Shining a light on the darkest corners of the Zach and Addie story
Writer: Josh Lami
You already know this story, at least… the surface details, right?
If not, listen to our episode of Obscura detailing the tragedy of Zach and Addie. It puts Romeo and Juliet to endless shame. When I first applied as a writer at Obscura in January of this year, I naturally visited the website to familiarize myself with the show. At the time, the most recent episode was on Zach and Addie. I don’t really believe in “signs,” so to speak, but seeing those two as Obscura’s then-current subject sure as hell made it feel like the universe was saying “Josh, this is where you’re supposed to be.” See, what only a handful of people knew, was that for nearly six months—since June of 2018, to be exact—I had been doing some investigative journalism, independently, on Zach and Addie for reasons we’ll get to soon enough. When I came to Obscura I was beyond familiar with the case. Moreover, it was a significant part of my life.
Prior to joining the Obscura team I was working as a news writer for a number of news and entertainment outlets, many of which I’m legally bound from publicly naming due to non-disclosure agreements. My press credentials were an asset in helping secure resources and land interviews for my Zach and Addie investigation, but I’ve parted ways with the world of mainstream news writing. It’s just not a world I wish to be part of. Since being a news writer, quitting, and joining Obscura, I have to say, as a journalist I’ve found absolutely no difference in in terms of difficulty when it comes to obtaining whatever information I may be seeking at a given moment. It doesn’t matter who you’re writing for, journalism is journalism. It’s not for lazy people, it’s a lot of back and forth, a lot of dead ends, and fighting tooth and nail for the truth. Simply put, investigative journalism is fucking hard.
Initially I planned to write a novel or maybe even make a documentary about the Zach and Addie case, but once Justin and I discussed the idea of doing a blog for Obscura, I knew right then, my report (or series of reports) had found a home. There’s no better platform than right here. My only regret in my time with Obscura was the fact that the Zach and Addie case had already been covered before I arrived. Now I can remedy that.
As I descended into the abyssal pit that is this story, something bad happened; I got too close. It strikes me as corny to say that aloud, but it’s the truth. I became so entrenched in the tangled web of complexity that is the Zach and Addie case I started feeling, for lack of a better word, haunted by it. I started carrying this inexplicable profound sense of regret, baseless guilt, and outright depression, and I was feeling it at every waking moment. Honestly, I thought maybe I was losing it. My girlfriend, Autumn McKinney, was helping me out a bit with this investigation, so I’m naming her to make sure she gets due credit. Also assisting me was someone who is nothing short of a best friend, a fella by the name of Scott Fleeman. He also deserves some recognition. Both of them were noticing how much of a toll this case was taking on me. Both advised me to walk away for a bit. I listened. Wise decision on my part. At the center of Zach and Addie’s story are matters most people take quite personally. Things like mental illness, abuse, rape, exploitation, lies, domestic violence, and suicide. It stands to reason that I’d also take these things to heart, being so surrounded by it, every minute of every day. Still, despite my sensitivities, there was work to be done. After my initial hiatus, the new approach was to take long sanity breaks and come back to Zach and Addie sporadically, when I deemed myself fit. So far I’ve been working on this investigation for a little over a year. I still have a long way to go, but I’m in no rush. These things take time.
There was never any hope of keeping personal politics or my emotional shortcomings from influencing a report about Zach and Addie. I’m emotionally attached to the case and my writing will reflect it. Since I’m stating this up front, I can move forward with no ethical concerns.
So why investigate an already-solved murder? It’s difficult to say. Something about it has always seemed off. I think it seems off to a lot of people. It’s a case that is magnetic to most who hear it, but it’s hard to put your finger on why it’s so engrossing. I hypothesize the infatuation is due to a subconscious knowing that some level of fuckery is afoot in the Zach and Addie case.
To preface everything which follows: I’m not a detective. I’m not a police officer, I’m not a federal agent, I’m not employed by any form of law enforcement or branch of the military. I’m a writer, a journalist, a researcher, an artist, and a dozen or so other titles that don’t come with a set base salary. People hear that and probably assume I’m a liberal and/or a heavy drinker. They’re correct, not in the case of ‘or,’ but in the case of ‘and.’ So it’s on the table. I’m a lefty (not just politically, but left-handed as well), I’m not a cop, and I like to drink.
Conflicts of interest? None I can think of. Perhaps my own emotions.
Specialized training? None. Not even an associate’s degree. I’m a high school graduate and a little surprised I managed that. Some people get degrees in journalism and end up being restaurant managers. Some don’t even go to college and end up being journalists. If my lack of college education is a problem for you, you’re not alone, but just for the record, it has never been a problem for me. Taking the route of autodidactism was a personal decision and one I have never regretted.
Do I ever drink on the job? I don’t know a writer who doesn’t indulge sometimes while drafting a piece. If we’d have wanted a job that didn’t allow drinking, we’d have been accountants.
Do I plan to politicize this case?
It was 2006 when Zach Bowen leapt from the balcony of the New Orleans Omni hotel to his death in the street below. This was during George W. Bush’s second term. Zach had fought in Bush and Cheney’s widely loathed Iraq war. Zach came home with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result. Later, he murdered, dismembered, and cooked the body of his girlfriend, Addie Hall, on a stove-top, in their kitchen. This case was politicized years before I came along. Uncle Sam has been converting our fathers, sons, brothers, husbands, life-partners, and boyfriends into traumatized killers for quite a while. Is mentioning that politicization? Fake news? No, it’s a fact. Does reminding people of facts sometimes piss them off? Yes. Especially when those facts point to a glaring crisis that has plagued our nation since its inception. I don’t even come close to absolving Zach for what he did. It was wrong. But that doesn’t negate the fact that we send people like him to other countries, force them to endure unimaginable horror in wars that are based on abject lies, then ignore these traumatized soldiers upon their return. Then we somehow have the audacity to express shock when one of these people goes off the deep end. What did we expect? Trauma isn’t some excuse to get out of going to work, it’s a crippling affliction affecting millions of people.
Fortunately, as of late, we’ve gone mad with de-stigmatizing mental illness in this country. It’s about time. I wonder if either Zach or Addie would have fared better today. In the era of Donald J. Trump’s occupation of the Oval Office, folks on my side of the political spectrum resist the buffoonery of this quasi-dictatorial administration by way of exhibiting fierce, radical inclusivity. Those spreading toxicity are generally the only ones excluded from the group. Ironically, trauma peddlers like Louis C.K.—a man I used to call a hero—cry victimization, and no one listens. I use Louis as an example specifically because his recent modis operandi is to lambaste the younger generation he now feels so rejected by. A generation who no doubt sees me as old and out of touch as well, but I don’t share Louis’ bitterness. Kids today are perpetually celebrating the very diversity lamented by that fear-stricken vocal minority identified by their red hats and MAGA bumper stickers. This generation stands up and supports their fellow citizens struggling with mental illnesses, gives them room and encouragement to talk about their problems, rather than telling them to shut up deal with it.
Now that’s a protest.
If you’re fighting for a cause which stands in opposition to mass compassion, you’re fighting for a gruesome cause indeed. I hope this current trend of opening up continues and I hope it results in fewer cases like the one involving Zach and Addie. The powers that be say ‘build a wall, keep ‘em out, be a man, act like a lady, shoot to kill, keep your mouth shut, and do your job.’ People have obeyed for too long, and as a result, we have rampant mass shootings, police brutality, systemic racism and sexism, a suicide epidemic, and tragic stories like the one of Zach and Addie. Indiscriminate hugs and re-assurances from tomorrow’s leaders are landing like Molotov cocktails at the front door of a dying, but still destructive administration. Make no mistake, you’re living in strange times when acceptance is in direct opposition to leadership. My generation did a lot of name-calling, though significantly less than the generation preceding it. Something older people may never come to terms with is the fact that the kids actually do know better. They always have. In the nineties, being open about depression was gaining acceptability, but telling people you had anxiety still garnered responses of wrinkled brows and hand-waving dismissals. Today you can share your PTSD struggles on Facebook and receive a flurry of loving responses. It’s not my generation, but I sure wish it had been. I’m unsure how Zach and Addie would have liked the conscious collective of 2019, but it seems like most Americans have the luxury of a support net. When you have that, life is exponentially more bearable, even in the worst of times. There are people in this world who believe they have no one. The question of whether it’s a genuine or perceived isolation is irrelevant. If loneliness feels real, its power is unimaginable. On some level, despite their chaotic life, Zach and Addie both believed they at least had each other in this midst of all the madness. After a while, they realized they were wrong.
And that is the only reason you know their names.
June 4, 2018
We got to New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA) around five o’clock PM on a Monday. Flew in from a tiny airport in Concord, North Carolina by way of some cheap airline I’ve never heard of before or since. If Wal-Mart’s Great Value brand is secretly behind a discount commercial airline, that was it. The tickets were damn-near free, though, so who was I to complain? I was supposed to be interviewing a filmmaker on the set of a movie I had no interest in seeing, but New Orleans is, without question, my favorite iteration of the United States.
America comes in many forms, but none of them compare to the Big Easy. At my side was a pretty little red head named Autumn. She has been calling me ‘baby’ for a little over ten years and over the course of that decade I’ve become quite fond of her. I suppose that’s called a relationship, though I’ve never been a fan of labels. It was her first time visiting NOLA and probably my tenth. I’d warned her on the airplane ride, but there’s no way to accurately describe the jarring nature of walking out into that infamous New Orleans heat for the first time. No sense belaboring this point, I told myself. Poor girl will figure it out soon enough.
We abandoned the godly air-conditioning of Louis Armstrong International Airport and ventured into the abusive climate of New Orleans. The look on her face said it all. Heat is one thing, but that humidity is vile. Something about the air in that town. Thick, even sticky. You’re not sure if the air is wet or if you’re really that sweaty after being outside for less than a minute.
Autumn was wearing a pink romper with pictures of cats all over it. Before we boarded the plane, it looked crisp, vibrant. Her hair was glowing and shiny like always, but after ten minutes outside in NOLA, the romper was drenched in sweat, hanging off her body like some kind of sack she’d found in a dumpster. Her straight hair took on a wavy, frizzled look and lost all semblance of shimmer. After a moment, she resigned to putting it up in a bun and even felt relieved that she wouldn’t have to waste any morning time fixing her hair while we were in town. No point. My clothes were soaked as well, my face shiny with pouring sweat but I’d expected as much, no disappointment on my end. I was just happy to be in the best city in America.
New Orleans, Louisiana is something everyone should experience before they die. No exceptions. If you’ve never been, go. If you are already as drawn to it as I am, cheers. And if you have visited, deemed it an insipid fuckpen of squalor, and vowed never to return, I find myself somehow impressed by your resolve, yet sickened by your existence; boorish marmot.
I’d been awake for over thirty hours and the first thing we did after landing was go to our AirBnB. Right off the bat, we’d made a poor decision. Autumn noticed the a/c was quite lax in this unclean basement apartment. Also a number of bedbugs were present. It was in a pretty rough area, the Uber driver told us this was a section of town he liked to avoid and seemed to be chastising us a for calling him out there. I took some photos of the neighborhood. It was in a bit of disrepair but I never felt threatened.
We found a tourist-y hotel in the Quarter and shacked up there, unpacked, and walked around for a bit. I showed Autumn Jackson Square. Some of the local dunks accosted us, numerous people tried run scams, and it was hotter than sixty shades of hell. This was a typical visit, but Autumn was beginning to wonder why I loved this place so much. After an hour or so, sleep deprivation broke me and a waking delirium said we needed to head back to our hotel so I could sleep.
Lying in bed, Autumn remarked that the town had an unmistakable dark vibe about it, a perpetual sense of danger was giving her a feeling of dread, but for no discernible reason. I felt the same. Not just then, but every time I’d visited before. Always on guard, a feeling of being watched, and an unwavering distrust of every person I encountered. To answer the question I knew she was pondering—why do I love this city?
“Because here, I can’t zone out and let life pass me by. I have to stay vigilant. When I’m back home working, I’m just biding my time until something interesting happens, which is sporadic at best. Here, my days aren’t uneventful. That sort of thing doesn’t exist in Crescent City. I can’t swear to it, but I think this might be what it feels like to be alive.”
June 5, 2018: Meeting Zach and Addie
It was morning, Autumn and I were sitting at Café du Monde, a famous, but overrrated establishment if you ask me. Even so, Autumn was entitled to experience some of the commoner stuff, New Orleans virgin that she was. As we stuffed our faces with beignets, I nudged Autumn and pointed to an interesting scene that the rest of this packed restaurant seemed oblivious to. Workers were busy running around, shuffling from one table to the other, well-to-do tourists were devouring glorified funnel cakes, and no one seemed to notice a homeless gentleman in a heroin nod, seeming almost like wall decor in this iconic New Orleans eatery. Autumn gasped, I smirked and said “Welcome to New Orleans.” Is there any city in the United States that better exemplifies the wealth inequality in this fucking country?
Autumn and I left Café du Monde, took a cemetery tour and found a deal on Groupon for something called a “Haunted Museum.” This was something I’d never heard of, but tickets were around ten dollars each, so I couldn’t think of a reason to pass up the offering. As we began making our way to this place, the sky began pissing on our heads, as if to say, “go find something else to do.” If the sky was talking, we weren’t listening. A solid rainstorm became an all-out downpour, but even still, we hoofed it from St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 to this vague attraction located at 826 North Rampart Street.
From the outside, it didn’t resemble a museum. It looked more like a rundown mom and pop business of some sort, but we were definitely in the right spot because there was a sign reading “Bloody Mary’s New Orleans Haunted Museum” hanging over the sidewalk. Inside, it looked even less like a museum. Actually, what it looked like was a gift shop, because that’s exactly what it was. We were informed that the “tour” would start in about fifteen minutes, so we perused this strange gift shop for a bit, trying to dry off.
While looking at goofy merchandise, designed to appeal to tourists in search of a “unique” souvenir, I noticed a hallway. It was narrow, contained some kind of voodoo alter, and at its end was a white door I immediately regarded as foreboding. Why I found this door so unsettling, I’m unsure, but something about it just didn’t sit well with me.
Finally, it was time for the tour. A young guy by the name of Jagger gathered the group together. This group consisted of Autumn, myself, a guy probably around my age (I’m 34), and two other women who seemed to be experiencing as much confusion as I was. Jagger began walking toward that horrible door, foretoken of a looming repugnance I have yet to escape.
I doubt I ever will.
This door opened up to a courtyard, in which, you could see the back entrance of a number of French Quarter homes. Jagger stood there babbling about who used to live in some of the aforementioned apartments, then led us around a corner to the apartment so integral to this haunted museum. Once we entered the back door of the “haunted museum” something happened.
In the interest of full disclosure, I do not believe in ghosts. I don’t believe in an afterlife, heaven, hell, hauntings, poltergeists, psychics, clairvoyants… I’m as firm a skeptic on any kind of mysticism as you’re likely to find. Completely non-religious, and not likely to change my stance on that. To me, looking at “haunted” locations or taking vampire tours is purely about entertainment. It’s fun to think about, but the thought of actually believing in such a thing is a foreign concept to me. Now, if you’re a believer in such things, I’m not here to belittle you. I’m completely disinterested in berating someone for being religious. If you’re happy, I’m happy for you, but personally, a church of any kind is just not my scene. I tell you this because what I’m about to say sounds like bullshit. At least, it would sound like bullshit to me, had I not been the one who experienced it.
We walked through a doorway into the lower level of an old apartment. To our left was a staircase, which made a turn and stopped at another door. As soon as I saw this staircase, I felt dizzy, grief-stricken, scared, sad, and like everything in the world that could go wrong just did. Every fiber of my being was screaming at me to stay the hell away from those stairs. Later, I found out Autumn felt the same way. I tried distracting myself from what felt like an oncoming panic attack by looking around at the wall decor and taking pictures. As luck would have it, one of the photos captured the look on Autumn’s face as she was observing this horrible fucking staircase.
And of course, Jagger instructed us to ascend a staircase that seemed to have the qualities of the Dementors in a Harry Potter book, because what kind of story would this be if he didn’t? We climbed the stairs and my feelings of distress only worsened as we reached the top.
Jagger opened the door and we entered a blue room that looked like a residential living room. Haunted museum? Not so much. We were actually standing at the site of one of New Orleans’ most heinous crimes. This was Zach and Addie’s home. This is where he strangled her, where he dismembered her, and where he cooked her. Jagger told us the whole story in great detail while I sat in a chair feeling completely disconnected from myself. I just felt strange. There’s no other way to put it, other than to say, this place had bad energy, and I’m not someone who ever uses phrases like ‘bad energy.’ The weirdest part was, I lost time while we were in the apartment. As we walked down the stairs I started feeling more like myself, not quite so terrible, and then it hit me that I couldn’t really remember what all was being said or what I was doing while in that living room.
Again, Autumn had a similar experience. She said she felt like she was in some kind of hypnotic trance and the tour guide’s words seemed like background noise, at best. One of the things I do recall is Jagger pointing to an electric range and informing the group that this was indeed the stove Addie Hall was cooked in. Then he pointed to a refrigerator and said “that’s where he stored her dismembered body.” As if charging admission to see such a thing wasn’t tasteless and exploitative enough, the owners of this murder site also dressed Zach and Addie’s old bedroom up with creepy dolls for theatrical effect.
People can feel how they want about this operation, but personally, I found it sickening. I’d never have given money to someone exploiting this tragedy if I’d known what was going on, but this wasn’t advertised. In any case, the time to skip this ghoulish attraction had come and gone. I was past the point of no return, so I did take some photos inside the apartment.
After showing us that little corner of hell, Jagger showed us the rest of the “haunted museum.” Mostly it was a bunch of crap like skulls in jars, dolls they swore were haunted, but weren’t, weird taxidermy. I didn’t really care enough to pay attention because all I could think about was the fucking horrific murder site this person had just surprised me and my girlfriend with. If you’re going to show me a skull in a jar, show it to me before you take me to the site of the heinous murder you’re profiting from. It’s something of a tough act to follow.
Autumn and I walked back to the hotel in veritable silence. What do you say after something like that? Being in that apartment brought a feeling of near-intoxication, but whatever we’d been drunk on, we were now coming down and we were coming down hard. It took a good solid 3-4 hours before it really hit us, this nightmare we’d just experienced. Maybe some people are unaffected, hell maybe most of them are. We weren’t. We were mortified, upset, angry, but also curious. Perhaps I’m just sensitive. We’d left Zach and Addie’s home in the physical sense, but our hearts and minds were still very much in that living room. Later that night we sat in on the bed reading everything we could about Zach and Addie. It’s a strange case because there’s a ton of information readily available, but there’s also glaring questions surrounding it, and getting to the answers is nothing short of an ordeal. There were too many discrepancies for me, too many odd coincidences. When I left New Orleans a few days later, I came back home and immediately started doing a ton of research. I reached out to all kinds of people, including Bloody Mary, aka Mary Millan, the owner of Zach and Addie’s previous address.
This is a two-part blog post, and for part two, we’re going to delve into some of the unsettling facts surrounding this case, some of the odd coincidences no one really talks about, and the possibility that police aren’t being entirely truthful about what actually happened in that apartment.
Thank you for reading, and as always, keep the fire burning.