A young woman is found dead on the floor of a Tijuana hotel room. An ID in a nearby purse reads “Atlantis Black.” The police report states that the body does not seem to match the identification, yet the body is quickly cremated and the case is considered closed.
So begins Betsy Bonner’s search for her sister, Atlantis, and the unraveling of the mysterious final months before Atlantis’s disappearance, alleged overdose, and death. With access to her sister’s email and social media accounts, Bonner attempts to decipher and construct a narrative: frantic and unintelligible Facebook posts, alarming images of a woman with a handgun, Craigslist companionship ads, DEA agent testimony, video surveillance, police reports, and various phone calls and moments in the flesh conjured from memory. Through a history only she and Atlantis shared—a childhood fraught with abuse and mental illness, Atlantis’s precocious yet short rise in the music world, and through it all an unshakable bond of sisterhood—Bonner finds questions that lead only to more questions and possible clues that seem to point in no particular direction. In this haunting memoir and piercing true crime account, Bonner must decide how far she will go to understand a sister who, like the mythical island she renamed herself for, might prove impossible to find.
When an American disappears in Mexico, especially if she has changed her name and fled the United States while embroiled in a court case, no one in a position of authority there is likely to care much about what happened to her. And my positive ID of the autopsy photographs was not enough to have a death certificate issued. Atlantis was still expected to appear in court in San Diego on July 23.
My family requested copies of the police and autopsy reports, but the consulate said that without a death certificate they couldn’t be released. And a death certificate could not be issued until the body was identified in person, by two next of kin, in the Tijuana morgue.
I had always known Atlantis’s email password—she’d given it to me after opening her first Hotmail account. “I want you to have this in case anything ever happens to me,” she’d said. “But if you use it before I die, I’ll fucking kill you.” Over the years, she moved on to Yahoo! and Gmail but kept the same password.
Hoping to find out more, my cousin Elizabeth and I agreed to read whatever messages she’d saved, and any new ones that might come in. She suggested that we keep Atlantis’s Gmail account active but change the password to protect it. But of course the email account had been compromised long ago: Atlantis’s former San Diego roommate had used it to tell my aunt Tina that Atlantis was in jail. And how many other people knew Atlantis’s password?
Her inbox was overflowing with responses to her ad for “a hot, loyal wife.” One of them said, simply: “WHORE!”
And then I found something strange: an account of my sister’s death had been written before she disappeared in Mexico. On June 19, someone with the user name Don Juan, at firstname.lastname@example.org, had sent a fake obituary to Atlantis’s own account, with the subject: “Has the War on Drugs Gone Too Far?”
On June 20th, 2008, independent musician from NYC, Atlantis Black, 31, committed suicide via a heroin overdose in a room she was subletting in La Jolla, CA.
Atlantis had never done heroin before.
In January 2008, she was in a car accident which left her with whiplash and back injuries, and for that she sought medical attention. Every doctor’s visit was documented, and she was prescribed Vicodin and Flexeril (to which both she claimed made her nauseous, but at least she could sleep at night). She also invested in a new therapeutic mattress and did regular physical therapy to help her recover from her injuries.
She took her medications as prescribed until March 19, 2008 and then she claimed she was tired from the nausea so she stopped taking them.
In the middle of April, the FBI and DEA kicked in her door without a warrant and took her away in her pajamas to the local FBI/DEA chapter and booked her for “prescription fraud” because apparently there was some confusion over a prescription her doctor called in back in March.
Atlantis was held in jail for 7 days with no access to any loved ones since all her numbers were in her cell phone, which they immediately stripped of her, as well as refusing to let her bail herself out because her credit card was in her wallet, which they also stripped of her.Then I found something strange: an account of my sister’s death had been written before she disappeared in Mexico.
The SD County Jail deprived her food and water for 7 days b/c she was vegan (and would go into anaphalaphtic [sic] shock if she was to eat meat after 17 years of not ingesting it—same idea as “mad cow disease”) so she drank water from the jail bathroom faucets and other prisoners would occasionally give her bread or cookies. She was also deprived her anti-seizure medication and despite her visits to the doctor and written requests day after day (along with the dietary requests) was still denied her medication. Sure enough, during Arraignment, she had a Grand Mal seizure in the Courtroom and her Arraignment had to be scheduled for the following day. They took her to the hospital in shackles—and of all things, sent the ambulance bill and hospital bill to her. They then brutalized her for “not taking her medicine as prescribed” (what medicine?!).
So after 7 days a kind-hearted bailsman trusted Atlantis’ word, being that she had a clean record up until then and she signed over her belongings (wallet, credit card, and all) to him with an agreement that he would post her $10,000 bail and she would meet him downtown upon release and sign the credit card statement.
After that debacle, Atlantis hired a private attorney. When they went to the first hearing she pled “100% Not Guilty” and the DA offered her a plea bargain: the 4 Felony counts knocked down to a couple misdemeanors and 18 months in jail. Atlantis and her attorney said no way, that she had committed no crime, and would not accept such a plea bargain.
When they went to the preliminary hearing, the DA tried to plea bargain with her again, this time angry with her for not accepting their initial plea and said misdemeanor was off the table and they somehow upped it to *12* felony counts and several years of jail time. Atlantis and her attorney refused again.
Well, somehow this took a serious toll on the depressive musician whose life was destroyed by this “brand new DEA Task Force on Prescription Drugs” (as quoted by Special Agent Lennox) and Atlantis Black, for the first time in her life, shot 7 bags of heroin into her virgin arms to escape being a victim of another meaningless quota. She knew it was futile, she knew it would only back their case even more, but before she left this world, she left a note:
I have had my moments with alcohol, but I have NEVER been a prescription drug abuser. Here is your evidence.”
And with that she left a hair sample from before she injected the heroin.
Where to begin? For one thing, the body would be found in Tijuana, not La Jolla. The piece exaggerated the number of years she’d been a vegan, added an extra day of incarceration, and lied about Atlantis’s never having done heroin before. But much of it was true. So who was Don Juan? I thought it sounded like Atlantis herself. Or had she cowritten her obituary with someone? In any case, why?
The last email she’d sent to anyone suggested what role Pascual Perez might have played in her death. On June 19, she wrote to her friend Psychobunny:
I have 7 bags of the finest Peruvian coming my way tonight. I’m going to shoot it and I don’t care if I die. You have no idea what my life has been like since I was arrested and sent to jail. Since I refused to plea bargain, they upped it to TWELVE felony counts with YEARS in jail or rehab (who goes to rehab for *years* ??!!).
And on June 23, the day before she disappeared, she told Psychobunny:
I have a connection for China White—CAN YOU BELIEVE IT??!! The only problem is that I’ll have to cross the border to get it—and I am NOT risking smuggling it back.
So I’ll simply have to rent a motel room down there and do it there. He has EVERYTHING—literally every drug you can imagine—oxy, MS-C (lol), China White, Vanna White, Black Tar, coke—EVERYTHING. You name it, he has it.
So I think I’m going to go down there tomorrow.
Wish me luck!!!!!!
I read her Facebook messages, which included one to someone called Mimi Plaza, who apparently knew Gretchen. Mimi’s job description (on Facebook) was “backroom drugdeals and then some.”
On the same day that she posted the gun photographs, Atlantis had written to Mimi:
So I have a weird question for you—important to use code words here: I’ve mailed Gretchen jewelry that she’s wanted but couldn’t obtain in times of crisis and vice versa. I was wondering if you could obtain any jewelry that I would like and I would pay top-notch for.
Mom finally called me back. She sounded exhausted, and I didn’t ask where she’d been; I was just glad to hear her voice. I told her that I’d been reading Atlantis’s emails, that she’d definitely planned her death, and that the man who’d checked into the hotel with her was probably a drug dealer. Mom said that we should be relieved that it was over and that her own grief was coming in “waves.” I asked her how she thought we should inform Atlantis’s friends and her lawyer; she said I should do it. As always, I was anxious about her state of mind, and I hoped to protect her—I worried about losing her too. I told her that Elizabeth and I could handle everything, and that she should just try to take care of herself.
I phoned the Johnnie Cochran of San Diego, told him that his client was dead and that my family would be grateful if he could return any portion of the retainer.
“Sorry,” he said. “That’s not possible.”
Two weeks ago, I reminded him, he’d seemed to think that anything was possible.