Click here to go to EPISODE 1
The naturalist from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Pamela Pitcheri, returned an unusual call from a Park Ranger at Great Smoky Mountain National Park after the Fourth of July holiday. Benjamin Benzoin was inquiring about the disturbance of vegetation on the dunes and asked if she had found anything out of the ordinary in the location.
It turns out that Pamela had been leading a group of volunteers the previous day picking up trash along the dunes and beach areas. Pamela didn’t recall anything unusual among the fast-food wrappers and other trash, attributing the litter to the customary case of careless park visitors. Pamela told Benjamin that she’d “think about it.”
About a week later, Pamela set out for the spot where a patch of Pitcher’s Thistle had been disturbed. After a few hundred feet of walking up a dune face, she sat down and took off her sneakers and socks, and burrowed her bare feet in the sand, her toes probing for the cool spots. “Shoes are best carried rather than worn around here,” Pamela reflected as she gazed out over the dunes.
While everything was calm on this July day, she understood this environment was one of ever-changing shapes and forms. The original sandy material was left behind as a gift of the glaciers as the ice sheets retreated nearly 12,000 years ago. However, the terrain had been reshaped countless times since then by wind, waves, and gravity. “Kind of like life, except in slow motion,” mused Pamela.
Pamela’s reverie was disturbed, however, when she noted something that she had missed during the previous day’s volunteer beach clean-up, busy as she was directing and supervising the volunteers. Among the yanked-out Pitcher’s Thistle stems, there was a grass-like plant that she didn’t recognize, and it seemed to have been planted recently.
It was odd for Pamela to not recognize a species of plant on these dunes, as she had been walking this terrain since her childhood growing up in Muskegon, making many forays to the dunes and beaches with her family and friends. Taking out her plant guide, she keyed out the new grass. Far from confident in her identification but alarmed by the prospect that she might be correct, she noted the plant as Asiatic Sand Sedge (Carex kobomugi), a species that was on Michigan’s watch list of invasive plants. That species had never been found on these dunes, and there were certainly many efforts to keep it that way.
Striding back to her office with some urgency to return Benjamin’s call, she passed the parking lot where the trash bags from the pervious day’s clean-up were awaiting pickup by the Park’s maintenance crew. On a whim, Pamela decided to see if there were any more surprises that may be lurking. Opening a few of the bags and rummaging through the contents, Pamela found the usual suspects: plastic bags and bottles, a small collection of broken flip-flops, plenty of K-95 masks with broken straps, some ripped blue latex gloves, and empty bottles of sunscreen. In the fifth bag, Pamela spotted the tan leather gardening glove. Extracting it from the bag, she saw the crimson “W” scrawled on the back of the glove. This was a little interesting, but not astounding in any way, but Pamela thought maybe she’d mention it to Benjamin when she called.
Once Pamela and Benjamin put two-and-two together about the tan gardening gloves found at their respective parks, things took on a new sense of perplexity and intrigue. During their Zoom call, Benjamin said, “hold your gardening glove up to the camera, and I’ll show you the one that was found here.” When each of them held up their gloves, they gasped in unison. They appeared to be identical, except that one was for the right hand and one for the left.
Benjamin had scarcely ended the Zoom session with Pamela when his computer screen flashed a notification from the National Park Service internal message site. It was from Buffalo National River in the Ozarks of Arkansas and had something to do with cave vandalism.
Pellia Endivy, president of the local caving club and passionate spelunker, was carrying her caving gear through the Ozark Forest. There were always surprises to be found in this forest, as the Ozarks lie at the junction of the eastern hardwood forest, the Great Plains, and the southern piney woods. Pellia knelt to examine a patch of prickly pear cactus adjacent to a stand of white oaks within the Buffalo National River parkland. She didn’t dally for long, though, as her heart raced thinking about the adventure that lay ahead. She was fortunate to have received a permit to explore the cave. Almost all caves in the park were closed in an effort to halt the spread of White-Nose Syndrome, a fungus that had decimated eastern bat populations and that can be transmitted on the clothing and boots of cavers.
Pellia felt a deep connection to this landscape. Her favorite professor at the University of Arkansas, Dr. Lucian Lucifuga, taught a geology class focused on the cave regions of the world, including the Ozarks. Pellia learned that this type of region is known as karst, a relic of all the sediments and shell fragments deposited in ancient inland seas and transformed over the millennia into rock formations of limestone and dolomite.
She loved Professor Lucifuga’s karst field trips to visit the sinkholes, rock seeps, and waterfalls. On one trip, Dr. Lucifuga took them to a stream called Sinking Creek. They started walking downstream where the stream was thirty feet wide and flowing clear and bold over river cobbles and around boulders. As they walked downstream, the flow diminished, the stream became narrower, and the surrounding forest canopy started closing in from both sides. This of course was contrary to most streams that became wider and bolder in the downstream direction. About a half mile from where they started, the students stopped where the flow of the stream in its entirety plunged into a rock fissure in the streambed, leaving a cobbly channel that looked exactly like a streambed, but with not a drop of water flowing in it. “Wow,” said some, and “Where did it go?”
“Exactly,” replied Professor Lucifuga, obviously delighted at the students’ sense of discovery. “Let’s go find out.”
They drove about four miles, mostly downhill, towards the larger valley of the Buffalo River. The students piled out of the van at a place where a fast-flowing creek crossed under a small bridge and into the Buffalo a short distance downstream. Professor Lucifuga led them upstream along the creek. About two-hundred feet up, the creek plunged boldly out of a rock face – the whole creek! There was nothing above except a wooded bluff.
“Put your hands in the water,” directed the Professor. The students rippled the water surface with their fingers, feeling that the water was icy cold water, even on this warm Fall day. “It’s the same stream,” explained the Professor.
Pellia looked up at the landscape of farms, forests, and scattered house sites, imagining this stream travelling, hidden and mysterious, underneath it all. “I need to see it,” she committed to herself.
Her wish was fulfilled on the next field trip to a cave. The students suited up with tan, canvass coveralls, hiking boots, and helmets with headlamps mounted on them. Professor Lucifuga led the students into the passages, turning over rocks to reveal bizarre and otherworldly lifeforms, like salamanders and spiders adapted to live only in the pitch dark reaches of a cave. They passed formations of spear-shaped stalactites and stalagmites, the Professor explaining that you can always remember which is which because stalactites hold “tight” to the cave ceiling in contrast to stalagmites that protrude up from the floor.
As the passages descended deeper into the earth, they arrived at a chamber with a good-sized stream flowing through the middle of it. “This is just like Sinking Creek,” explained the Professor, “starting on the surface a few miles upstream and then flowing entirely through this cave system until it discharges back onto the surface near the river. Crazy, isn’t it?”
The students agreed that this was a crazy place to be, some looking nervously back up through the cave chambers for any point of light that might indicate the cave entrance. Pellia, for one, wanted to stay and explore all the side passages, but there was still one more lesson for the day, back at the cave entrance.
The group emerged from the cave, blinking in the sunlight that now seemed harsh on their eyes. Professor Lucifuga asked them to look around and explore the area immediately surrounding the cave entrance. Here, the land was sunken like a large pit about fifteen feet below the surrounding forest, a self-contained small ecosystem, cooler and shadier than the surrounding forest, and also very moist. “You have to get on your hands and knees to find out what lives here,” instructed the Professor, lowering himself into a crawling position.
The students followed suit, examining the soggy ground and the plants that had adapted to this micro-climate. The Professor pointed to clusters of ground-hugging plants that covered the area like a shaggy carpet with various textures and hues of green. “These are called Bryophytes — mosses, liverworts, and hornworts – and they love these cool, wet pockets.” The students ran their fingers through the plants. Some felt like soft, wet sponges or brushes and others a little stiffer and horny-feeling.
Pellia needed lots of quarters that semester for her especially high laundry bill, many of her pants and shirts caked with cave mud. It was a price well worth paying to acquire a lifelong fascination. Later on, as she pursued her academic interest in geology, she discovered that her great-grandparents had come from an area of Chile known as San Pedro de Atacama, a region also known for its many cave passages. “It’s in my blood,” Pellia observed with delight.
On the mid-July day that Pellia had set off to explore a cave in Buffalo River Park, she realized that it was the same cave that she had visited with Professor Lucifuga’s class a few years earlier. Her anticipation heightened as she drew closer to the cave entrance. She felt the cool breath of a cave opening even before she descended the steep embankment in the forest to arrive at the actual cave mouth. The moist air around the cave opening cooled the sweat on Pellia’s brow on this summer day, and the sunlight was heavily filtered by overhanging branches.
Pellia knew enough about what cave entrances were supposed to look like to know that something was amiss at this cave, particularly a spot where bright sunlight was penetrating to the forest floor. The carpet-like mosses and other Bryophytes had been scraped away from the moist soil. To add insult to injury, the overhanging branches of Pawpaw and Spicebush had been pruned back, exposing the plants to more sunlight and drying than they could well tolerate. She located the tracks of an off-road vehicle nearby.
To add to the strange circumstance, Pellia discovered a tan, leather gardening glove with a crimson “W” scrolled across the back carefully placed on a narrow rock ledge just inside the cave entrance. “Idiots,” Pellia muttered under her breath, having seen too much of the cave vandalism and littering that these areas unfortunately invited. Pellia quickly notified Park personnel, leading to the message that Benjamin Benzoin had read on his computer in the Smokies.
Benjamin certainly knew a criminal’s calling when he saw one. He recognized the calling card as a familiar trope from detective books and movies: a fake spider, pearl necklace, the Joker playing card, a white glove, or maybe a tan gardening glove! The environmental vandalism was clearly the carefully planned and executed work of someone with ill intent and called for the intervention of law enforcement. But who could solve this type of crime?
He was still thinking about that question that evening when he was clearing out his pants pockets while changing for bed, and found the now crumpled, dirty, and frayed-at-the edges Toyota dealership business card with the hand-written phone number on the back. The ink was blurred, but the number was still legible. “Who knows? Maybe I’ll start with this,” he considered.
When he called the number the next morning, he was surprised that the 202-area code number from D.C. was to the FBI. Expecting confusion or complete dismissiveness in response to his odd inquiry, he was surprised when he found himself on the line with an FBI department that he had no idea even existed — the Division of Invasive and Injurious Species.
“Hello,” Benjamin began tentatively. “We have a situation here. It’s odd. I’m just wondering if — .whether — there is someone who could help.”
“Sure thing,” the voice at the other end of the line returned. “Tell me about it.”
Benjamin was put more at ease by the even, straight-forward tone of the voice, and the fact of their apparent interest in the situation.
“It’s about a tan gardening glove. And some invasive plants, here in the Smokies. And also in Michigan and Arkansas.” Benjamin paused, gathering his thoughts. “Well, let me just start at the beginning.”
“Sounds like a plan,” the voice said patiently.
Benjamin described in detail what had occurred in the Smokes, and his follow-up conversations with Pamela Pitcheri at Saugatuck Dunes and Pellia Endivy in the Ozarks. He recounted comparing the tan gardening gloves with the crimson “W” as a mysterious calling card left at each scene.
“Interesting,” said the FBI agent, a woman by the name of Aliyah Aurea. “Can I ask you a few questions?”
Aliyah asked Benjamin about the details. Where exactly was each crime scene located within the parks? What species of plants were involved? Did they find any footprints or four-wheeler tracks nearby?
Referring to the Smokies incident, Aliyah asked Benjamin if he was sure that the Bush Honeysuckle that was planted was the invasive Lonicera maackii, and not the native Diervilla canadensis, the two often mistaken for each other. Benjamin knew at that point that he had found just the right person. In his excitement, he neglected to tell Ms. Aurea about the Toyota dealership business card with her phone number on the back.
END OF EPISODE 2. LOOK FOR EPISODE 3 ON TUESDAY, 01/25/22