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When Mike Belderrain hunted down the biggest elk of his life, he didn’t know he’d stumbled into a “zone of death,” the remote home of a legal glitch that could short-circuit the Constitution—a place where, technically, you could get away with murder.
At a time when we’re surrounded by preventable deaths, we document one journey to avert disaster.
Mike Belderrain is a hunter and former outfitter in Montana.
C. J. Box is the author of more than 20 novels, including Free Fire, a thriller set in Yellowstone National Park.
Brian Kalt teaches law at Michigan State University. He wrote a 2005 research paper titled “The Perfect Crime.”
Ed Yong is a staff writer for The Atlantic.
Be part of The Experiment. Use the hashtag #TheExperimentPodcast or write to us at [email protected].
This episode was produced by Julia Longoria and Alvin Melathe, with editing by Katherine Wells and sound design by David Herman.
Music by water feature (“in a semicircle or a half-moon”), r mccarthy (“Big Game,” “She’s a Gift Giver, She’s a Giver of Gifts,” and “Melodi 2”), Ob (“Ell” and “Ere”), Parish Council (“Mopping”), h hunt (“11e”), Column (“Quiet Song”), and Bwengo (“Première Mosrel”); catalog by Tasty Morsels. Additional audio from Montana State University Library’s Acoustic Atlas, the National Park Service’s Sound Library, C. J. Box, CNBC, C-SPAN, Vox, NPR’s All Things Considered, Idaho News 6, @ItsKeyes, and C-SPAN’s Book TV.
A transcript of this episode is presented below:
(A distorted montage of sounds plays: birdcalls, radio signals, and then a ringing phone.)
Mike Belderrain: Drill Tech. This is Mike.
Longoria: Hi, Mike. This is Julia Longoria from The Atlantic and WNYC. How are you doing?
Belderrain: I’m doing good. How are you doing?
Longoria: Good. Um. We are gonna just kind of jump in. Are you—are you ready to go back in time? (Chuckles.)
Longoria: Okay, cool.
Belderrain: Let’s see what we can do.
(Electronic music plays, growing in intensity as it runs under the speech.)
Longoria: Who were you in December of 2005?
Belderrain: I was a real rowdy guy, I guess you could say.
Longoria: Why do you think you were rowdy at that time?
Belderrain: Because I’d beat people up. (Laughs.)
Longoria: Fifteen years ago, Mike Belderrain was a little rough around the edges.
Belderrain: So, you know, if someone was an asshole in a bar, I’d go have a beer by you until you’d say something to me, and then it’d be all bad for you.
Longoria: He was a bit of an asshole. There were a lot of things that pissed him off, but there was one thing that he loved completely.
Belderrain: (Laughs.) I mean, I lived to hunt elk, literally. I lived to hunt elk.
Longoria: He lived in Montana, not far from Yellowstone National Park, where elk are everywhere. And Mike had the hunt down to an art form.
Belderrain: Elk hunting’s hard, but if you could call good … You know, I’d guarantee my hunters a shot at 30 yards or closer.
Longoria: What does that—what does that mean? Sorry. I’m, like, from Miami, Florida. I live in Brooklyn. [Belderrain laughs, then Longoria does too.] Like, I’ve got—I got nothing. So what does that mean?
Belderrain: So, you have a cow call. You imitate a cow call, and you call them in.
(The sound of an elk call plays.)
Longoria: So you—you make the sound of a cow because, like, the elk—
Longoria: —are—are looking for cows to—
Longoria: —with whom to mate? Is that what it is?
Belderrain: Yep. Yep.
Longoria: Okay, cool.
Belderrain: Pretty, pretty terrible way to die.
(More elk calls play.)
Longoria: Can you do it for me?
(The music suddenly cuts out, the silence as abrupt as Belderrain’s “No.”)
Longoria: So why, you might ask, are we talking to this self-proclaimed asshole about killing elk? It’s because of this one particular elk—a star-crossed elk—that changed the course of Mike Belderrain’s life and walked him right into a hole in the U.S. Constitution.
(Lush forest music plays.)
Longoria: It started one snowy morning in December of 2005. Mike set out on horseback just outside Yellowstone National Park.
Belderrain: Lots of mountains and lots of snow and trees. Open country.
Longoria: Eventually, he spotted a group of elk off in the distance. But he set his sights on this one particular elk.
Belderrain: That was the biggest bull I’d ever seen. He was a trophy—trophy bull that I’d been chasing my whole life.
Longoria: It was his white whale—his trophy bull.
Longoria: How did you feel at that moment?
Belderrain: Adrenaline like you wouldn’t believe. Happy and nervous together. Nervous ’cause I knew it was illegal.
Longoria: Illegal because hunting season was over. And he was standing inside Yellowstone Park, where you’re not allowed to hunt at all.
Longoria: You knew if you killed the elk, you’d be breaking the law.
Belderrain: I knew that if I got caught, I’d be in trouble.
Longoria: But he took out his rifle anyway, and aimed.
(An elk whimpers.)
Belderrain: I meant to shoot him in the rib cage, behind the shoulder, so that he would go into the trees and die. But when I shot—
(The elk whimpers again, then a rush of wind blows and all goes silent.)
Belderrain: —and it hit him in the head and he dropped, he fell right where he landed. It was the worst sick feeling I ever had in my life. I was like, Oh no. Not good. Not good at all.
(The music slowly fades.)
Longoria: Instantly, Mike knew he’d shot an elk while standing inside of Yellowstone National Park.
Belderrain: I was standing in the park by 100 feet.
Longoria: The evidence of his crime, the carcass, was laying out in the open. Anyone could see.
Belderrain: So then it was a race to get him out of there.
Longoria: Did you take the whole elk, uh, into the car, and …?
Belderrain: No. Nope.
Longoria: Okay, so tell me.
Belderrain: I just took the—
(A sound plays, indicating a miscommunication, and the music fades out.)
Belderrain: —the what? You say “tummy”?
Longoria: I said, “Tell me.” [Laughs.] No, not “tummy.” (They both laugh.)
Belderrain: (Laughs.) I thought you said “tummy.” I’m like, “Yeah, I took the tummy.”
Longoria: What’d you do with the tummy?
Belderrain: I left it. So at that point, we took the—the head and the antlers from the elk, detached them, and raced out of there.
(The music comes back in, mystical and breathy.)
Longoria: Mike knew he’d just committed a crime—a serious, federal crime. What he didn’t know was that, technically, he’d just committed the perfect crime. Because he was standing in one of the only spots in the country where the law shouldn’t have been able to touch him—a place inside Yellowstone National Park where you could get away with not just hunting elk, but, by the letter of the law, you should be able to get away with murder.
(The sound becomes all-encompassing.)
Longoria: I’m Julia Longoria, and this is The Experiment, a show about our unfinished country.
(For a moment longer, the sound grows louder before fading into silence.)
Longoria: I’ve been thinking about holes in the American project after, you know, an armed insurrection took place in our nation’s capital. With that, and the global pandemic, and everything else we’ve lived together this year, it sort of feels like we’ve all collectively stepped into this huge pothole that we didn’t see coming. And the question now is “How do we fix this? How do we move forward? And how do we repair the weak spots that left us vulnerable to all of this in the first place?”
(Breathes in.) Those are huge questions. And it’s going to take a long time to answer them.
So today, I’m starting with something small. A tiny problem in a remote place that no one even knew about, until one guy—
Brian Kalt: I’m Brian Kalt.
Longoria: —uncovered it.
Kalt: I’m a law professor at Michigan State University.
Longoria: Brian Kalt is obsessed with the tiniest details in the law.
Kalt: I was the sort of kid who, if I’m coloring something and I colored a little bit outside the lines, I would have a tantrum and crumple it up and throw it away and start all over again.
Longoria: He looks for the mistakes.
Kalt: Loopholes, weak spots—looking for potential hazards and suggesting ways to patch them up before anyone steps on them.
Longoria: Brian Kalt has fashioned himself as a sort of “constitutional plumber.” He peers into the wonky insides of our legal system and tries to spot the holes.
Kalt: (Each sentence overlaps.) There’s—there’s a loophole in presidential term limits. There’s some dispute about the line of succession. There would be a tremendous incentive for people to kill the candidates, unfortunately …
Longoria: In any other year, he might sound kind of like a prepper.
Kalt: … like the article I wrote on impeaching people who’ve already left office. I published it in 2001.
Maybe you’d use the Twenty-Fifth Amendment if the president is running amok, because impeaching him can’t stop him right away.
(A persistent, light beat drones in the background.)
Longoria: But this year, when many of his old predictions made headlines, he’s sounded a lot like a prophet.
Kalt: I wondered whether the president could pardon himself.
CNBC anchor: The New York Times is reporting now that the president has been discussing pardoning himself. What can you tell us?
Longoria: But the loophole that Brian is most famous for is the one in Yellowstone National Park—the one that elk hunter Mike Belderrain stumbled into.
Kalt: I discovered a loophole where there’s this 50 square-mile zone in Idaho where you can commit crimes with impunity—um, get away with murder.
(The music layers soft acoustics for a moment before the narration resumes.)
Longoria: Brian found a “zone of death.” A place where it would be unconstitutional to prosecute a murderer, because of a tiny mistake that Congress made. It has to do with the Sixth Amendment. Number Six gave us the right to a local jury. The Founders were paranoid about being controlled from far away, so they wanted justice to be hyperlocal. They said juries are going to be very close to the scene of the crime, from the same state, and same federal district.
That seems simple. But in Yellowstone, Congress drew a very messy map.
Kalt: We had Yellowstone National Park before we had the state of Wyoming, before we had the state of Idaho, before we had the state of Montana.
Longoria: When the states were drawn, Congress colored outside the lines. States and federal districts don’t line up. All of Yellowstone is one district: the district of Wyoming. But inside that district, there are slivers of two other states: Idaho and Montana.
Kalt: I don’t know. They could have drawn the state boundaries to follow the park boundaries, but then you wouldn’t have had this sort of nice, neat Wyoming rectangle. It’s really a trapezoid, but we don’t need to get into that.
Longoria: And here’s the issue: No one—zero people—lives in the Idaho sliver. And only a few people live in the Montana sliver. Which means that if you commit a crime in one of these places, it would be very hard to find a jury there. No jury means no trial, and the Constitution guarantees a trial by jury. So that means, technically, you can’t be prosecuted.
Kalt: One of the reasons I went to law school in the first place was this idea that the law mattered, and that if you master the law, you have an understanding of the law, that you can make things happen the right way—the way they’re supposed to.
Longoria: This is what really upset Brian. Our Constitution is supposed to matter.
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Berger: It was as near a perfect document as has ever been written.
Lynne Cheney: But without the Constitution, we would be an entirely different country than we are today, and one of the ways …
Senator Ben Cardin: Because the Constitution, this amazing fabric of our nation, is our protection.
(Mystical, fluid music drips off every word.)
Longoria: We spend a lot of time talking about this document. Mythologizing it, almost.
Lawyers spend careers parsing every word. (Emphatically.) Dissertations have been written just about the placement of commas in this thing.
And then to realize there’s a place where a major right in the Constitution just doesn’t apply?
Kalt: I really just … I want them to fix it.
(A moment more of the music before it fades out.)
Longoria: Have you heard of the Sixth Amendment right to a jury of your peers?
Ed Yong: Uh, I—uh, no, I—I haven’t. I am new to America and your many amendments. (Longoria laughs.)
Longoria: When I found out about this loophole, I called Ed Yong.
Longoria: Yeah. I’m Ed Yong. I’m a staff science writer at The Atlantic, where I’ve been covering the COVID-19 pandemic for the last 9,500 years.
Longoria: Ed is British journalist born in Malaysia. And, okay, a British pandemic reporter might seem like an unlikely choice for commenting on an American murder loophole. But Ed was one of the first journalists to warn that the U.S. might not be ready for a pandemic. So what he really reports on is risk—our government’s ability to prevent the unlikely catastrophes. Things that seem like they could never happen—not here.
Yong: You assume that the legal system of the greatest country in the world can’t possibly have a loophole that allows people to get away with murder.
Surely, if that actually ever happened, like, there would be some way to go, “It’s fine. We’ll get a jury,” like, “Loophole shmoop-hole. It’ll be fine.”
And I think we sort of assumed that with a pandemic. I think that a lot of folks—even the ones who had warned about pandemics—have been surprised at just how badly America has dealt with the crisis this year.
Longoria: A question for you. I—I’m just curious what you think. Do you think a loophole like that, that’s kind of obscure … [Laughs.] Do you think it matters?
Yong: (Breathes in, then, haltingly replies.) Um, so … does it matter? I think one way to look at this would be to think about the potential cost of fixing the loophole. Right? How much effort would go into patching it, right? ’Cause if it’s not a lot, like, if it really is just, “I’m going to add another amendment”—you—you all are very fond of your amendments here [Longoria laughs.]—and the problem goes away and it’s easy, then I think you could reasonably ask, like, “Why not do that?”
(Pensive piano music plays.)
Longoria: “Why not?” indeed.
Kalt: The solution is very simple.
Longoria: Brian Kalt had what he thought was a very easy solution to the Zone of Death loophole.
Kalt: “Dear Representative Blank …”
Longoria: First, he did what we’re all taught to do in school. He wrote to government officials to ask them to solve this problem.
Kalt: I wrote a letter to the Department of Justice …
Longoria: He wrote letter after letter.
Kalt: … the U.S. Attorney’s office in Wyoming, staff of the relevant subcommittees in the House and Senate … (Fades under.)
Longoria: They just had to pass a law to redraw the district lines.
Kalt: They should see this as a no-brainer. They’ll say, “Oh yeah! That’s funny. Uh, yeah, let’s take care of that right away.”
(Plucky strings music plays liltingly.)
Longoria: And as he waited for these responses to these letters …
Vox’s Estelle Caswell: This is a map of Yellowstone National Park. For the most part, the park is in Wyoming … (Fades out with the music.)
Longoria: … a funny thing happened.
NPR’s Robert Siegel: Brian Kalt says there is a hole in the Sixth Amendment big enough to run a crime spree through.
Idaho News 6’s Roland Beres: … in part of Yellowstone, it’s not how to get away with murder—it’s where.
Vox’s Estelle: It’s called the “Zone of Death” because of a loophole that exists … (Fades out.)
Longoria: Brian published an article in a legal journal about this, and it got a lot of attention.
Kalt: I don’t want to say it went viral, ’cause, I mean, it was a constitutional-law article. They don’t go viral.
Longoria: It was maybe the only time a law-journal article made it into the National Enquirer.
TikTok User @ItsKeyes: (Sings in the style of The Mountain Goats.) Have you ever heard of the Yellowstone Zone of Death? (Fades under.)
Longoria: There have even been viral tweets and TikToks.
TikTok user @ItsKeyes: (Sings.) … because I know that you’re the one who killed my dog. [Yells.] Ahh! (Fades under.)
Longoria: With little skits about the Zone of Death.
TikTok user @ItsKeyes: (Sings.) Zone of Death!
Longoria: Even with all that attention, Brian could not get a single elected representative to talk to him directly about this problem.
NPR’s Robert: Uh, do you expect or have you already been contacted by, you know, the screenwriter of Ocean’s 27 or Law and Order, about to craft some plot that’s based in the Idaho portion of Yellowstone Park?
Kalt: Uh, I suppose that plots of legal thrillers have turned on odder oddities than that. I haven’t been contacted by anyone, and I hope I’m not. (Chuckles.)
NPR’s Robert: Now there is a catch here … (Fades out.)
Longoria: But a year after Brian’s article came out, someone did contact him—someone who’d read Brian’s paper and urgently wanted to talk to him about the loophole.
C. J. Box: As soon as I read it, I knew. This is—this is my way into Yellowstone Park to tell that story.
(Intrigue-laden string music plays, with a persistent, repetitive beat.)
Free Fire audiobook narrator: And now: Free Fire, by C. J. Box.
Box: I’m C. J. Box. I’ve written 27 novels.
Longoria: Wyoming’s best-selling novelist, C. J. Box, is the kind of prolific writer whose paperbacks you can buy at the airport. He’s sold over 10 million books worldwide, and they’ve been translated into 30 languages—and, of course, made into an audiobook.
Free Fire narrator: Part One. A half-hour after Clay McCann turned over his still-warm weapons … (Fades under.)
Box: You know, the book opens with a guy slaughtering some campers, and then turning himself in to the ranger’s station, knowing that if they try to prosecute him, he’s likely not to be convicted.
Free Fire narrator: “Do you want to call a lawyer?” McCann said, “You don’t understand. I am a lawyer.”
Box: Because he knows about this loophole, because he’s a lawyer.
Longoria: A lawyer kind of like Brian Kalt. I asked Brian what he thought about the resemblance.
Kalt: If he, instead of a small-town lawyer, had made it a pointy-headed, sociopathic law professor, uh, as the protagonist, that might’ve—that might’ve hit too close to home. [Longoria laughs.] I don’t consider myself a sociopath.
Free Fire narrator: Then he smiled, as if sharing a joke.
Longoria: The whole plot is like Brian Kalt’s worst nightmare.
Box: The puzzle in the book is, why did this lawyer—local lawyer—shoot all these campers and kill ’em?
Free Fire narrator: “We’ll just never fucking know, I’m afraid …”
Longoria: The plot gets very existential.
Free Fire narrator: “There’s no point,” Keaton said. “Because we’re all going to die.”
(After a moment.)
Free Fire Narrator: “I don’t know where we’re going, but it seems like we’re headed somewhere.” “Story of my life,” Joe said.
Longoria: Spoiler alert: Ultimately, we learn the lawyer-murderer was part of this big corporate conspiracy, and a government cover-up. He never pays for his crimes in court, but he does burn to death in a hot spring.
(Music becomes quieter.)
Longoria: The story is pretty dark, but that didn’t stop it from having a wide appeal.
Kalt: Free Fire got onto The New York Times’ extended best-seller list. Then, all of a sudden, I got responses.
(Music holds a drone for a moment, then quiets down even further.)
Longoria: One of the readers of C. J. Box’s book was a senator—Senator Mike Enzi from Wyoming.
Senator Mike Enzi: Well, reading is such an exciting thing. I read about 100 books a year. This one’s Free Fire, which is about Yellowstone Park.
Longoria: What you’re hearing is a recording of Enzi on a C-SPAN show called Book TV.
(Interspersed clips from Enzi and Box.)
Enzi: C. J. Box writes phenomenal stuff about Wyoming. I get advance copies of his books, usually.
Box: He actually would write little reports to me on each book.
Enzi: And I’ve done a book report on every one of them since I got out of graduate school.
Box: Like a book report in high school.
Enzi: There was a zone in Wyoming, well, in Yellowstone Park, that was actually considered to be part of Idaho, but nobody lived there. So there would be no jury of your peers.
Box: “This book is about this issue,” and, you know, dah-dah-dah-dah-dah … “and this is what happens, and I enjoyed it.”
Enzi: And, consequently, maybe you could commit murder there. And he asked me if I could make sure that wouldn’t be a possibility before the book came out, and encouraged me … (Fades out.)
Longoria: And, for a little while, it seemed like government was working the way Brian thought it should. The representative for this area was aware of the problem, Brian had presented the solution, and the senator set out to fix it.
Kalt: So November 2006, I had contact with Senator Enzi’s office.
Longoria: Over the course of the next several months …
Kalt: And then in January of 2007, I followed up.
Longoria: Brian had back-and-forths with Senator Enzi’s office that seemed promising. Enzi reached out to the Department of Justice to solve the issue.
Kalt: In February of 2007, Enzi sent the letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, asking him to look into this matter …
Longoria: But in the end …
Kalt: And then in May of 2007, Enzi sent the letter explaining why the Department wasn’t going to be doing anything about it.
Longoria: And could you read a little bit from that letter?
Kalt: Sure. “I have spoken with individuals at the Department of Justice and other members of the law-enforcement community …
They have assured me that, should a crime be committed in the ’Zone of Death,’ they would move forward with prosecution, and have suggested that the courts would allow the prosecutors to move forward …
At this point in time, we will hope the problem is a hypothetical, and it remains as such. However, I continue to take this matter seriously, and I will be evaluating the available solutions to determine what is practical and what is possible.”
Longoria: Did you ever hear back about “what is practical and what is possible”?
Kalt: (Hesitates.) Well, it looked like, um, not doing anything was the only thing that proved practical.
(Orchestral but esoteric bouncy music plays.)
Longoria: I reached out to Senator Enzi to ask him why he didn’t end up closing this loophole. I got in touch last December, right before he retired from his 24 years in the Senate, and he declined to be interviewed through a press secretary. I tried again in the new year, and the only response I heard back was actually through C. J. Box, who told me he’s not doing any post-retirement interviews.
Kalt: I recognize the Congress has many more pressing matters—less hypothetical, actual problems to deal with. Not that they’re doing anything about those things either. But, in a typical Congress, what gets passed is renaming post offices. They find the time to rename post offices. [Audio from a session of Congress plays indistinctly.] This is not the most important thing in the world. Uh, it’s not even close. But they have a system in place where, if there’s a good reason to rename a post office, then it happens. [More audio from a session of Congress plays, again indistinctly.] If they can do that, they can do this. (A senator can be heard saying, “Senate 46–84” before fading out.)
Longoria: The last bill that Senator Enzi introduced in the Senate, by the way? [Pause.] It renamed a post office.
Senator Mike Enzi: … in Thermopolis, Wyoming, as the Robert L. Brown Post Office.
Speaker: Is there objection to the consideration of the bill?
(A moment of music before the narration resumes.)
Longoria: So, after years of trying to get this loophole fixed—even after it became a viral sensation, a hit crime novel, an item on Senator Enzi’s agenda—Brian hit a brick wall. It was a hypothetical problem. Congress was not going to fix something that was so unlikely to happen … Until it did happen. Sorta.
Kalt: When there arose an actual case …
Belderrain: When I shot, and I hit him in the head and he dropped, it was the worst, sick feeling I’ve ever had in my life. I was like, Oh no. Not good.
Kalt: I saw what that would look like here.
Longoria: The Elk Hunter, after the break.
(A bird of prey cries, and then music plays. )
Longoria: When we last left Mike Belderrain, he’d poached an elk while standing inside Yellowstone, chopped off the head, and left the carcass out in broad daylight.
Belderrain: That was the biggest elk killed in Montana that year.
Longoria: He felt bad about it, but not that bad about it. This was the biggest kill of his career. It was his trophy bull. So he took the head to a taxidermist, got it stuffed, and mounted it for everyone to see.
Belderrain: That’s why I was killing him.
Longoria: It wasn’t until a full year later that Mike was arrested, and we got our first and only test of the perfect-crime theory.
Belderrain: My shooting that elk had nothing to do with that perfect-crime area.
Longoria: Of course, Mike had never heard of Brian Kalt or the Zone of Death. And even if he had …
Belderrain: That bull could have been standin’ deep inside the park, where I had to pay an entry free to get into it. I still would have killed that elk.
Longoria: But his lawyer made Brian Kalt’s argument anyway. They said, if Mike Belderrain’s case were to go to trial, the court would have a very hard time finding a jury that lived inside the little sliver of Montana inside Yellowstone where he killed the elk. They would almost certainly violate Mike Belderrain’s constitutional right to a local jury.
(Music fades out.)
Kalt: And the judge basically said, “Well, that’s an interesting but esoteric argument. But I can’t just let him go just because the Constitution says so.” And so he didn’t.
Longoria: His lawyers tried some other tactics.
Belderrain: Made it sound like I was a freakin’ hero. He brought up how I was a full-ride basketball scholarship, did all these great things, and donated to here, donated to there. I wanted to smack him. I was like, “Oh my God, sit down.”
Longoria: (Laughs lightly.) Wait, you—you were mad at the lawyer for making you sound like a hero?
Belderrain: Yeah! [Longoria laughs.] I was like, “Dude. God almighty! Are you crazy? Sit down.” The fact of the matter is, I was there for shooting a freakin’ elk, and I left the carcass. So I still felt like shit about it.
Longoria: For Mike, this was not about the Constitution. It was about the principle of the thing—in a weird way.
Belderrain: I mean, did I deserve to get in trouble? Absolutely. I mean, what I did was the dumbest thing ever. You’ll never hear me say what I did was right. No lawyer would’ve got me out of it—nor should he have. Anyone that knows me, knows I fucked up—oh, excuse my language—knows I did wrong. I felt like shit. If someone else would have did what I did, I’d have beat him up. Put it that way.
Longoria: So Mike Belderrain took a plea. He pled guilty. And instead of the seven years he might have faced if he went to trial, he took four years.
Belderrain: Like I said, I definitely deserved to get in trouble. But four years? No. Felt like shit. You know what I mean? I had five kids.
Longoria: And in his plea, he agreed to a condition: that he would never appeal his case based on the Zone of Death.
Kalt: The fact that they put him in prison in a way that left the loophole as open as it had been—if not wider—that was the part that was hardest for me to swallow.
Maybe it’s from when I was a kid watching Schoolhouse Rock that the image of the lawmaking process that I grew up with was “I’m just a bill. Yes, I’m only a bill, and I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill.”
And he says, you know, “When I started, I was just an idea. Some folks back home called their local congressman and he said, ’You’re right! There ought to be a law.’ And he sat down and he wrote me out and he introduced me to Congress and I became a bill.”
That’s my image of it, I guess. And every step in this process was telling me that that was just not so.
Yong: So with the Brian Kalt case, did anything change after the elk incident?
Longoria: No. No. Nothing changed.
Longoria: Atlantic staff writer Ed Yong, again.
Ed has spent a lot of the last year wondering why the government was not better prepared for the pandemic. Why the warnings and advice of many experts were ignored—why such a powerful country didn’t live up to its image.
Yong: Okay. So this is the thing that concerns me now: I worry about our capacity to learn from our past mistakes.
Now, obviously, like, a pandemic is not the same as this murder loophole, because, in the worst-case scenario, you would expect, like, maybe a few people to fall foul of the problem that Brian Kalt identified, whereas, in a pandemic, almost by definition, it’s the whole world that’s at risk. But all of this does hinge on our ability to look at a rare, but potentially catastrophic outcome, and take the steps that are necessary to ward against it. And I—it’s interesting, I think, that, even though we have seen what happens when we don’t prepare for that, I don’t know if we are capable of mustering the collective consciousness and the political will to actually address those problems.
Longoria: Why do you think we have trouble fixing things, as a country, that aren’t currently on fire?
Yong: I think there’s a lot of different reasons. Um, to pick one that I think is relevant to the loophole story that you told me: I think America’s possessed of this extreme sense of exceptionalism. I mean, the country is famous for it, for thinking itself the greatest nation in the world. And I think, if you truly internalize that message, then a lot of things flow from it.
You know, it takes work and effort to be exceptional. And if you think that you’re already there, then you’re probably not going to put that effort in.
Longoria: Yeah, I—I wonder if sometimes, like, on our good days, that idealism or exceptionalism would push the country, push individuals, to try to keep making the ideal true. On our good days.
Yong: I—I don’t, you know—I don’t know that that’s true. And—and that’s —
Yong: Yeah, I really don’t. I think that if you tell people that they are exceptional for a very long period of time, you breed complacency. You don’t foster innovation. I mean, honestly, like, why try if you already believe yourselves to be great?
And, uh—and I worry about that, because I think we still have a lot to do. And, in some ways, the vaccines that we have now and that are being rolled out, I think, are more likely to tip us towards forgetfulness. If anything comes from this year, I hope that it’s this understanding that there’s a lot left to fix.
(Music comes in, hazy.)
Longoria: Mike Belderrain’s four years in prison were rough.
Belderrain: The guards, the people there—no one could believe I was in prison for shooting a freakin’ elk. It was a bad deal. Wasn’t even a bad deal for me. It was a bad deal for my family. They’re the ones that hurt the worst.
Longoria: But he’s out now. He’s back with his family. And, at least for him personally, he says he dropped some of the pride—some of the ego—that made him think that he could get away with a crime like that. He knew he messed up, and he put in the work to try to fix it.
Belderrain: (Sighs.) Well, I mean, I did—you know, I was rowdy back in the day. I did a lot of stupid shit, you know, and never got in trouble. I don’t know, just greed. Greed and fame and all that bullshit got to me. I still am a family guy. I still got horses. I hunt more now than I did then. I just don’t—you know, I don’t break no laws. My kids don’t break no laws.
Longoria: Do you think you shed your, like, rough ways of—of—of your young years?
Belderrain: No, I’m still—I’m still an asshole. [Both laugh.] But I don’t drink, you know what I mean? I went to AA. I did all that, and it made me a better person. I don’t know how to say it. I’m really—I take pride in my work. I take pride in my crew. I love my job. I love my family.
Longoria: And how—how do you make sense of—of everything that happened to you now?
Belderrain: Everything happens for a reason.
Longoria: What—what reason, then, did this happen for?
(Music plays lazily as the two breathe in the space after the question.)
Belderrain: I don’t know. [Both laugh.] No idea.
(One last elk cry in the noise of the woods, then slow quiet under the credits.)
Gabrielle Berbey: This episode of The Experiment was produced by Julia Longoria and Alvin Melathe, with editing by Katherine Wells and sound design by David Herman. Our team also includes Matt Collette, Tracie Hunte, Natalia Ramirez, and me, Gabrielle Berbey. Music by Tasty Morsels. Special thanks to Jennifer Jerrett and Montana State University Library’s Acoustic Atlas and the Yellowstone National Park Sound Library.
The Experiment is a co-production of The Atlantic and WNYC Studios.
(Animal cries echo as the sounds of the wild fade.)