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.
A Mystery Endures
On that particular July 8, in 2002, Bison Dele disappeared from the world, never to be heard from again. The former college basketball star at the University of Arizona, the former NBA journeyman who played for five different teams, 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.
Although his body was never recovered, his death is considered by all who investigated it to be a murder, and even more ghastly, it apparently came at the hands of his own brother, who himself died by his own hand two months later.
A Life Lost Too Young
The mystery and tragedy of Bison Dele disappearance and death still resonates among NBA fans who remembered his career from the 1990s, as well as those who revel in the genre of true crime and unsolved cases. But even though 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.
That life was lived, however, against all the norms and assumptions we ascribe to athletes of his prowess and accumulated wealth. But still, the question persists: What happened on that boat in the waters off Tahiti on July 8, 2002?
Son Of A Platter
The man who came to be known as Bison Dele was born as Brian Williams in 1969. He quickly found himself propelled into the life of fame he would encounter as a professional basketball player years later. His father, Eugene Williams, was a singer in the second iteration of the popular music group, The Platters.
Brian and his older brother by two years, Kevin, called Fresno, Calif., their home, but the family traveled extensively on tour with Eugene and the Platters. When Eugune and Brian’s mother, Patricia, got divorced, the two brothers would often shuttle between their parents’ homes in California and Las Vegas.
Rookie Of The Year
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 the University of Maryland and earning rookie of the year honors in the Atlantic Coast Conference before transferring in 1988 to the University of Arizona.
Williams played for the Wildcats in Tucson for two years. It was in his junior year in 1990-91 that he attracted the attention of NBA general managers, earning All-Pac 10 honors by averaging 14 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. Having seen his draft stock rise, Williams declared for the 1991 NBA Draft as a junior and was selected 10th overall by the Orlando Magic.
Dealing With Depression
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 mental health, Williams remained a constant presence in the league, although as a journeyman. He played just two seasons in Orlando before being traded to Denver after the 1993 season. After two years with the Nuggets, he was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers before the 1995-96 season. That year, he averaged 15.8 points and 7.6 assists — his best single-season numbers to date — then found another home as a free agent that seemingly changed his life.
The Bulls Come Calling
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. But as the 1997 regular season wound down, the Bulls felt they needed more help in the frontcourt.
The found the missing piece to their fifth championship puzzle in the Jordan era by reaching out to Williams, who had opted out of his contract with the Clippers at the end of the 1996 season. No teams took a chance on the mercurial forward during the offseason and well into the 1997 season. But the team that was already employing Dennis Rodman showed its willingness again to take on a troubled soul.
Williams fit in perfectly with this championship-driven group of veterans and head coach Phil Jackson. He signed with the Bulls in April, and played in nine regular-season games before the playoffs began. And it would be Williams who provided a huge spark off the bench, averaging 6.1 points and 3.7 rebounds over 19 postseason games, including six against the Utah Jazz in the Finals.
When future Warriors coach Steve Kerr nailed the series-clinching jumper in Game 6 in Chicago, Williams was an NBA champion. More than that, he became a wealthy NBA champion, leaving the Bulls after his brief cameo join the Detroit Pistons for the biggest payday of his life, signing a seven-year, $45 million free-agent contract.
Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness
This mega-deal should have been the reward for his many years of struggle in the NBA. But money did not bring stability to Williams’ life. In 1998, Williams legally 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.
In his first season with the Pistons in 1997-98, Dele averaged 16.2 points and 8.9 rebounds, both career highs. It appeared the journeyman had finally found his true NBA home and finally discovered his true talent. But the issues that had soured the early years of his career continued to re-surface, and this time, they would end his NBA career for good.
Dele Stuns The World
Dele played in just 49 games the following season and his teammates began to notice changes in his behavior. In one instance, Dele had to be restrained by Pistons teammates from opening the emergency exit door on the team’s private plane during a flight.
After that second season in Detroit ended, Dele shocked the sports world by walking away from the remaining five years and $36 million on his contract with the Pistons. He told the media he was retiring from the NBA so he could become a world traveler, seeking the meaning of life. The decision left the sports world stunned, but to Dele, it all made perfect sense.
Life Without The NBA
Away from the basketball court, 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.
A Fateful Voyage
That fateful voyage of Bison Dele began on July 6, 2002, from the Tahitian harbor town of Pape’ete, headed for an island called Raiatea, and then, ultimately, the shores of Hawaii. On board were Dele, his brother, Kevin — himself having changed his name to Miles Dabord — Dele’s 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. The mystery of he disappearance of Bison Dele had begun.
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.
The Boat Re-Appears
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 vessel’s former name.
It was apparent that some alterations had been made the exterior of the boat. Most obvious was the removal of the boat’s original name, replaced by the new name, Aria Bella. The letters that had spelled out the original name had been physically removed from the side of the craft, leaving just a traced outline of “Hakuna Matata.”
No Cause For Alarm
No one would ever hear from Bison Dele, Serena Karlan or Bertrand 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 and five years remaining on his NBA contract to travel the world instead. He often went off the grid for long stretches of time before re-surfacing. Indeed, it would not be until early September that there would be a Dele “sighting” in Arizona. But this one send alarm bells ringing across the world.
A Mysterious Transaction
On Sept. 5, 2002, a man claiming to be Brian Williams walked into the Certified Mint, a Phoenix-area 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, the former NBA star who changed his name to Bison Dele. The deal with the coin shop was negotiated down from $500,000 to $152K, and a check from one of Williams’ bank accounts was sent to the mint, where it was deposited and cleared.
Alarm Bells Ring
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.
Another Brian Williams?
The man who arrived at the mint claiming to be Brian Williams, the man who had sent the mint a check for $152,000 from Brian Williams’ bank account, the man who arrived at the mint with Brian Williams’ passport and credit cards to prove his identity … was definitely not the authentic Brian Williams.
It was none other than Williams’ brother, Miles Dabord. It was also Dabord whose voice was heard on the answering machine at the number Kevin Porter had called, which caused Porter to alert the authorities. Phoenix police were waiting at the mint and Dabord was detained. But not for long.
Selling The Coin Story
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 masterminded the transaction.
It was Dele that 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 Search Of 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 that of his girlfriend, Serena Karlan, and the boat’s captain, Bertrand Saldo. The story of Dabord piloting the boat back into 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. With the authorities hot on his trail, Dabord confessed his story to his girlfriend. What he told her next was shocking.
Dabord’s Harrowing Tale
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.
The ‘Fight’ Rages
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.
Hiding The Crime
With Dele, Karlan and Saldo now dead on the boat around him — Bison killed by his brother’s hand — Dabord apparently made a grisly decision. He claimed that he weighted down all three bodies with bodybuilder weights that Dabord was able to find on board the boat. Then, Dabord tossed all three bodies overboard into the shark-infested waters and sailed on.
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 told the media 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.”
Secrets Of The Deep
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 FBI. ”We believe he has information that’s going to shed light on the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of these three individuals.” But the FBI would soon receive frustrating news about their suspect that would render the case nearly unsolvable.
Dabord The Fugitive
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 laying unconscious on a beach in Tijuana, just south of the Mexico-U.S. border — possibly from a insulin overdose — and was transported back across the border to a hospital in the San Diego area.
Another Life Lost
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 exactly did happen on that boat? One thing was virtually certain: Dele, Karlan and Saldo were no longer alive and their bodies would likely never be recovered. As for how that came to be, there would only be conjecture by the authorities.
The Boat Search
The Tahitian authorities said a search of the boat revealed holes that had been repaired. There also appeared to be traces of blood. While they discounted Dabord’s version of events, especially his claim of self-defense, they concluded that the murders, most likely by gunfire, 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.” But not everyone was certain any shots were fired.
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.
Was it possible that not a single shot was fired on the boat? The FBI speculation related in the SI article was that Dabord brandished the weapon but only used it to force the three others off the boat and into the water. There the theory turns macabre: Dabord then left the trio stranded in the shark-infested waters and sailed away alone.
What Was The Motive?
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.”
Remembering Two Brothers
A memorial service was held for the two brothers at Trinity Baptist Church in Los Angeles on Oct. 12, 2002. Dele was just 33 years old, four years removed from his life in the NBA. 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.”