offering memorandum sent out to potential investors. Indeed, the percentage of “adversely graded loans”—those at varying levels of risk of being defaulted on—went from 15 percent in December 2008 to 28 percent just nine months later, according to a 2010 review of a sampling of the bank’s loans by Steve H. Powell & Company, a Statesboro firm that examined the bank. In October 2009 the FDIC stepped in and requested that the bank get its balance sheet in line, but to little avail; by July 2010 a full 36 percent of the bank’s loans were considered to be adverse, according to Powell’s report.

The report had harsh words for the way the bank was being run. Among its conclusions: “Real estate appraisal quality was found wanting”; “the bank has experienced a drastic decline in asset quality”; “underwriting and documentation should be improved.” Characterizing it as a “serious infraction of bank policy,” Powell pointed out that a bank official, with no authorization from higher-ups, had advanced a cashier’s check to one of the bank’s “large borrowers” to the tune of $64,450. The advance was not affiliated with a new loan or tied to an existing line of credit. The check was not accompanied by a “legal obligation to repay,” the report said.

Powell’s conclusion? MB&T will “experience further deterioration” as the market lags.

Why then, one wonders, would anyone invest in such a bank?

The bank deal was introduced to me the summer of 2010, and I have to admit, it sounded very intriguing. I had no community banking background or experience, but several of my clients and other contacts were convinced that these community banks needing capital were opportunities we should consider. After attending a number of dog and pony show meetings with a couple of different banks in the state of Georgia, my interest perked up. I listened to the stories of how, if certain amounts of capital were injected into these banks, they would be gold mines again.

—From chapter two of The Inglorious Fugitive

 

Federal prosecutors have another explanation for Price’s sudden interest in banking: He’d been losing his investors’ money at PFG. Despite the fund’s mission of “positive total returns with low volatility,” he’d been investing his clients’ savings in high-risk investments and real estate deals in South America. He bet big and, if the feds are correct, lost big. To cover his tracks, he sent his clients account statements that showed, according to authorities, “fictitious assets and investment returns.”

On December 31, 2010, the majority of the bank’s common stock shares were sold to PFGBI, a subsidiary of PFG created expressly for the bank deal, for approximately $10 million, effectively putting Price’s firm in control of the bank. The investment was bolstered by an additional $4 million, largely from locals who saw Price and his team as saviors. Price took charge of investing the bank’s new $14 million capital injection, which he had largely supplied; that was, after all, his expertise.

Among the investors was Dan McSwain, who made his fortune as the founder of McCar Homes, once one of the nation’s largest homebuilders. McSwain had grown up in the area and was also a client of Price’s investment firm. He invested $1.5 million into the bank. “I’m sold on this area,” he told Southeast Georgia Today in January 2011, just after the investor group led by Price took over the bank. “I like the bank, the people here, and the response of the people who were willing to put money in the bank. It was because of that we were willing to make this investment here.”

McSwain’s son, Keith, himself a homebuilder and owner of KM Homes in Alpharetta, invested $500,000. But he wasn’t so sanguine. “I did not want to do the deal,” Keith McSwain would say in a deposition in November 2012. “My father said, ‘I really want to do this for the hometown’ . . . And out of respect to him, I said, ‘I don’t want to do it, but if that’s what you want to do, then I’ll do it.’”

Keith McSwain’s concerns were validated almost immediately. In his deposition, he recalled being invited to sit in on a board meeting not long after Price and his firm took control. The balance sheet worried him, he said. Later, at dinner, he cornered Price. “Lee, this is a major problem,” McSwain said. After that, McSwain said in his deposition, he was not invited back.

“In July 2011 I got a call from my father, and he said, ‘Hey, I just got a call from Lee, and they had an audit and a write-down, and basically all the equity in the bank has been severely reduced.’”

Charles Clements, an MB&T executive vice president who was let go the day before Price came aboard, told me: “We screwed up on St. Simons. That was the downfall. It was like a tsunami hit us. But there were a lot of terrible loans made. A lot. We were financing new cars—banks don’t finance cars no more.”


So, now we buy the bank, and we find out that these numbers are nowhere near correct. How bad are they off? Instead of a $3.4 million hole, we’re in at least a $50 million hole. That much in total possible losses. The management claimed the smaller number was accurate and correct. It’s written in a statement. The FDIC and state banking authorities have seen this and done reviews of the bank. What are we supposed to do? We believe them. These guys know the bank. They’re trained to understand its condition. It’s not my expertise. I’m believing what they say. We wouldn’t have put the money in if we didn’t believe them.

Steve Powell is a key name. I’m wet behind the ears on this thing. I didn’t even know there was an independent loan review group coming in to do that, and that their file should have been given to us during our due diligence period. They’re gonna say, “You never asked for it.” But don’t you have the ethical and moral obligation to tell us the opinion of the loan review guy? You’re taking money from local investors who live and bank in that community, asking them to put money in.

—From my interview with Price, February 15, 2014

Through his attorney, Pete Robinson declined comment for this story. But among the deluge of lawsuits filed in the wake of Price’s disappearance and subsequent arrest, one in which Robinson is a codefendant, along with the bank’s former president and CEO and former CFO, offers insight into how even something presumably as clear-cut as a bank’s assets can be open for debate.

The building in Ailey where the now-defunct MB&T had its offices
The building in Ailey where the now-defunct
MB&T had its offices

After Price’s disappearance, Melanie Damian, the court-appointed receiver charged with recovering as much money as possible for Price’s investors, sued Robinson and other former MB&T officials for more than $10 million, claiming the bank hid from Price the bank’s true condition. For one thing, the lawsuit alleges, bank officials never revealed to Price before the sale the existence of the Powell report. For another, the suit claims, the bank drastically underestimated the amount of money it needed to set aside to cover loans it expected to go bad. If that amount had been reported accurately, Damian argues, “it would have been not only ill-advised to invest in [MB&T], it would have been unthinkable.”

After the sale, according to the suit, Price finally spoke to Powell, who told him that Price would have been “better off investing his clients’ funds in a lottery ticket, because if he had done that there would have been at least some chance of a return.” (Powell did not comment for this story.)

Attorneys for Robinson and other former bank officials paint a different picture. Damian fails to take into account the $17.6 million in loans the bank wrote off, the defendants argue. What’s more, in what appears to be the banking equivalent of “caveat emptor,” Robinson’s attorneys argue that if Price relied solely on the bank’s representations of the money it would need to cover bad loans, that “reliance was misplaced.” As for the Powell report? Although they don’t claim Price saw the report before the sale, the former bank officials play down its importance: “The Powell reports merely reported on a sampling of the bank’s adversely classified loans.”

In any case, it’s Price’s contention that his growing awareness of the bank’s dire condition influenced what happened next. According to U.S. prosecutors, Price indicated to the bank’s directors and investors that MB&T’s capital would be invested in U.S. Treasury securities. But between January 2011 and June 2012, he allegedly misappropriated, embezzled, and lost more than $21 million in speculative trading. Additionally, according to the indictment, he fabricated statements to show that the bank’s money was safe.

Price himself admits as much:

With losses mounting daily in my investors’ accounts, I did the unthinkable. I deceitfully devised a plan to use the bank’s securities account, and began trading those funds with hopes of making bigger returns to build the bank’s capital account back up and pay investors back. It was the worst decision of my entire life, and I take responsibility for it. There is no one else to blame for this except me. In doing so, I had hoped the bank could make enough money to survive and maybe wait out the horrible real estate values that saddled the bank’s many bad loans. With time running out and facing extreme pressure, the losses in all trading accounts compounded daily. The [situation at the] bank had forced me into quick, high-risk-taking that caused me to make many very hasty and irreversible decisions. No matter how hard I worked or tried, I could not come up with any money-making ideas or trades.

—From chapter two of The Inglorious Fugitive

 

As 2011 wound down, Lee Price was “just wrecked—physically, mentally, and emotionally,” his father said. By early 2012, Lee Price began to liquidate his possessions. He sold the family home in Bradenton for $27,500 less than he’d paid for it four years earlier. He set up an office in Lyons, at his parents’ old home, to be closer to the bank. The house was basically empty, save for a big desk. He put a bed next to it and lived there, making hundreds of calls and emails a day, sleeping little. He started smoking Camels again, and losing his temper.

“My health problems have compounded greatly,” Price later wrote in a twenty-two-page letter to regulators, “to the point of agonizing headaches and stomach ulcers beyond belief. I am sure that I suffer from SAR (specific absorption rate from too much cell phone usage). I literally spent hours on the phone every day with clients, bank-related calls trying to solve problems and allay concerns. My head was on fire much of the time. I broke several phones in anger. Various cancers surely have taken me over.”

Since its inception, PFG had raised $40 million from investors, $36.9 million of which went into a trading account at Goldman Sachs. When the account was closed in mid-May of 2012, only $480,000 was left. At home, Price stocked up on supplies for his family: toilet paper, water, canned food. He took his children to play golf and to Wild Adventures theme park. He taught his youngest, Esther, to drive.

“We could tell he was under pressure,” said Hannah. “He’d say, ‘Keep me and my business in your prayers. Be strong and keep your eyes on the Lord.’ He eventually told us we’d probably be going into bankruptcy.” According to prosecutors, airline records show that Price went to Venezuela in early June. Whenever he was away, his children sent him texts and emails full of Scripture, love, and encouragement. A typical one from Hannah: Be strong and keep believing, Daddy. We love you.

The night before he left for good, he watched Braveheart with his oldest son. They stayed up late, Nathan recalled, talking about “church, the ministry, where I was heading in life.” His last words to Nathan, in person, came the next morning. Price had tears in his eyes: “Never give up. Never give up.”

He caught a plane. Security cameras show Price wearing khaki shorts, sneakers, a white long-sleeve shirt, and a red cap while exiting the Key West airport terminal that day. Next he’s seen getting in a taxi, and then—after changing into a white hat and visiting a post office and a dive shop—boarding a ferry from Key West to Fort Myers. His black backpack appears full and his cap is pulled low over his face. A few hours later, he stood at the railing.

He did not jump.



His children knew
something was wrong when they got no response to their Father’s Day emails; he always replied. By Monday, the letters he’d posted from Key West had arrived at their destinations. In the letter to regulators, he was despondent and penitent.

I am 100 percent responsible for the losses I created. I blame no one but myself. Relating to PFG, I falsified statements with false returns. I created false financial statements and defrauded investors, regulators, other work associates, and bank employees. I lost money through trading and various investments, including the Montgomery Bank & Trust securities portfolio. I hid many things fraudulently and deceptively, to try and give myself more time to pull some positive returns together . . . No one else had any knowledge of any fraudulent activity. I estimate it is about $20 million to $23 million in losses, excluding the Montgomery Bank & Trust commingled Goldman Sachs securities account (about $15 million).

From Price’s “Confidential Confession for Regulators,” mailed before his disappearance

“No one knew what to think,” Hannah Price said. The Prices notified the Coast Guard, but a storm made the search difficult. “We were left hanging,” Jim Price said.

Lee Price’s wife and four children had less than $5,000 in cash. Rebekah was too upset to eat. Seventeen-year-old Hannah felt physically ill. “I walked around the house, just crying,” she said. “He was my best friend.” She took time off from her job as a waitress. On his desk she’d placed a photo of the two of them on a mission trip. On the back she’d written, “I don’t know what I’d do without you.” What good was it now? She requested extra shifts.

Four months later, Rebekah filed papers to have her husband declared deceased. “We didn’t have a body,” said Hannah. “No evidence he was alive or dead. We all just decided to believe what he’d written and go on about our lives as if he was dead.”

Online exclusive
Read the full text of Price’s “Confidential Confession for Regulators” 

Not everyone agreed. A coworker looked Hannah in the eye and said, “Your daddy’s alive.” The FBI thought so too, eventually releasing a statement: “Price lied to investors about where their money would be invested, and lied to them about the solvency of his company. He lied to the bank on whose board he served about investment of bank capital, and lied again to cover up that lie. It is therefore reasonable to assume that Price’s talk of suicide was also a lie. The FBI is actively looking for Aubrey Lee Price.”

Where was he? In his apologia, Price said, “I leave this world in shame.” His family read that to mean he would kill himself. Instead, within days of disembarking the ferry, he told me, he’d made his way to a Latin American country—he wouldn’t say which—where he entered the orbit of a friend of a friend, a casual acquaintance he’d come to know over the past seven years. In his book, Price refers to the man as “Pedro,” whose family business included cell phones, farming equipment, and hotels. One day, Price writes, the two men dined at one of Pedro’s restaurants.


After drinking a glass of liquor, Pedro leaned forward, cleared his throat, looked me dead in the eyes, and said, “Listen to me very closely. Before we talk any further, you need to know one thing. I know where your children are right now and I can have them all dead in just a few hours with one simple phone call.”

I held my stare as my hands began to shake and sweat intensely. I felt something run through my veins. It was not fear. It was the deepest hatred I had ever felt . . . I slowly reached into my pants under the table. I pulled out a loaded .38 Magnum [Editor’s note: There’s no such weapon as a .38 Magnum] and pointed it straight above his belly. He heard me cock the trigger. I said, “Listen to me very carefully. Do not take your eyes off of my eyes. Do not even blink at your bodyguards. We will both die right here, right now, and I am more than ready to go.”

I looked at him with fire in my eyes and said, “Por que chingar le diria algo como eso?” Which means, “Why the f— would you say something like that?” He started laughing. He said, “I wanted to see if you are alive, if you have feeling left in you. I see that you do!” As firmly as I could, I said, “I may be a mere shell of a man at this moment, but I do not care who you are. I have absolutely no fear of death. I will put at least six bullets in you before your bodyguards empty every shell of their guns into my body if I even get a small whiff that you are thinking about touching my family in any kind of harmful way.” He said, “Tranquillo, tranquillo. I promise that nothing will happen to your family as long as we have an understanding.”

In seven years of meetings with this man, I never dreamed he would speak to me that way. I did not have much choice but to follow him. I could feel my face turning pale and my body shaking, so I hurried to the bathroom and vomited my entire meal. Tears were streaming down my face again, and I sat bent over, trying to catch my breath. After a few minutes, I finally regained my composure enough to walk out. [Pedro] smiled and asked if I shit in my pants. He put his arm around me and said, “I think you and I can work together just fine.”

—From chapter five of The Inglorious Fugitive


In August of 2012,
less than two months after Price’s disappearance, a federal judge in Atlanta appointed Melanie Damian as the receiver. Compared with the $21 million in losses Price allegedly incurred, the pickings were slim: They included $345,653 from a Bank of America account, $10,073.14 from a TD Ameritrade account, and $5,230.25 from the sale of silver dollars and half dollars.

Damian visited properties purchased with PFG investor money, traveling even to Venezuela, where Price was the listed owner of two working farms that grew corn and sugar cane, and held a stake in a third. Damian sold off various parcels throughout Georgia and Florida—a handful of condo units in Florida, primarily. Not all the sales netted as much as expected. The market value of a seventy-one-acre plot of timber and hunting land in Lyons, straddling the Toombs and Emmanuel county lines, was initially put at $695,000 by Damian’s real estate agent. But when it finally sold this past January, it fetched $72,080—barely more than $1,000 an acre.

On December 31, 2012, a judge in Florida declared Aubrey Lee Price dead. Less than a month later, one life insurance provider issued a check for $1.25 million, which eventually went into the receiver’s growing asset pool. By October 2013, Damian had collected $1.8 million from various policies. Within a few months, though, all the companies would request their money back. After all, Lee Price wasn’t dead.


We walked through a back hallway and through a side door where we entered his club. The room was full of flawless, young, beautiful, barely dressed ladies dancing for hundreds of men to loud, thumping Latin music. There must have been ten on the stages and another thirty sitting with men. When Pedro walked in, everyone looked as if the king were coming through. I followed. We went out another door and down a long hallway. We must have passed six different well-armed guards, and then someone opened the doors to a large warehouse room.

There’s thirty to forty workers; they’re stuffing little bags full of white powder. [Pedro] took me to every station. I spent a couple of hours just listening. I’m a curious person by nature. I’m adventurous. I have very little fear. We walked outside and stood on the loading dock, looking over a lake and this incredible city. He stood there and he said: “Do you want to be on the receiving end of a stream of piss? Or the giving end of the stream of piss?” I told him I’d never thought about it like that.

Pedro laughed and walked upstairs to his plush office, where he continued his pitch: “I want you to work for me. I can give you whatever you want. If you can help me, I can help you make millions.”

He said, “You are a criminal, and we are all criminals. I need someone like you that can help me, and I want to help you. I have many problems throughout my businesses. I will pay you very well. Yes, there are risks, but you will learn quickly and I personally will train you. My family has millions and millions of dollars in U.S., European, and Asian banks. You know banks. You know investments. You will know our biggest and best buyers of our product in the United States.”

From chapter five of The Inglorious Fugitive and from my interview with Price on February 22, 2014


On July 31, 2013,
Melanie Damian was deposed by an attorney for KM Homes, whom she had sued, seeking recovery of PFG money she claimed had been loaned to KM Homes. From the transcript:

Q. When do you think the fraud actually began?
A. Well, certainly by 2009 [Price] was misrepresenting the returns.
Q. That’s a critical part of this fraud, is that correct?
A. Right.
Q. And in a Ponzi scheme, when he is representing those returns and people are requesting payouts on those returns, he’s basically taking money from one investor and giving it to another?
A. Correct.


I was an expert taster of cocaine. Understanding the quality. I had to taste it to know if it was any good or not. Quality control. Every one of my friends were criminals. I didn’t have any friends that were normal people. On purpose—I didn’t want to be around anyone normal.

I’d never been around people who used drugs before. I’d preached against alcohol. But now I’m sitting around with a Bud Light in my hand, faking drinking it. I’d usually drink about half a bottle at most. That was hard for me; I just don’t like it. But it was part of my cover.

From my interview with Price on March 1

Damian’s lawsuit against KM Homes centered on an arrangement struck sometime in 2010 between Lee Price and Keith McSwain. According to McSwain’s deposition, his business needed an injection of capital, so he called Price looking to make a withdrawal from McSwain’s PFG account. Price, McSwain said, had another idea. “How about we do it this way?” he said to McSwain. So over the course of seven months beginning in August 2010, Price transferred almost $4 million from PFG to KM Homes. In turn, starting in October 2010 and continuing up until just before Price’s disappearance, KM Homes paid back $1.9 million, with a little more than $671,000 of that considered a “return.” If that sounds like a loan, it did to Damian as well, who made it the basis of her lawsuit against KM Homes. After all, KM Homes agreed to pay back the amount at an interest rate that ultimately reached 17 percent. McSwain and his attorney argued that the money in question was McSwain’s to begin with, and represented his investment in PFG. On July 31, 2013, McSwain was deposed and questioned by Guy Giberson, an attorney for Damian:

Q. Okay, Mr. McSwain, is it your contention that the money that is at issue with respect to this case, that none of it was a loan?
A. It is my contention that it was my money, my equity of which I got and put in KM Homes to grow the business.
Q. Then why did KM Homes pay interest?
A. Because that’s the way Lee wanted to set it up. And then we paid him a return, as he was saying he was paying us a greater return.
Q. Why pay him a return if it wasn’t a loan?
A. Because it—say that again?
Q. If it was not a loan, why pay any interest at all?
A. Because not to hurt the fund.
Q. So it was a gift.
A. I didn’t say it was a gift. That’s your word. I looked at it as trying to not hurt the fund.

The suit went to trial on April 21. Damian sought $3,273,000 plus $503,055.30 in accrued interest through April 30, 2013, plus $1,524.41 per day after. On April 23, as the jury was set to resume deliberations, the two parties reached a settlement. According to Damian, KM Homes agreed to pay $1,665,000 to the receivership. Through his attorney, Keith McSwain declined to comment.

13417781_H26306152_CMYK
Some of the fake IDs police say were seized from Price’s Citra, Florida residence after his capture



I made my way back to the States and began working on plan B away from Pedro. North Florida was where I ended up for a couple of reasons. One is that it was familiar territory, and two, it’s where Pedro had operations. If I needed him, I could get to him quickly. I lived out of a budget hotel for a week or so and made a couple fake IDs. Once I was able to purchase a bicycle, I road that bike all over the place, mainly for exercise and the working off of stress.

I had few friends and quite a few associates. My rules were kind of simple: Trust absolutely no one. Talk as little as possible and do as little evil as possible. Get close to no one. The focus for the first six months was to restore my spirit and soul and to try and rebuild some mental capital. It was very difficult. The beast within had me, and I could not break free.

I understand every strain of marijuana. I spent time in twenty grow houses there. I know where there are twenty grow houses in the Southeast right now. I was just walking through whatever doors opened for me. I met all kinds of people. People that I love now. They don’t judge you. And I liked that. I’m a criminal, we’re all criminals. We’ve got each other’s backs. There was a level of comfort there, and I was lonely. I went to bed every night crying, quoting Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; he makes me lie down in green pastures . . .” I didn’t stop crying before bed until probably a few weeks ago.

I constructed Jason [as an alias]: a divorced guy who lost all his money and his family because of cocaine addiction. Now I’m trying to recover and I’m reading the Bible to figure out where I’m going. And I’m depressed. Because I was. All of my aliases had a lot of truth to them.

My other names were the initial J, Gator, and Diesel. Gator was the funniest because [I wore] Florida Gator football apparel, including a hat, acting like I was a Gator fan. My roommate in college was a Florida Gator fan, and it made me want to vomit. I have always been a UGA fan, so I believe I helped the Dawgs win the last few years by being a curse to the Gators.

From chapter one of The Inglorious Fugitive and from my interview with Price on March 1, 2014

 

According to a Marion County, Florida, police report filed in early January, just after his capture, Lee Price lived for a time in Citra, Florida, on Jacksonville Road, and allegedly tended to 225 marijuana plants growing inside a mobile home. This was on the property of a couple named Bonnie and Richard Sipe, who knew Price only as “Jason.” They let him live rent-free in the old trailer in return for doing some gardening and yard work.

The Sipes wouldn’t talk to me, but they did tell a reporter from the UK Daily Mail, “We thought alcohol destroyed his life. We thought he was from South Carolina and had an ex-wife and a couple of kids.”

The trailer where Price was living in Citra, Florida, before his arrest on December 31 of last year
The trailer where Price was living in Citra, Florida, before his
arrest on December 31 of last year

In late March, I traveled to tiny Citra, home of the pineapple orange, population around 7,000. I stood outside gas stations, grocery stores, auto body shops, and the abandoned property, overgrown with weeds, where Price lived. Pointing to before and after pictures of him on my phone, I asked a hundred people if they knew this man who went by Jason or Lee. A few said he performed odd jobs around town—repairing fences, growing fruit, electrical work—and was occasionally seen with an attractive younger woman.

Mark Abney, a local mechanic and acquaintance, said Price told him he’d been in jail for cocaine use, and his family had kicked him out. After that, he’d become addicted to Adderall. Abney said Price told others that he was a recovering drunk. He knew that Price kept pit bulls—I saw an animal control sign posted on a fence—and was studying Spanish. Once, Price told Abney, he had a close call with police while driving back from Jacksonville with some marijuana in his car. He’d told me the same story.

“He planted palm trees around here,” Abney said, “but I figured he was making his money some other way.”

Price told a local handyman named John Dewese that a sick uncle lived inside the shed on the Sipes’ property where the 225 marijuana plants were eventually found. He said this uncle would shoot anyone who came near him. So no one did. “He was pretty quiet,” Dewese told me. “Kept to himself, mostly. I cut some land back there for him to grow some plants. I guess he was here for a year. Maybe two years, off and on. He said he came from some place called Green Cove Springs. Never heard of it myself.”


I didn’t have an Adderall that morning. I was driving to Hinesville, Georgia, on I-95, to get my car registered so I could sell it. It was about 10 a.m. I was praying through my prayer list. I couldn’t ever finish. I’d get distracted. It was one of those moments where I was angry at God. I’d just crossed over into the Brunswick area and immediately I thought about the bank. I kept asking, Where are you, God? Why don’t you ever answer my prayers? Why have you left me in this situation? It was the Christmas holidays and I wanted to see the kids. I banged my steering wheel in anger and I remember saying, “Lord, where are you?” I said that like ten times. And then I looked up and there were blue lights behind me. I said, “Thanks, Lord. That’s where you are.”

—From my interview with Price on March 2, 2014

On December 31, 2013, Glynn County sheriff’s deputy Justin Juliano initiated a traffic stop at mile marker 43 on I-95, according to his police report. “The stop was on a 2001 Dodge Ram truck for a violation of the Georgia window tint law, a cracked windshield, and an expired license plate. The driver, who was later identified as Mr. Aubrey Lee Price, was issued a written warning for the above noted violations. I asked for consent to search his vehicle and his person and Mr. Price granted consent verbally. During this search I located a fake Georgia license. The roadside investigation led to the arrest of Mr. Price for giving a false name and date of birth. Once we arrived at the jail, Mr. Price disclosed his true identity.” The cop later told a TV reporter, “It was like a weight lifted off his shoulders.”

In custody, Price called his father: “Dad, I’m alive. I need you to listen carefully. Call this number for me and give them this code: 666.” The code, Price told me, was for Pedro’s people. “It meant run for your life, get rid of your phones.”

“I didn’t know what he was talking about,” Jim Price said. “I couldn’t do it.”

When I first saw Lee Price, outside an interview room at Statesboro’s Bulloch County Jail, he was shorter than I’d expected. His hair had been cut. He wore baggy jail pinstripes, cheap purple eyeglasses left for him by his lawyer, black Crocs, and leg shackles. He shook my hand. “The food is terrible in here,” he said as we sat down. “I mostly just eat peanut butter from the commissary.” He looked his age, forty-seven. But when he smiled—which was often on some days, and never on others—there was something boyish, mischievous about him.

When Price arrived, federal agents warned jail officials to watch for suicidal tendencies. So he was placed in solitary confinement for a few weeks. There, he said, he wrapped himself in toilet paper for warmth and asked for a Bible. On the eleventh day, one arrived. Since leaving solitary he’d spent time in a communal cellblock where, he said, he ministered to fellow inmates and wrote his life story on a computer donated by a friend. On our third visit, he shared eight chapters of the manuscript with me and invited me to quote from it. He also asked me to show it to his father, who called me a few days later and said, “I don’t know how much is fiction and how much is real. It sure would make a good movie, though.”


Here are some things that helped me survive and overcome depression:

1. Heavy amounts of Bible Reading and Scriptural Meditation (sometimes forty to fifty chapters a day); Continual Prayer; Confession and Cleansing of Sins; Times of Fasting; Personal Worship; Constantly Calling Upon Jesus for help and expressing my faith in Him.
2. Talking truth to myself. I had to keep reminding myself that God does love me. He does forgive me. He has not left me alone. He has not abandoned me. He is present with me. He is working all things together for my good and His glory.
3. Bike Riding, Weight Lifting, Punching Bags, Push-Ups, Jump Ropes, Long walks and Hiking, and a new water- and protein-focused diet.
4. Journaling, Writing, and Reading.
5. A task: New criminal-oriented friends for me to learn and understand. Helping others every chance I could. Adventure, Curiosity, and New Experiences. Willingness to take risk and do whatever was necessary to break free.
6. Working outside in the Sunshine as much as possible. Planting trees and plants.
7. Adderall. 30 milligrams once every 2 days.
8. Levity in adversity. Joy in my trials.

—From chapter seven of The Inglorious Fugitive

 

In a letter to her father in jail, Hannah Price, who’s now studying radiology at a small Georgia college, wrote: “Lately I have been thinking about how the story of Job is kind of similar to yours and how even though you have gone through a lot and lost some of the things you most treasured, you still are praising God through it. I want to remind you that at the end of the story Job was returned not just what he had in the beginning, but more.”


Believe it or not, I’m actually having fun here, even though I’m sleeping on the concrete floor. It’s like revival. There’s twenty guys on my block. Every night they come in my room for an hour to sing and hear me lead them in prayer and a Bible story. Our favorite song is “Pass Me Not, Oh Gentle Savior.”

—From my interview with Price on February 22, 2014

“He should have killed himself,” said Wendy Cross, a food truck owner in Decatur who invested her life savings with PFG and lost all $364,000. “But I don’t think he ever was going to do that.

“Being fifty years old with no savings is a scary place to be. But I was one of the youngest who got screwed. I went to a meeting for his investors last year, and I’ll never forget this old lady who stood up after it had all been explained. And she said, ‘But what about my monthly check?’ She meant her annuity, I guess. And someone kept explaining that she wouldn’t get any more of those. And she just couldn’t understand why.”

Mike Gunter, a friend of Price’s who retired from Lockheed Martin, lost close to a million dollars. Gunter wrote Price after his capture: “Early on in this ordeal, I went through many emotions: fear, denial, some anger, sadness, betrayal. But through much prayer, God saw me through it. As strange as it may seem, I’m a better man for having endured this. It has actually been a powerful witnessing tool for me. It’s been a very painful experience for my family, but this big, powerful God we serve has seen us through it all. I hold no ill will towards you. But as you might imagine, I have many questions that only you can answer.”

On my final visit with Price, in March, the thought of growing old behind bars—a single count of bank fraud can bring thirty years—seemed to have set in. That he’d finally been allowed outside for fifteen minutes a few days before my visit, for the first time in two months, only clarified the captivity in which he will likely live for a very long time. “I’d forgotten what the sun felt like,” he said.

When he can’t sleep, he told me, he reads the list of investors’ names written in the margins of his Bible. He prays for them. He prays for Pete Robinson and the bank’s other former directors too.

Price has told his wife not to waste gas money driving three hours to visit him in jail. “They think I’m gonna be home soon,” Price said of his family. “But I’m not. I have to tell my wife to divorce me and find a man who can help support them.” He blinked back tears. “I’m not filing bankruptcy, though. I’m gonna work with my creditors. The day of restitution, that’s the day I’m dreaming of. I don’t want anyone forgiving me until I pay them back.”

So he’s working on his book and talking to the literary agent and the scriptwriters. Maybe his incredible story will make money for those he’s wronged. He said he’s received interest from financial firms, too, in jail. If he becomes a convicted felon, he won’t be able to work as an adviser again. But he could be a research analyst, if a judge allowed it. “There are people at hedge funds who’ll give me a chance. I’d work 24/7 for them in here.”

It’s likely the criminal case against Price will be resolved long before the civil suits surrounding the bank and PFG. In addition to suing KM Homes and former directors at MB&T, Damian, as the receiver, has gone after the FDIC (“the FDIC should have required the bank to shut down in 2009 . . . instead, the FDIC made things worse”), those PFG investors who profited from their investments (yes, there were some), and even the law firm associated with the sale of the bank’s shares. Along the way, her firm’s fees, combined with what’s been paid to forensic accountants, stenographers, and the like, now total more than $1 million.

During one discussion, Price dreamed aloud of leaving prison decades from now: “If I have ten years left, when I’m eighty, maybe I’ll retire down by the Gulf of Mexico. Take my prison earnings and go. Get me a trailer somewhere. That’s where life will end for me, if I’m lucky.”

But he doesn’t feel lucky. The last thing he said to me in person was this: “I’m losing the energy to even fight. Send me wherever I’m gonna go and leave me alone.” He paused, then finally answered a question I’d asked him earlier. “What have I learned from all this? Trust no one.”

Weeks later, when we spoke again on the phone, he was back to his old self, almost chipper. He said he wasn’t giving up. He said he’d reinvent himself in jail. He said crazier things have happened.

With additional reporting by Steve Fennessy

Additional photo credits: opening illustration: mugshot: AP Images; bank: courtesy of Marion County Police Department; Price: courtesy of Clint Davis; bank (standalone photo): courtesy of Marion Police Department; IDs: Landov; Citra house: Alan Youngblood

More: Read our June editor’s note about this story

An artist’s unlikely inspiration: Walmart

Brendan O’Connell is painting bananas. Not particularly impressive specimens, either. They sit bunched and bruised beside his twelve-by-sixteen-inch canvas, which is balanced on a shopping cart at the front of a Walmart store in Tucker. Forty-five years old, a little scruffy, and wearing tattered jeans, O’Connell could be mistaken for a giddy house painter who, having inhaled a fume too many, wandered in by accident with his kid’s art supplies. But he’s here now, very intentionally doing what has made him rather famous—for a painter, anyway—over the past few years: turning Walmart’s brightly lit, multicolored, bargain-basement aisles into a source of high-art inspiration. He chats and laughs about life’s unpredictability while he paints, keeping an eye out for anyone who might know him; he grew up right around the corner.

O’Connell attended St. Pius X high school but didn’t get into art until after graduating from Emory. He was living in Paris then and, by his own admission, failing as a writer. Twenty years after cutting his teeth doing hasty portraits along the Seine, he has a painting on display at Walmart headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, and one in its museum—making him the closest thing the largest retailer in the world has to a company artist. He’s been to hundreds of the stores over the past decade and set up his canvas or camera—often he paints using photographs—all over them.

He gestures around this one, which is 134,000 square feet and seven years old: “Check out those Duck Dynasty throw towels! You know we’re in the South.”

Behind him, a woman watches, whispering: “Is he . . . supposed to be here?”

This month he’ll be an artist-in-residence at his alma mater, Emory, capping off a string of 2013 successes that included a profile in the New Yorker and a spot on The Colbert Report. (“He went easy on me,” says O’Connell.) He’s certainly come a long way from getting booted out of Walmarts. When he started a decade ago, a sales associate would find him taking reference photos of Elmer’s Glue, Utz potato chips, or Wonder Bread, often with a model posing nearby. O’Connell would try to explain, but eventually he accepted the company policy: no cameras and no art without permission. One day he did an interview on NPR in which he mentioned being “thrown out of more Walmarts than most New Yorkers have ever visited.” Within the hour, a Walmart official called. They realized that O’Connell was one of the only cool things happening in their stores and gave him free rein.

“Every artist wants to be the Andy Warhol of their generation,” he says now, smiling. “But I’m the Bob Ross of mine.” The impressionistic bananas, which took perhaps an hour to paint, as shoppers filled their carts, will likely sell for two thousand bucks.

O’Connell has leveraged his acclaim and collector appeal to start the nonprofit Everyartist.me, an arts education program that has staged massive collaborative art projects—a fusion of mass marketing and creativity that no doubt would appeal to both Sam Walton and Andy Warhol.

Bonus: Read the original, extended version of this article here.

This article originally appeared in our February 2014 issue under the headline “Big-box art.”

Yoga with the chattiest person I know

Mental chatter is something we all deal with. Well, all of us who live in a city and have jobs and haven’t taken a vow of silence recently. There are drugs out there, both legal and illegal, reputed to help with this condition. But there’s also that oft-cited panacea for those with open minds and bodies: yoga. Most of us have someone in our lives with a particularly pronounced chatter problem, to whom we may have prescribed yoga. That’s certainly true of my mother, the hardest working and least mellow person I know. She needs yoga. It’s obvious. And so do I.

Last night, after some gentle but persistent urging, she relented and we went to a yoga class together over at Tough Love Yoga in southeast Atlanta, a studio where I’ve gone occasionally. She brought along the fancy Lululemon mat I gave her over a year ago. A not very subtle Christmas gift, it still looks new. Not that she hasn’t used it—she has, just not with regularity or always as a yoga mat. (To be fair, I haven’t used all of her Christmas gifts, either.)

I chose a 75-minute “deep stretch” class at Tough Love, which was advertised as “gentle” and good for beginners like us. The instructor was an easy-going young woman named Alex. My 64-year-old mom’s first unfiltered comment, after seeing Alex and a few others walk into the studio in spandex: “Look at those butts! I don’t think mine ever looked that good.”

This is the kind of thing she says in a normal-volume voice wherever she happens to be. I tried explaining that yoga studios are different, that they aspire to cultivate quiet and peace and an emphasis on mind over body. Indeed, that most people don’t talk during class. “I am who I am,” she said, defiantly. “But I’ll try.”

Well, she did try, a little. After the first fifteen minutes of class—during which we flowed through a number of basic poses: down dog, cobra, plank, warrior one—her external chatter became internal chatter and then, she later told me, it largely went quiet. The music helped. It was something ambient, relaxing, surely on someone’s makeout mix. Also helpful: the heat of the room, the repetition of the movements, the resulting sweat. All of these things, according to ubiquitous yoga gospel, can activate the internal mute button. My mind quieted down, too.

Towards the end of the class, during the stretching-intensive final half hour, I found myself in “happy baby” pose beside my seemingly happy mother. Her eyes were closed, and so was her mouth. Of course, when shavasana ended, both opened right back up. But there was a calm about her. “My mind feels really weird,” she told me in a stage whisper. That’s clarity, ma.

Seeing orange at a new gym

Last night I visited one of the hottest** new fitness chains in the country: Orange Theory Fitness. There are 200 locations around the U.S., and a number planned locally. But only one has so far opened near downtown Atlanta: on Howell Mill, beside Stooges Bar. And it’s already popular. I called midday and was told that the best they could do was put me on a waiting list for the 8pm class. Fortunately, I got in. I was wearing an orange jacket and shoes; maybe that helped.

After filling out some paperwork, I was handed a heart rate monitor to track the intensity of my 55-minute group workout, which would incorporate a treadmill, a rowing machine, and free weights. Wrapped around my torso using a strap that presses directly against the skin, the monitor was slightly uncomfortable. But it made me feel like the subject of an experiment. That was kind of cool. And kind of true: the experiment was my own, though.

Kristen, an irrepressibly energetic young trainer in spandex, startled me as I emerged from the bathroom after attaching my monitor: “Is this your first time?” she said. (For a second, I thought she meant my first time in a bathroom.) Her eyes were wide and sparkly. I told her it was indeed. Then she conducted a cheerful, conversational version of an intake form—how often do you work out, where, what intensity—finally welcoming me to Club Orange. “You’re gonna love it!” No stoic or aloof trainers here.

Next came instructions, which Kristen delivered to the group of seven to which I’d been assigned. (Each class contains around twenty people, divided into groups of three; each rotates through three stations.) I was told to pay attention to the color of my personal data box on a large screen positioned above the treadmills: “Green is your base level,” said Kristen. “Orange is that level where you don’t want to talk to anyone, and red is where you can’t possibly give anything more. Like, you want to die. Almost.” Then the big sparkly smile again.

The gym itself is bathed in a luminous, orange glow. Techno/electronica/pop blared, natch. Sometimes it obscured Kristen’s commands from a microphone. She began by telling my group, stationed by the free weights, to drop down into plank, the yoga position that works the abs and shoulders. From there, we did a half dozen sets of shoulder touches and elbow-to hand movements that were challenging. I looked up at the heart board: still in the green zone.

Next, after a few seconds of rest, came the treadmill: a few minutes of hill climbing at a fast jog, bringing the heart rate up to orange, briefly. And then more plank, this time on the treadmill itself. (This felt a little unclean, hovering above lots of anonymous sweat and dirt.) This was followed by the rowing machine, at a high intensity level, for a few minutes. Repeat. And then back to the free weight area for some curls and squats. All without much of a break, or water, keeping the heart rate high and the planks low.

I spent four of the last ten minutes of the class in the red zone, maxing out at 95 percent of the highest safe heart rate their machine calculated for me (given my height, weight, and age). I certainly didn’t want to talk to anyone, even to brag. The best I could do was keep my grunting at a relatively low decibel level. Kristen urged us on: “You can do anything for thirty seconds!” and “You can do anything for fifteen seconds!” and “You’re almost done!” That last one was a lie. But an effective one. I finished feeling more wrung out than I have in a while.

I noticed, before leaving, that my total red zone percentage for the workout was six percent. Someone else, I saw, had been in the red for three times that long!

This loosely data-driven set-up—similarly used at Buckhead’s Flywheel spinning studio—is the main thing that sets OTF apart from its competitors. All the equipment and most of the exercises are familiar to anyone who has been to a gym or taken fitness classes in the last few years. Still, I recommend trying a free class, as I did, to see what a little extra data, mid-workout, will do for you.

**According to an OTF representative at the Buckhead location on Piedmont Road, opening in a few months, where I stopped in yesterday after the dentist.

Lumberjacking as exercise

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I didn’t get into axes until my early twenties. Working at a backcountry hut in the White Mountains after college, I was paid to do some trail maintenance. That meant moving rocks around and curtailing the growth of a troublesome tree or shrub. It felt good to wield the ax with a practical purpose—as opposed to wielding it as part of an overly realistic and probably illegal Halloween costume, which I’d done years before (eleven-year-old lumberjack).

New calluses, dirt under the fingernails, a little premature back pain: all healthy, character-building consequences of early onset ax use.

Anyway, I moved back to Atlanta and didn’t touch an ax for most of a decade—thanks to delicate condo living—until this past weekend. A family friend who runs a tree removal service left a giant white oak in my new Cabbagetown front yard, as a Christmas present. And, with a little help, I’ve since turned it into a few hundred pieces of kindling for my fire pit. I’m not even half done with the thing. It’s incredible how much wood a single tree provides, and how much exercise—aerobic and muscular—you can get if you decide to chop it up by hand.

I’d heard it was going to get cold (and it is). Splitting wood warms you up before the fire arrives, conveniently. So does the beer that your dad and brother bring over unsolicited, but much appreciated, to help “lubricate” the axing process. It was a weekend, and a new year, and with our $25 maul from Home Depot we felt invincible. Two hours later, we’d learned some lessons, which YouTube confirmed.

The keys to splitting firewood, according to a video called “How to split wood,” viewed a surprising 158,000 times:

-Place the seasoned wood log (hickory, white oak, red oak, and locust are all good varieties) flatside down on a split stump to save your blade from quick dulling.

-Find your swing distance: Place the blade on the middle of the wood log and step back until your weak hand is at the far end of the handle.
-Position your feet shoulder width apart.
-Bend forward and put your strong hand at the end of handle closest to the blade.
-Shoo away all bystanders and pets you wish to see live another day.
-Let the tool and gravity do the work: the weight of the blade, brought straight up your head, will bring itself down.
-Most logs will require a few swings before splitting all the way.
-Don’t kill yourself.
-And repeat until you’re absolutely exhausted and/or you have no more room to stack wood.
-Appreciate the fact that you didn’t pay $15 for a few sticks of wood at Whole Foods.

I’d add to that: Once your back is feeling a little better, invite over some friends—especially the friend with three axes and a wood grenade, who is opening a brewery soon—and do what you did before. Only, this time, with more beer and more doughnuts and more yelling. The primal yell is possibly the best, most therapeutic part.

Lawman

Photographs by Christopher T. Martin
Photographs by Christopher T. Martin

“What’s happenin’, my friend?”

Vernon Keenan is saying hello to a large, shy-looking man named John Gibson in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s main elevator, as the doors open and Keenan steps in. The top of his balding head reaches just past Gibson’s shoulders.

“I’m fine, sir. How are you?”

“You been behaving yourself?” The doors close.

“Yessir.”

“This man here is in an all-women’s unit,” Keenan says to the rest of the elevator’s occupants. Then, turning back to Gibson, who works in the GBI’s criminal-history record repository: “The only man there, right?”

“Yessir.”

“I’ve got a lot of sympathy for him. I don’t know how he keeps his sanity.”

“He told me if he ever sees me on the roof jumping off,” says Gibson, “he’ll know why.”

“I tell him, ‘Go to the highest part of the building and jump off. Do it right.’”

There’s laughter all around, but Gibson’s sounds nervous.

Ding. Keenan steps out of the elevator and passes the front desk. A few employees in the lobby stare curiously—maybe with a little concern—as the director of the GBI escorts a visitor to the parking lot.

He ambles up to a white Chevy Tahoe, parked in one of the spots closest to the building. There’s no vanity plate, no GBI markings, no chauffeur ready to roll. “This is a standard police package,” says Keenan of his work vehicle. (His personal transport: a 2000 Toyota 4­Runner with 190,000 miles.) “The only difference is, I’ve got an 800 radio and a VHF radio in here so I can talk to anybody and everybody. Not that I use it much.” He flicks an internal switch and more than a dozen blue lights flash from the Tahoe’s exterior. “I actually found an agent who had more lights than I do,” Keenan says. “He feels the same way about emergency equipment.”

“These are speed-rated tires,” he continues, bending over stiffly to give the thick rubber a slap. “They’re rated at 160 miles per hour. ’Course this vehicle won’t do 160. But these won’t blow out. It’s also got a heavy-duty alternator, heavy-duty oil cooler, special suspension, 5.8-liter engine.” It’s made for performance and speed.

Inside the Tahoe, the tour continues: There’s bottled water, three days’ worth of fresh clothes, four umbrellas, a fire extinguisher he once used to put out a bus engine fire en route to giving a college lecture (“my navy suit got covered in gray powder”), a trauma kit (“where I can get to it easy”), a floor jack (“I help broke-down folks when I can”), a standard-issue bulletproof vest (“if I have to wear that, things have really gone downhill”), a defibrillator (“I stood over a guy who died ’cause there wasn’t one of these”), a shotgun (no comment), and a cylindrical pillow (“for my damn back”). He’s almost always on the phone while he’s driving; otherwise he listens to audiobooks. The last one was Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln’s Corpse.

In a purposeful life like Keenan’s, there’s no time for music, and the Tahoe never plays any: “As Ulysses S. Grant said,” he recalls, “I know only two tunes. One of them is ‘Yankee Doodle,’ and the other isn’t.” No time for social media, either: “I’m roadkill on the information highway. I don’t do anything but email.” Still, there is time for washing this vehicle by hand: “I’ve always believed that if the state provides me with an automobile, the least I can do is keep it clean.”

Vernon Keenan’s father was a mortician who owned a funeral home in southeast Georgia. Keenan basically grew up there, around the bodies. One of his earliest memories is being in the morgue while his dad embalmed a young child. He was sitting on a stool, watching, when his mother came in and said the child had been abused. Seven years old then, Keenan was fundamentally altered by the experience, though its influence on his life didn’t occur to him until many years later.

He leans back now in his swivel chair in a conference room of the three-story brick building in DeKalb County that houses the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, where he’s worked for forty years. Behind him sits the GBI parking lot and front door. If danger approaches, he’ll see it. He hates surprises, values preparedness above all else. That’s why he carries extra GBI clothes in the back of the Tahoe: just in case something bad happens somewhere in Georgia—as it inevitably will—and he has to stay overnight. His initials, VMK, are stitched into his shirt pocket, if anyone needs reminding: Vernon Mack Keenan Jr., director of the GBI.

He wears rimless glasses (he’s farsighted), has close-cropped brown hair that has fled—like a follicular criminal—from his face, and a paunch that he’s proudly carried through a dozen Peachtree Road Races. He’s several inches shy of six feet, his short arms resting on the sides of his swivel chair. “The best thing that ever happened to me,” Keenan is saying, “was when I was in the fifth grade, our television tore up. Dad didn’t have the money to get it fixed, so we had an entire summer without television. And my aunt had all the Reader’s Digests since 1935. I read every one.” The world was more complex—and full of communists—than he realized.

Keenan’s accent comes courtesy of Waycross, Georgia, where he grew up with four siblings, choosing Scouts and books over sports and trouble. Along with his unimposing looks, his accent has led many to underestimate him over the years. The word “on” is own; “killed” is keeled; and “siren” is sigh-reen. This is how you talk in southeast Georgia. Valdosta State College, Columbus State University, the Command College of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police: These places, where he earned degrees, don’t erase a man’s accent or his sense of purpose; they affirm it. “Dern lucky,” for instance, is how he describes what happened at DeKalb’s McNair elementary school last August, when Michael Brandon Hill showed up with an assault rifle and nearly 500 rounds of ammunition—but no one died.

After spending a year as a police officer in DeKalb County in 1972, he became a Georgia Bureau of Investigation special agent in northwest Georgia, where he worked cases as hard as any agent in the bureau, without having to manage anyone else. Thirty years and hundreds of arrests later, having risen in rank—if not total job satisfaction—to deputy director, Keenan was on his first cruise with his wife, Joan, when he was asked to climb the final rung of the ladder and become the agency’s acting director. The request came by phone. “We were in the middle of the damn Caribbean,” he says. “We decided the best thing to do was have a drink.”

Then Governor Sonny Perdue officially named Keenan the GBI’s director in 2003. “Vernon impressed me as the kind of professional who was always looking for the truth,” says Perdue. “He was not out for fanfare or personal aggrandizement. I felt that he had almost a righteous inclination to play it straight down the middle, which is exactly what you need in law enforcement.”

“Some people,” says former GBI agent John Cagle, “want to attribute success to how much experience you have or how many schools you’ve been to or classes you’ve taken. But when it comes down to the nut-cutting of being successful as a police officer, GBI agent, or director, it’s who’s willing to work hard. If you are, you’ll win. You won’t find anyone who’ll describe Vernon Keenan as someone who’s not in it to win it.”

Keenan and the GBI are, in essence, Georgia law enforcement’s permanent backup plan. The GBI performs state-level criminal investigations—often requested by a local agency, such as a small police department in a rural part of the state—using the only full-service crime laboratory in Georgia. The lab has six branches and eight departments, and they specialize in things like fingerprints, trace evidence, toxicology, and firearms. (The firearm lab has around 800 prop guns—of all standard calibers and models—and every kind of ammunition commonly available. It’s a militiaman’s wet dream.) With these and other tools, they go after government corruption, elder abuse, identity theft, mortgage fraud, bomb threats, and exploitation of children. They also perform 3,000 autopsies a year and maintain a criminal-history record system with 3.8 million fingerprints—the number of people arrested in Georgia since 1972, when the database was created.

The director carefully manages this teeming, high-tech, seventy-six-year-old law enforcement agency, which has 691 employees and a budget of $79.6 million to keep it moving. As a bookish boy, he didn’t imagine that solving crimes involved so much paperwork and people management, and he seems slightly annoyed about this as an adult. “The closer you are to the streets,” he says, “the more enjoyable it is. Every promotion takes you one step further from hands-on investigation.” He’s like the manager of a champion baseball team who wishes he were still platooning in right field.

Cagle, who’s known Keenan for thirty years, compares him to Joe Friday from Dragnet: “A straight-up guy. A top-notch investigator. If a bad thing happened to your family, you’d like Vernon’s help.” Perdue agrees: “‘Just the facts, ma’am.’ From his fedora on down, he’s a classic, iconic gumshoe. You could do a movie about him and he’d be typecast perfectly.”

Former GBI spokesman John Bankhead, who’s known Keenan for twenty-five years, adds with a chuckle, “He’s smarter than he looks.” You can’t get anyone to say something worse than that about him. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard Vernon lie about anything,” says Moses Ector, a former GBI agent who’s known him for forty-two years. “He never varied from any policy. We called him straitlaced.” He doesn’t even cuss at perps—murderers, rapists, pedophiles—when he makes arrests.

Keenan never figured he’d be investigating teachers too, as the GBI did during the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal. He even testified last year in the high-profile ordeal’s first case brought to trial—extremely unusual for the head of the bureau. It was the trial of administrator Tamara Cotman, who was charged with influencing a witness. The district attorney sent Keenan a subpoena and asked him to give background on the GBI’s involvement in the case. “I testified about the number of agents we’d devoted to the investigation,” he says, “and some related issues. The governor testified too. I didn’t have a choice; they subpoenaed me. But I’d never turn down a prosecutor’s request to testify if I’m needed and it’s legitimate.” In September, Cotman was found not guilty.

“I don’t disagree with juries’ findings,” Keenan says. “I wonder sometimes how things occur. But I don’t disagree with court rulings. I don’t disagree with a prosecutor’s decision. I believe for the criminal justice system to work, you’ve got to remain in your lane. Our lane is criminal investigation. It keeps things simple.”

Currently, Keenan oversees 238 GBI agents—down from 316 a dozen years ago. “It means that we conduct fewer investigations,” he says. “It pains the agents and the GBI to turn down requests for assistance, but less agents means less work. Our priority is crimes against children, violent crimes, and public corruption.” (Cagle: “You can’t do the things people had expected for so many years. It’s tough on everybody, especially the director. If there’s any way possible, he’ll send someone. But sooner or later, you’re just out of agents.”) Keenan is molding the GBI’s remaining agents in his Super Square image. They go after the worst crimes in a state with 10 million people—those that, he says, have “a compelling state interest. It’s all we can do to respond to death cases.” On an average weekend, agents investigate between two and five deaths, “depending,” says Keenan, “on what meanness is going on.” Typically, there’s plenty.

Take what happened to a little girl named Jorelys Rivera: She disappeared in Canton in 2011. Local police couldn’t find her. Two days later, at 10 o’clock at night, they requested the GBI’s assistance. By seven the next morning, there were seventy state officers on the ground. “It was,” says Keenan, “like the dogs of war were turned loose.” The GBI set up a perimeter around the scene where the child went missing. Within five hours, they found the child’s body inside a trash compactor as it was being hauled away to be searched. Days later the GBI and local authorities made an arrest, which led to a conviction. Rivera was seven years old, the same age as Keenan when he saw the abused child on the metal table in his daddy’s morgue.

Rather than list his duties as director in the abstract, Keenan prefers to use examples. Take the day of the near shooting at the McNair school in August, the last time he turned on the Tahoe’s blue lights. He calls it “pretty typical of how things go for me.”

He got up around five, as usual. Read emails, noting the important ones; he gets around fifty a day. (“I don’t deal with anything that’s not strictly professional. I don’t read an email unless I know the person who’s sending it or it’s got a government IP address. If I miss something, I’ve got two others paying attention.”) Looked at the AJC for a while, then USA Today. Watched a TV news story on his iPad. He didn’t get any calls around six, when people who know his schedule will often give him a try. But he did read some background materials for a meeting before heading into the office around seven to see Dan Kirk, the GBI’s assistant director, and Kris Sperry, the chief medical examiner, about resources in the examiner’s office. In the middle of it, Kirk got a call from the GBI’s director of professional standards, Fred Mays.

“Well,” says Keenan, “Fred happens to be in a restaurant with DeKalb officers eating at a table next to him when a 911 call comes in about an active shooter at McNair. Any time you have something like that, all the officers go. You’ve gotta make an intervention. DeKalb County has one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the state, but the school is less than six minutes away from us with blue lights. So we jump up. Dan makes the mistake of getting in the car with me. But we get there. They’d just taken the perpetrator into custody. Chief Cedric Alexander was coming up the road. We met and talked, and then Michael Thurman, the superintendent of the school system, came out. I called the governor’s office. Then the three of us got in the chief’s car.

“We decided we needed to make a statement to the press. So we say, okay, we’ve got the school buses coming in to move the children away from the school—because they were still searching to see if there’s another shooter or an explosive device in there. They set up a staging area over at the Walmart parking lot where parents can come pick their children up. The plan was for the buses to pull the way they normally do to the front of the school, and the children would come out by grades and get on. All we’ve gotta do is get these kids out of there. Then the head of the DeKalb police bomb unit comes over and says, ‘We’ve had three different bomb dogs alert us on a vehicle trunk in the front parking lot.’ Thurman says, ‘What does that mean?’ Chief Alexander and I both said at the same time: ‘It means we can’t use the front of the school to get the kids out of here!’

“So we came up with a plan to cut through two fences and go through neighbor yards and get to a parallel street where buses ran. I got the FBI to help get the children escorted to the buses. I called GBI headquarters and told the senior inspector to get over to the Walmart parking lot and organize a release of the children to the parents. Because now your problem has shifted: The active shooter has gone away, and we’ve got 800 kids that gotta be released to parents and caregivers outside the normal way of doing business. Well, that’s a pedophile’s candy store. DeKalb police and GBI folks made a plan: The child is on the bus; a teacher’s there with a roster; the parent shows an agent an ID; agent takes a picture of the parent and the child; then they release the child. Now we know who’s got what. So that was the day. I missed some meetings.”

He drums his fingers on the table and looks over at his press assistant. We’ve been sitting at the conference table for about an hour. During that time, someone, somewhere, did something bad that will require his exhaustive attention.

He leans back further in his chair, trying to remember his age: sixty-three. “If you stay this long,” he says, “you become the director.”

That’s a deliberate simplification, part of Keenan’s aw-shucks persona. “It’s by design,” says Dale Mann, former director of the Georgia Public Safety Training Center, who’s known Keenan for decades. “You’d be sadly mistaken if you looked at him and saw a yokel. He wants to roll you in with that Southern-boy charm.”

After appointing Keenan director of the GBI, says Sonny Perdue, “it was not a department that I ever worried about. His honesty, integrity, transparency, and work ethic trickled down.” Keenan received Georgia’s police chief of the year award in 2008. He was also put on the executive committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which has showcased the GBI’s work units, giving them several awards. All of the accolades help dispel the entrenched “Bubba” image of Georgia law enforcement.

“People think of the potbellied sheriff,” says Frank V. Rotondo, director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police. “They think Dukes of Hazzard. So when you see the GBI get national recognition, it changes the country’s attitude toward the state.”

Rotondo worked as a police chief in Helen in the early nineties. He’d come from a 3,000-officer agency in New York to this twenty-man outpost. “The officers didn’t even know how to do statements, let alone fingerprints.” Rotondo laughs now, but this is one of the reasons why the GBI is so important: leading the way on matters of procedure and practice. Keenan met with the Georgia Department of Human Services’ aging division two years ago, after legislation was passed banning unlicensed senior homes, and soon began turning the state’s attention toward elder abuse, producing and circulating a video about this “hidden crime” for police departments. He has also educated officers on how to deal with the mentally ill, and he stood up for racial equality before many others.

“I was the first [African American] to do many things at the GBI,” says Hogansville police chief Moses Ector, who worked his way up to assistant deputy director of the bureau during a long career. “And 90 percent of it was because of Vernon’s guidance. When I came here, a year before him, it was a racist organization. He’s played a very important role in transitioning from the good ol’ boy system.” He required agents to have college and management training, for starters.

Of course, not everything he says and does is gospel. Take the gray fedora, his only flourish. “When he became the deputy director of the investigative division,” says Cagle, “he started wearing it. We all wondered, ‘What the heck is he doing?’” Keenan says the reason isn’t sun or style: “Agents don’t ever have to worry about where I’m at when we’re on the scene.” He pauses. “I sure as hell ain’t gonna be back at headquarters if something major is going on.”

There have been plenty of major events during his career, from the Olympics to the G8 Summit at Sea Island. But it’s the personal ones, like the 2008 case of Meredith Emerson, that agents recall. Emerson was a UGA alum hiking Blood Mountain with her dog when Gary Michael Hilton murdered and decapitated her one January day. Driving to work one morning, still disturbed weeks after the girl’s body was discovered, Cagle got a call from the GBI’s chaplain; Keenan had arranged it.

The director of the GBI has only two interests outside of law enforcement: reading history, especially on the Civil War (he considered teaching), and picture framing. He did all the frames in the GBI’s conference room and many elsewhere in the building. It began as a frugal measure in 1980, when he decided it was too expensive to commercially frame a picture of a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress he wanted to put in his office. A state trooper friend, who had a framing business on the side, gave him some lessons. He invested $100 in equipment, and he hasn’t looked back: Keenan now boasts a professional-grade framing setup in his basement. He likes putting military prints in traditional wooden frames. He does it, his wife says, because when he’s framing he can’t think about work. Or shouldn’t: He’s been to the emergency room twice because he wasn’t paying enough attention to the glass.

His motto? I’ll frame anyone but you. He chuckles at his own joke.

Keenan likes to drive too. He drives fast, maybe recklessly, usually jacked up on coffee—he’ll skip meals, but never caffeine—and, though he has a GPS in the Tahoe, he gets lost easily. Fortunately, he’s got a siren to clear a path, and usually someone he’s coerced into riding shotgun to help get him there. For about twenty-five years, that man was John Bankhead, who retired from the GBI last April.

The men were virtually inseparable: They jogged together during lunch breaks and after work (“he lectured me on history while we ran,” says Bankhead) and even bought the same grill (“he makes a tasty ham”). During the search for Emerson and the subsequent arrest of Hilton, they shared a cabin for a few nights; Bankhead borrowed pants and a shirt from his boss.

Once, while driving to a shoot-out in Middle Georgia, they got in a fight over a Frappuccino: “He was going about 125 miles per hour,” says Bankhead, “and I had the bright idea to roll my window down and toss it.” The car got messy. “He had all this electronic equipment, papers flying everywhere, and I was trying to wipe it off for the rest of the drive.” Keenan: “The lesson is, you don’t roll down a window going that fast.” Cagle: “All you can do is hope and pray.”

The director sometimes says things agents don’t want him to, or things that contradict the GBI’s media policy. “I confronted him one time,” says Bankhead, “and he said, ‘It’s my damn policy.’ He can do what he wants.” And he wants to keep the public apprised. Journalists too: He pushed for the publication of A Law Enforcement Officer’s Guide to Open Records in Georgia, a handbook that’s been distributed to hundreds of officers throughout the state.

In his pursuit of protecting and informing the public, Keenan’s never shown great concern for his personal safety. Bankhead remembers driving around Athens with him in 2011 during the pursuit of cop-killer Jamie Hood. They arrived on the scene, outside an apartment complex where Hood was thought to be hiding, and “next thing you know,” says Bankhead, “I see Vernon behind the SWAT team. They’re all geared up with armor and bulletproof vests. Vernon just had on his hat.”

Rhonda Cook, an AJC reporter who’s covered Keenan for twenty years, says he doesn’t often show emotion, “but you know it’s there.” Occasionally, it appears. He hired the GBI’s first forensic sketch artist, Marla Lawson, who retired last summer. As a parting gift, Lawson presented him a portrait. “I was interviewing Vernon,” says Cook, “and Marla walked in with the portrait, and you could tell he was struggling.” Keenan: “Marla caught me off guard. I’m not a touchy-feely-type person. I don’t like people doing things for me; I like doing things for people. Also, who’d want a picture of me?”

He hasn’t hung it yet. Hanging it would feel like real retirement, like the end. “The DeKalb County SWAT team will have to remove Vernon from headquarters,” says Cagle. “He’s not gonna leave on his own.” (With the governor’s blessing, he did “retire” for a day in 2007, returning to receive both the pension he’d earned after all those years and his salary. He made $147,722.88 last year.) He has no interest in any other jobs or appointments; he wants to stay in Georgia, chasing bad guys in the Tahoe, eating the cookies and cakes his mother still sends to the GBI.

He travels too, once in a while. He’s talked Civil War history with a Chinese detective beside Mao Tse-tung’s tomb. Last July, he visited Tbilisi in the nation of Georgia for the third time. He, Dale Mann, and LaGrange police chief Louis Dekmar led leadership training for the command staff of the country’s national police. “He’d use his folksy expressions a lot,” says Dekmar. “Like, ‘There’s more than one way to skin a cat.’ The translator started translating and then says, ‘Why would you want to skin a cat?’” Keenan cracked up.

His folksiness and jokes don’t just serve to entertain and keep guards down: Over the years they’ve warded off cynicism—a common hazard in his line of work.

“The longer I’ve done this,” says Keenan, “the more I believe there are very few truly evil people in the world. Most criminals made bad judgment calls. They succumbed to greed. They were stupid. But that doesn’t make them evil. I’ve probably met five or six [evil people] in my career.” One killed the child in Canton. Another killed Meredith Emerson. “But I really believe they’re the exception.”

In 1975, Keenan helped convict a man named Jimmy Dean Hester for burning down the Forsyth County Courthouse. Hester was sentenced to something like fourteen years. In 2012, Keenan got a call from the GBI’s lobby: A man named Hester wanted to speak to him. “I’ll talk to anybody reasonable,” says Keenan. “I said, ‘Bring him up.’” Jimmy Dean Hester walked into the conference room and said, according to Keenan, “Remember me? You sent me to prison.” Keenan replied, “That’s exactly right.” Then Hester said something even more surprising: Thank you.

The ex-convict said he’d left prison, married, started a family, and become an electrician. If he hadn’t gone to prison, he told Keenan, he was either going to kill someone or be killed. Prison allowed him to straighten his life out. Keenan paused, reconsidering the strange conversation. “I’m thinking he was sincere.”

Photographs by Christopher T. Martin.

This article originally appeared in our January 2014 issue.

How do you like your head harness?

I come from a long line of skinny-necked men. A little taller than average, sure. And, we like to believe, equipped with apt-enough minds. But skinny necks hold up our heads. This has bothered my father since he was a boy. And then he had two boys of his own—taller than him, at least—who also came with skinny necks. Fifteen inches around, no more. Life repeats itself, dad must have thought as we emerged from puberty just like him. Skinny necks!

But wait, there are ways to bend fate. Especially when it comes to bodies. So one Christmas, not long ago, I received an odd gift from dad. As usual, it was not wrapped. He’d taken off the plastic, at least, and stuffed it into a bag. Then covered that with some balled-up pages of the Wall Street Journal. The curious thing was hefty in my hands. And, when uncovered, a wonder to behold. “It’s a neck-strengthening device,” said dad, smiling helpfully. “So you can thicken it up a bit. I saw a guy at the club using one. He said they work.”

It looked a bit like a Rube Goldberg machine at first: straps and chains and Velcro wound together complicatedly. But soon I grasped the basics of it: you wrapped a few straps around your head then attached a dumbbell weight to a chain dangling unattractively from your forehead strap. At that point, you look like you’re on your way to (or from) a medieval torture chamber. But, rest assured, you’re ready to give genetics some push-back—as this guy on the Internet insists skinny-necked men do.

The thing sat in the trunk of my car for maybe two months before I gave it a whirl. Why the trunk? Well, I didn’t want to leave it out in the open in my house, where I’d have to explain it. And putting it in the trunk allowed me to have it handy in case I got brave on the way to the gym one day. Which is exactly what happened.

I walked into the weight room with this thing in my hands. According to one witness, it resembled a weapon. But I put my ear buds in, generally ignored the stares, and started doing a routine like this. My neck hurt a good bit the next day, so it took me another month to repeat the exercise. I haven’t stuck with it since then, to be honest. I hate taking stuff into the gym with me, be it a notebook or a neck contraption.

But one day I saw another guy using his own, and I gave him a look of silent, skinny-necked understanding. Smiling back, he let me take a few reps when he was done. And now, according to the tape measure, my neck is 15 and 1/4 inches. Strange the things that make dads proud.

Exercise gift ideas

FORTY-DOLLAR FLOAT
Every Tuesday, from now until the New Year, Atlanta’s only commercial sensory deprivation tanks are available for half price. We’ve tried them, and the ninety-minute experience left us feeling as relaxed as we’ve ever felt. Not a bad way to be this time of year, with all those, ahem, special family members around. If floating weightless in a pitch-black, sound-proof chamber isn’t your thing, you can also get a 60-minute Swedish massage at FLO2S for $40. We recommend that, too. Plan on scheduling in advance: appointments are subject to availability. Check it out.

FLYWHEEL DEAL
Buckhead’s fanciest spinning gym isn’t the cheapest in town. But, as one of our spin-savvy reviewers noted, it’s a guaranteed butt-kicking workout with plenty of Spandex-clad competition. This holiday season, if you buy a $100 gift card you’ll get $15 in “Fly Cash.” That’s enough to pay for half of a spin session on West Paces. But, though it’s pricey, we think this place has some of the best bikes and instructors in town. See for yourself.

CHEW YOUR DRINK
Chuice may be a disconcerting name for a beverage, but the stuff is good. And very healthy according to Sujit Sharma, a pediatric emergency room doctor at Scottish Rite who is helping market the stuff. The Atlanta-based company has been around for three years, but they’ve gotten more serious in the last eighteen months, upping production of the concoction—which has vegetables, fruits, nut chunks, and herbs—and expanding to the nearby Chattanooga market. “It’s going to be the biggest nutrition story of 2014,” say Sharma of the product, which has already been featured in Prevention magazine. Whether or not that pans out, get a 64 oz. jug of The Forest (green, $27) for the health nut in your family. Available at health food stores like Rainbow Natural Foods, in Brookhaven, or chuice.com

PUPPY STYLE
I used to bemoan people who bought clothes and accessories for their pets. I still do, often. Unless that accessory is a pair of Doggles. As it turns out, it’s not good for a dog to stick its head—and thus eyes—out the window of a car speeding down the highway. Dryness leads to blindness. Pups also just look cool wearing protective shades. My dog, the ever-challenging Miles Davis, took a little while to get used to them. But now he wears his stunners in the car as often as I wear my seat belt. Which is to say: always. Get them here.

In two weeks, I’ll return with four more last-minute gift ideas that will make you healthier. Or at least not unhealthy.

Exercising in traffic

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A few months ago, sitting in my 11,845th Atlanta traffic jam, on Peachtree Road, I looked over at another rush hour prisoner and saw something unexpectedly inspiring. A guy driving a plain black sedan had put his seat all the way down and was doing what appeared to be a vehicle-bound version of sit-ups. I watched him knock out three good sets before we started moving again.

I’d been on my way to yoga class—which I’d be missing thanks to an unseen pile-up somewhere ahead—and was moved by Sit-Up Guy’s determination to get exercise in a situation that’s only supposed to get us mad: I attempted a few poses in my own stopped car. Crow didn’t come easy up there in the front seat. Nor did plank, as one might guess. But I’d had my watershed moment: I’d make my Honda Civic into a mobile gym.

A few days later, I tossed a five-foot resistance band into the Civic, knowing I’d hit some traffic later that afternoon, while heading across town. Sure enough, I was at a standstill on Georgia 400 around 4 p.m. But unlike most people standing still in late September, I was sweating. I’d wrapped the band around my non-pedal foot and grabbed the two handles with one hand at a time. I was doing sets of curls and “feeling the pump,” as Arnold Schwarzenegger would say, while sitting on the highway. And, yes, attracting gawkers of my own.

This particular traffic jam only allowed for a few sets of curls, and an abortive set of front seat sit-ups. But over the coming weeks, I added a sort of shoulder press to my vehicle gym routine repertoire. And a triceps extension. All that these exercises required was the resistance band, some ingenuity and a willingness to look silly in a car. Unless you have tinted windows, of course, which I don’t.

I can’t say that exercising while driving (EWD) makes you a better driver, or a safer one. I’ve collected more than my share of beeps and eye rolls over the last eight weeks, as I’ve been slow to start moving again. But I can say that EWD will give you an entirely different kind of burn than you’re used to feeling when stuck in traffic.

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