The Unique Life And Mysterious Death Of Bison Dele
The life of Brian Williams was always a mystery, right down to what to call him. For the first three decades of his life, the former NBA player and 1997 champion with the Chicago Bulls was known as Williams, an enigmatic forward with unfulfilled potential and off-court interests and issues of dizzying complexity. For the last four years of his life, he was known as Bison Dele, a man who walked away from $36 million in potential NBA revenue to live a nomad’s life literally across the world. And on July 8 – every July 8 – he is remembered for the way his life ended, even if no one knows quite how that came to be.
On that particular July 8, in 2002, Bison Dele disappeared from the world, never to be heard from again. The former star at the University of Arizona, the former NBA journeyman, the world traveler, thrill seeker and soul in search of peace and happiness, vanished into thin air – or, more literally, the deep blue waters off the coast of Tahiti. His death is considered by all who investigated to be a murder, and even more ghastly, it came at the hands of his own brother, who himself died of his own hand two months later.
The mystery and tragedy of Bison Dele still resonates among NBA fans from the 1990s as well as those who revel in the genre of true crime and unsolved cases. But even as he perished far too young, at age 33, and far too cruelly at the hands of his own flesh and blood, his life was one fully lived, however against the norms we ascribe to athletes of his prowess and wealth. But still, the question persists: What happened on that boat in the waters off Tahiti on July 8, 2002?
Brian Williams was born in 1969 into a life of fame he would find for himself years later. His father, Eugene Williams, was a singer in the second iteration of the music group, The Platters. Brian and his older brother by two years, Kevin, called Fresno their home, but they traveled extensively with the Platters, and when Eugune and Brian’s mother, Patricia, divorced, the brothers often shuttled between California and Las Vegas.
Brian eventually grew to the height of 6-foot-10, and he became a star athlete at Santa Monica High School, where he eventually chose to pursue a career in basketball, spending his freshman year of college at Maryland and rookie of the year honors in the Athletic Coast Conference before transferring after his freshman year to the University of Arizona.
Williams played in Tucson for two years before declaring for the 1991 NBA Draft as a junior and being selected 10th overall by the Orlando Magic.
But Williams’ early success on the court was backlit by troubles off it. By his second season in Orlando, Williams was diagnosed with clinical depression, one of the first publicized instances of mental health issues in an NBA player. Williams admitted to one suicide attempt and his mother indicated there may have been a second involving an overdose on his medication. But despite his struggles with menta health, Williams remained a constant in the league and by 1996, he found a home that seemingly changed his life.
The Chicago Bulls were the defending champions entering the 1996-97 season, with Michael Jordan fully back from his brief retirement and the team winning 72 games the season before. Williams fit in perfectly with this championship-driven group of veterans and head coach Phil Jackson and by the following June, Williams was an NBA champion.
More than that, he became a wealthy NBA champion, leaving the Bulls after that one season to join the Detroit Pistons, signing a seven-year, $45 million free agent contract.
But money did not bring stability to Williams’ life. In 1998, he changed his name to Bison Dele, to honor his Cherokee ancestry and the first person from his mother’s side of the family to be enslaved. The year after that major life change, Dele shocked the world with an even bigger one, walking away from the remaining $36 million on his contract with the Pistons and retiring from the NBA so he could become a world traveler, seeking the meaning of life.
Dele seemed to find what he was looking for. In the four years after leaving the NBA, Dele lived a life that would have made Ernest Hemingway jealous: The former Chicago Bull ran with the bulls in Pamplona. Like his former Chicago teammate Dennis Rodman, Dele dated Madonna. He traversed Europe with nothing more than a backpack.
And in 2000, he settled in Tahiti and bought a 55-foot catamaran called the Hakuna Matata – the famous phrase from the 1994 animated film “The Lion King,” that means “no worries.” He planned to eventually sail it to Hawaii.
That fateful voyage began on July 6, 2002, from the Tahitian harbor town of Pape’ete, headed for an island called Raiatea, and then, ultimately, Hawaii. On board were Dele, his brother, Kevin, himself having changed his name to Miles Dabord, his girlfriend Serena Karlan, and Bertrand Saldo, the boat’s captain. Over the next 48 hours, three phone calls coming from the boat were logged. But starting on July 8, all communications with the boat ceased. What actually took place on the boat will never be known.
What is known is that on that same day, July 8, Dabord was seen in the port of Moorea and would spend a week there with his girlfriend, Erica Wiese. During the course of that week, Dabord told Weise that Dele and Karlan were on another island, while Saldo was also in Moorea with friends. “I didn’t have a desire to meet Bison,” Wiese told the Los Angeles Times. “From Miles’ point of view, it sounded like Bison was treating Miles [poorly]. Miles even said to me once, ‘If I ever keep going on and on and on to make a point, please stop me — that’s what Bison does.’ ” Wiese left Moorea on July 15.
On July 16, witnesses reported seeing a man fitting Dabord’s description guiding a 55-foot catamaran into Phaeton Bay Marina in Taravao, along Tahiti’s southeastern shore. The boat had been re-named and re-registered as the Aria Bella, but what was perhaps most interesting was the former name. The letters that had spelled it out were removed from the side of the craft, leaving just a traced outline of “Hakuna Matata.”
No one would hear from Dele, Karlan or Saldo ever again. But because of Dele’s nomadic, off-the-grid lifestyle, there were no alarms sounding for the first few weeks after he and Karlan went silent, even after Dabord had returned to the United States alone on July 20. Dele was a man who turned down $36 million remaining on his NBA contract to travel the world instead. It would not be until early September that a Dele “sighting” in Arizona would suddenly have alarm bells ringing across the world.
On Sept. 5, 2002, a man claiming to be Brian Williams walked into Certified Mint, a Phoenix coin shop. The man had in his possession Brian Williams’ passport and credit cards. A month earlier, the man had contacted the mint in an attempt to purchase $500,000 worth of gold coins. The man said he was Brian Williams, former NBA star. The deal was negotiated down to $152,000 and a check from one of Williams’ bank accounts was sent to the mint, where it was deposited and cleared.
But there was a problem. Dele’s bank thought there was something odd about the check, and they contacted Dele’s financial advisor, Kevin Porter and explained the problem. The address on the check had been changed – it now directed to a Mailbox Inc. address in Miami. There was also a different phone number. Porter called it and listened to the voicemail message.
The voice identified itself as “B,” but Porter was stunned. It was not Bison Dele. Porter had the payment stopped and contacted both the Certified Mint and Phoenix police. The man claiming to be Williams would be at the mint on Sept. 5 to complete the transaction. On cue, the man arrived at the Certified Mint in Phoenix as scheduled. What happened next perplexed authorities.
The man claiming to be Brian Williams, the man who had sent the mint a check for $152,000 from Brian Williams’ checkbook, the man who arrived at the mint with Brian Williams’ passport and credit cards to prove his identity … was not Brian Williams. It was Williams’ brother, Miles Dabord. It was also Dabord whose voice was on the recording at the number Kevin Porter had called, which caused him to alert authorities. Phoenix police were waiting and Dabord was detained. But not for long.
Up to this moment, two months since Dele, Karlan and Saldo had gone missing, there has been no official concern over Bison Dele’s safety and whereabouts. This allowed Dabord to make a somewhat plausible claim that it was Dele – the real Brian Williams – who had made the original call to the mint to make the $152,000-deal, who had signed and sent the check, and who had sent Dabord to pick up the gold coins.
Of course, the Phoenix authorities, not knowing the true story, could not reach Dele to disprove Dabord’s account. Lacking evidence of an actual crime, the police had no choice but to release Dabord.
In short order, Phoenix police realized they had made a terrible blunder. Just days after his release, the world began to learn of Bison Dele’s disappearance, as well as his girlfriend, Serena Karlan, and the boat’s captain, Bertrand Saldo. The story of Dabord piloting the boat to port alone also came to light. Dabord himself knew the walls were finally closing in. He reunited with his girlfriend, Erica Weise, in the San Francisco area days after fleeing Arizona. What he told her next was shocking.
What Dabord would tell Weise was a harrowing tale of what he said had actually occurred on the boat, and why he was the only one still on it when he arrived in Moorea. It was a story that Dabord told Weise he feared no one would ever believe. “I have told everything I know about this,” Weise would later tell a reporter from the Los Angeles Times. “I’m an open book.” The story she said Dabord relayed to her is filled with mayhem, violence and death.
According to Dabord, a fight broke out on the boat between the two brothers, one 6-foot-10, the other 6-foot-8. During this initial struggle, according to Dabord, Karlan attempted to break the two brothers up and was accidentally knocked to the deck by Dele, hitting her head on a boat cleat and dying from the injury. Despite this horrific accident, the fight between the brothers apparently raged on. After Karlan was killed, Dabord told Weise, the boat’s captain, Bertrand Saldo, told the two brothers that the boat must return to port and the death of Karlan reported to the authorities. Dabord said that Dele responded by killing Saldo by beating him with a wrench.
That left just the two brothers and fearing he himself was next to be killed, Dabord took Dele’s gun and shot his brother, killing him in self-defense. “Apparently, Kevin mentioned using a gun when he spoke to his girlfriend,” Tahitian top prosecutor Michel Marotte later told reporters. “He told his girlfriend that it was self-defense because otherwise he would have been strangled.” But the most chilling part of Dabord’s story was yet to come.
With Dele, Karlan and Saldo now dead around him, his brother killed by his hand, Dabord made a grisly decision. He claimed that he weighted all three bodies with bodybuilder weights that were on board the boat, then he tossed all three bodies overboard into the shark-infested waters. Now alone, Dabord piloted the boat the port of Moorea. “I think he was in a fight with [Dele] that ended ugly,” Wiese said. “Did he say to himself, `I’ve got witnesses, now I have to take care of them?’ Probably.”
When Dabord and the boat were seen in Taravao on July 16 – with the outline of the letters spelling “Hakuna Matata” on its side – the catamaran showed the signs of damage, perhaps bullet holes. Dabord was seen throwing away some bags into a garbage can. The bags were later recovered. “Whether the holes came from a bullet or from scraping the coral, we don’t know at this point,” Marotte said at the time. “We presume that the bodies of these people must be in the sea, the ocean, and will probably never be found. We’re still investigating.”
What actually happened on that boat? We will never know, as Dabord took all his secrets with him. After telling his grisly tale, Dabord left Weise and fled to Mexico, while the horrified Weise contacted the Sonoma County Sherrif’s Department, who in turn reached out to the FBI. ”We’re anxious to find him,” said Andrew Black, a spokesman for the San Francisco bureau of the F.B.I. ”We believe he has information that’s going to shed light on the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of these three individuals.”
Now a fugitive in an expanding murder investigation, Dabord called his and Dele’s mother, Patricia Phillips, in tears. ”I found something and I tried to cover it up, but I didn’t do what they’re saying,” Dabord told her. “No one will believe me.” He then threatened to kill himself. And soon, he would follow through on that threat. On morning of Sept. 15, Dabord was found unconscious on a beach in Tijuana, possibly from a insulin overdose, and was transported back across the border to a hospital in the San Diego area.
For two weeks, Dabord remained in a coma, until he was taken off life support on Sept. 28. “My boys are gone and neither of them can ever tell me what happened,” Phillips said. ”And even if someone pieces together the story or tells me what Miles told them, that’s just for the law, the press and the public. It still doesn’t explain what happened inside of the boys. That’s all I want to know.” What did happen on that boat? One thing was virtually certain: Dele, Karlan and Saldo were dead and their bodies would likely never be recovered. As for how that came to be, there would only be conjecture.
The Tahitian authorities said a search of the boat revealed holes that had been repaired and what was thought to be traces of blood. While they discounted Dabord’s version of events, especially his claim of self-defense, they concluded the murders took place on the boat. “All the elements, put together end to end, lead us to consider that they have apparently been killed,” Michel Marotte, the chief prosecutor in Papeete, Tahiti, told The Associated Press. ”There is also every reason to believe that they were murdered and that a handgun was used.”
There would be at least one other theory. An article in Sports Illustrated years after the disappearance would quote an FBI official with her own assessment of the crime. The evidence of bullet damage and blood traces on the boat were apparently never confirmed. The FBI speculation was that Dabord forced the three others off the boat at gunpoint, then left them stranded in the shark-infested waters and sailed away.
But why would Dabord do this? Why kill his own flesh and blood, then attempt to assume his identity and buy those gold coins in Arizona? Dele’s agent, Kevin Porter, to Phoenix police that Dabord was always trying “get-rich-quick schemes,” and that Dele was a frequent financial savior when they failed. Porter suggested that Dele had finally reached his limit, and that, added to the complexities of their sibling rivalry, led to murder. ”I can’t believe this is a Cain and Abel story like everybody is saying,” their mother told reporters. “This is too multi-layered and complex for anyone to make that jump, I’m sure of it.”
A memorial service was held for the two brothers at Trinity Baptist Church in Los Angeles on Oct. 12. Dele was 33, Dabord was 35. “These two men were as different as two sides of a coin,” Lewis Merrick, a friend, told the New York Times. ”Yet we must always remember they are two sides of the same coin. Searching for that unknown edge in life, they forgot to look home. The greatest edge you can find in life is to stand in the protective shadow of those who love you.”