In 2004, Benjaman Kyle was found naked, blind, and unconscious behind a Burger King in Richmond Hill, Georgia. He had no memory of who he was or how he’d gotten there. For the next decade, countless people — including Redditors — worked doggedly to figure out who he was. Finally, last year, the mystery was solved. I’ve been reporting Benjaman's story for almost three years and just published a long piece about it in the New Republic. Ask me anything!


Comments: 83 • Responses: 37  • Date: 

absecon19 karma

Have any of the Powells helped him financially? Why do you think the one brother would never speak to Benjaman?

mattmwolfe25 karma

I don't think they've helped him financially, but only because he hasn't needed them to. He's started working at a new job and he's receiving Social Security -- finally -- so he's actually doing OK moneywise.

As far as Robert, I don't know, but I suspect that his absence is rooted in the same reasons Williams left -- trauma and a painful past.

I was surprised, though, that he had no apparent interest in reconnecting, even under these circumstances. I mean, if I had a brother who wrote me out of the blue after 30 years saying, "Hey, I've had amnesia..."

theshelts17 karma

Did you ever ask the police why they never opened a criminal investigation about a man beaten, naked and hurt behind a Burger King?

mattmwolfe18 karma

Yes, a lot of people asked about this, including me. The Richmond Hill PD's answer was that there was no evidence that he was the victim of a crime. There was, actually, no direct evidence -- contusions, bleeding, etc... -- that he had been beaten. However, it seems likely that SOMETHING did happen to him that could have merited investigation. The official incident report on the case, however, indicates that the officer thought BK was just sleeping.

In the PD's defense, hospitals in Georgia have a mandatory-report, where if a patient is determined to be the victim of a crime, they have to tell police. The hospitals that BK visited didn't do this. Make of that what you will.

pm-me-ur-window-view16 karma

What do you think was the reason that none of his extended family ever saw him on all those media platforms through the years? Do they not watch Dr Phil in Lafayette?

mattmwolfe26 karma

Great question. I was kind of flummoxed by that, but then I thought about it for a little bit and it made sense. BK had a really small social network, so there actually wouldn't be that many people in Lafayette who would be in a position to identify him after he'd aged 30+ years. And, while 4 million people watched the show -- which sounds like a lot -- that's only about 1 percent of the population. Personally, I never saw that episode or any article with BK's face prior to 2014, and neither had most of the people in my social network. So, it's possible.

Furman, I can tell you, never watched Dr. Phil.

tightfade15 karma

I'm going to add some questions from yesterdays thread, if you don't mind.

Do you think his accusation regard to Colleen Fizpatrick is true? He seems to be genuine regard to his amnesia, but he also comes across as exploitative and burnt many many bridges in his Benjaman identity.

mattmwolfe18 karma

Thank you so much for doing that!

Regarding the Colleen question, I couldn't figure out how to verify what happened with his account one way or another. They had conflicting descriptions of what happened. Unfortunately, 23andMe won't release account data, so there's no independent verification. It was, in sum, a very bad he-said/she-said situation.

pm-me-ur-window-view14 karma

I'm curious about how long investigative articles like this get written.

How much time and resources could you give to the investigation, and how was it paid for during the long time when nothing was being turned up? Were you allowed to just go off and try to keep digging? Did your editor/publisher just let you keep going with the investigation or was it being worked in between more immediately published articles?

mattmwolfe22 karma

Excellent how-the-sausage-gets-made question. The short answer is it's very, very hard and I got very, very lucky. I started reporting this is 2014, when I was freelance. That February, I paid out of pocket to go see BK in Florida. I kept reporting, on and off, for the next year, in my spare time. (At the same time, I was working another, full-time job.)

Finally, in the spring of 2015, I pitched it to an editor at First Look Media (which publishes The Intercept) Eric Bates, who -- to his enormous credit -- agreed to pay for the piece and cover additional expenses, even though the case hadn't been solved and didn't look like it was going to be solved anytime soon. This was a very unusual arrangement, considering the story didn't have a third act. By sheer luck of timing, the very skillful CeCe Moore happened to crack the case a few months later. Eric eventually moved over to TNR and, long story short, the article went with him.

Generally, whether as a staff writer or a freelancer, these articles are enormously difficult to get written and I got extremely lucky to get the support I did.

qsc0013 karma

There were a few references to Kyle having low emotional intelligence, as well as lacking romantic desires. Has he been formally diagnosed with autism or Asperger's syndrome? Were you able to learn whether or not he has a sexual orientation? Does he have any recollection of sexual or romantic experiences?

mattmwolfe24 karma

These are all really good questions, but I'm going to politely decline to offer information on William's medical history (other than the amnesia), sexual orientation, or other super personal stuff.

tightfade13 karma

Does he remember famous events like 9/11? I guess the new mystery is what he was doing all those years he was off the grid.

mattmwolfe16 karma

Great question. Some retrograde amnesiacs report what are called "flashbulb" memories, in which certain events, often of world-historical significance, stand out in the blackness of amnesia. Benjaman say he doesn't remember 9/11 per se, but he says he DOES remember reading about it in USA Today. So, that give doesn't much context, but, if it's accurate, it does suggest he was in the US.

Yes, that is an entirely different mystery, one that -- and I didn't go into this in the article -- I tried very hard and failed very hard to solve.

pm-me-ur-window-view13 karma

Did nobody ever go to the Azar's restaurant in Boulder considering how prominently it figured in his vestigial memories?

mattmwolfe18 karma

A good question! So, there were two Azar's, one in Boulder and one in Denver, both are actually gone now. One building -- I think in Denver -- which is super 1950s-diner, is still there, but it's owned by completely different people and has been remodeled several times. I'm not sure if Benjaman has seen it in person, but I know he's looked at the building online.

I tried really hard to find old employees who worked in the restaurants, but could find no one who recalled him working there.

pm-me-ur-window-view12 karma

In hindsight, did anything from Reddit make any practical contribution to cracking this case?

mattmwolfe18 karma

I think, yes. Reddit -- like everyone but CeCe Moore and her team -- wasn't able to solve the case per se, but they did help attract enormous attention to it. (BK's AMA was on the front page.) I'd have to review the specifics of what caused Moore to choose Benjaman's case over others -- she works very hard and is very good at what she does and has lots of offers to work on cases; I know she believed completely that BK wasn't faking his amnesia -- but the prominence of BK's case didn't hurt at all. So, in that sense, yes, I think Reddit did help.

mattmwolfe11 karma

Personally, the fact that BK had struck such a chord on Reddit was part of the reason I ended up writing about him.

corialis6 karma

I'm a little confused. Your article states that Fitzpatrick ran the DNA first and came up with the Powell connection before Kyle cut off all contact. Do you think she wouldn't have eventually traced him to the right Powell family? I'm not trying to discredit Moore, she and her team did the grunt work, but Fitzpatrick seemed to be on the right path, and her work with LER/BST proves she's capable of it.

mattmwolfe4 karma

I can't answer that about Colleen -- I know she expected to, but I don't understand the intricacies of the work well enough to say with authority one or another.

I would not, however, characterize CeCe Moore's work as grunt work, at all. The work she does is not easy, she's extremely skillful, and she and her team devoted a lot of time, without compensation, to working on BK's case.

tightfade12 karma

Does Furman have any contact with Robert? I know Robert didn't respond to e-mails but there has to be other ways to contact him.

mattmwolfe12 karma

Thanks for the question. Not that I'm aware of. I don't think anyone in the Powell family has spoken to Robert for a while. I can say, from my experience, he doesn't take phone calls.

pm-me-ur-window-view10 karma

Was he ever in a romantic relationship during all this time?

mattmwolfe11 karma

Thanks for the question! No. Or at least, not that he told anyone about or anyone was ever aware of.

pm-me-ur-window-view8 karma

When did you start studying the historical context and examples of amnesia? Was it specifically for this article or long before?

mattmwolfe5 karma

Thanks for the question. I got interested when I was researching the article, though I'd always been interested in amnesia as a subject. It was reading through a ton of peer-reviewed papers on retrograde amnesia that I started looking into its history, which happened to be enormously colorful. I had no idea about Ansel Bourne or William James.

ChipLady7 karma

Have you seen any pictures of him before he went missing from his family? If so, do you think it's possible that his family could have seen some of the media about him but not been able to recognize him?

mattmwolfe7 karma

I've seen pictures of William as a child and teenager, but not immediately prior to his initial disappearance, so I can't gauge how closely he presently resembles his old self. Given that it was over 30 years, yes, absolutely it's possible.

stewartdecimal7 karma

Beyond the story, into which I was truly consumed, I was also taken by your lovely writing style. Words like "immured" had me headed to the dictionary (with pleasure). I'm curious, when writing a piece like this, to what extent does editing come into play for the more literary portions of your writing?

mattmwolfe11 karma

Thank you so much! As a rule, most everything is wretched in the first draft and then gradually becomes more readable. The sections of this I'm most proud of took an embarrassing amount of re-writing to get there. I also have an in-house editor who prunes away all my really purple sentences.

pm-me-ur-window-view6 karma

If tomorrow you woke up beside a dumpster in a different state, naked and with no memory, how long do you think it would take to identify you?

mattmwolfe3 karma

11 years, give or take.

Serious answer? I'm in a bunch of social networks -- school, friends, family -- where my absence would be noticed pretty quickly and efforts to find me would, I hope, happen almost immediately. The question, then, would be whether whoever found me knew enough to add my name to a database that my loved ones could search. If the person who found me contacted a law enforcement agency and that agency knew what it was doing, they'd add me to the FBI's national database of unidentified persons -- a relatively new feature -- pretty quickly. This database is searchable by any law enforcement agency in the US. At that point, so long as my physical features (height, weight, hair color, etc...) had been entered accurately, the people looking for me on the other end -- assuming they were also working with the police -- would be able to find me pretty quickly by entering that same info into the database from their end. If all that happened, I think I'd be found inside of a week. But, if the people who found me didn't contact anyone and just waited for my memory to come back, then much longer.

Volfie6 karma

I just read that at work. It was a pretty good piece of writing. The only question I have is: why didn't his other brother ever renew contact with him?

mattmwolfe10 karma

No clue. I was never able to speak with Robert, despite much effort.

pm-me-ur-window-view5 karma

What's the next subject you'll be writing about?

mattmwolfe19 karma

I'm researching missing persons in grad school, so a long article about the phenomenon of missingness.

Corduroy_Bear5 karma

Do you know if he reconnected with Goetz and got his tools back? Also, how did Katherine Slater react to BK finding his identity? Have they spoken at all since their falling out?

mattmwolfe6 karma

I don't believe BK has spoke with Katherine, but I don't know. My understanding is the tools are in transit.

prosecutor_mom5 karma

Did you ever get the feeling he was milking the entire predicament? i know it was hard to gauge veracity - but any feelings on this?

mattmwolfe8 karma

As above, I'm fairly certain he wasn't. Only he knows, of course, but if he was milking it, the cow wasn't offering up much of value.

snorlaxern5 karma

From your perspective, how did Benjaman react to hearing about his true identity?

From the article, it seems like Benjaman had a very neutral demeanor and was not easily excitable. There are a few moments of great emotion described in the article, however. First, when he heard from CeCe Moore that he was correct about his birth date all along. Later, when he reunited with his brother and the two hugged.

It's hard to gauge any of his true emotions about his situation. I'm sure there are tons of feelings, but what was your assessment of his emotional response?

mattmwolfe6 karma

I would say shock, giving way to a mix of relief and anxiety. The birth date moment was the only time in which he reacted with something like really strong emotion. From my experience, he tends to return to an equilibrium very quickly.

The first trip to Lafayette was hard on him. I think he liked seeing his brother a lot, but the city didn't hold a lot of happy memories.

theshelts5 karma

When you found his SSA payroll information, there is a large gap of about 30 years, is it possible he left the country? I know they didn't find his fingerprints even looking in Canada and via Interpol but that is an awful long time to be 'off the grid'. Most homeless are arrested multiple times a year for vagrancy or panhandling.

mattmwolfe4 karma

Excellent question. Possibly, though I'm skeptical that he could have gone anywhere except Canada, given that he only speaks English and says he doesn't believe he's every been anywhere else. I'm thinking he was here.

I also don't think he was homeless, per se. He appeared to be very healthy when, something that someone living on the streets would be less likely to be. Where he was though, I just don't know.

courtneyrachh4 karma

Would you consider your and Benjamans relationship to be a particular close one at this point? Do you think there are any others that know the in's and out's of his life/ personality/ thoughts like you do?

mattmwolfe7 karma

Thanks for asking. I got to know Benjaman pretty well when reporting this, but I think there are certainly others -- Furman and Katherine for sure-- who know him better than I do. I came to like him quite a bit, though.

courtneyrachh3 karma

Are you guys still in touch today?

mattmwolfe8 karma

He actually has an arrangement with the reality TV show people where he is officially forbidden from speaking with journalists. So, even if we were in touch, I'd not be able to acknowledge it.

ithasfourtoes7 karma

Hi Matt, thanks for the article and the AMA. Awesome read. Does this mean he will have a reality TV show sometime in the future? Do you know anything about that? I haven't been able to find any info.

mattmwolfe6 karma

Thank you! I'm very sorry, but I honestly really don't know what will happen with that. Something might get made or it might not.

prosa1234 karma

The article states that BK was nearly blind from cataracts when found. Is there any way to know how long he'd been in that state? I'm asking because people might remember a blind man more than one with normal vision.

mattmwolfe5 karma

I tried figuring this out at one point and found a lot of different answers about the rate of cataract growth. Some grow quickly -- like, months -- others very slowly -- years. There was a rumor that some news accounts printed early in his case about the cataracts coming from exposure to the sun, from when he'd been unconscious. This is wrong for two reasons -- he was only unconscious at night and cataracts don't work like that.

mattmwolfe4 karma

Thank you so much, guys! I'm going back to my real life now.

radcupcake3 karma

Holy crap I read this at work today. It was super fascinating! I was wondering, did he continue to refer to himself as Benjaman, or did he revert back to Bill? I know in your article he said he was trying to get used to being called Bill. But how does he chose to refer to himself as?

mattmwolfe5 karma

Really good question. Most people who knew him when he was Benjaman -- including me -- still call him that. Those who knew him before or met him after call him William or Bill. He goes by William/Bill now, but responds to both.

prodigyrun3 karma

I know your piece was just published, but am not sure when it was actually finished. Have you kept in contact with Benjamin after the fact or do you think you will? Have you developed a bond or friendship or was it simply business?

mattmwolfe5 karma

The final draft was completed not long before publication. I got to really like him as a person. Regarding our relationship now, see above.

cds20141 karma

Did Matt answer your question about his relationship with Benjamin now? I'm curious about that but I don't know what he means by "see above".

mattmwolfe3 karma

Oh yeah, sorry. BK has a weird arrangement with the reality TV people where he is now forbidden from talking with journalists. So, even if he and I were in contact, I couldn't acknowledge it.

gogopowerrangerninja2 karma

From what you've seen, do you think that William feels as though he has gained anything?

mattmwolfe7 karma

You mean emotionally? I think he's infinitely less anxious. Practically speaking, absolutely. He has a family, a home, financial stability, all of which, I think, he's grateful for.

tightfade2 karma

Harold Copus is 90% sure Benjaman isn't faking but it appears there is still some question within people who have been touched by this case. What percentage are you at?

mattmwolfe8 karma

Hmmmm. Really good question. I don't think he was faking. Memory is funny. I'm not sure you can always draw an unbroken line between not being able to remember and not wanting to remember. Given that all the information he provided about himself was true and that he had no obvious motive for obscuring his origins, I'm fairly convinced he was, in the main, telling the truth.

smart_a2 karma

How would you describe the fallout from Glass?

mattmwolfe2 karma

I'm a freelancer and this is the first thing I've ever written for them and when the Glass incident went down I wasn't even working as a journalist, so... bad?

3Suze2 karma

In regards to the PTSD, has he been able to identify any triggers that help him remember his childhood now that he is back in that area? (As an example - some triggers can be emotional in response to how a person speaks to you or from an aroma.) I imagine it is a rollercoaster if he does

mattmwolfe3 karma

Really smart question. I know there are certain places that bring up bad feelings, but I 'm not sure there are traditional triggers of PTSD -- say, for someone who saw combat, a gunshot -- as I'm familiar with them. Stuff does come up though.

WhiskeyBuffalo1 karma

Sorry for the late post, just finished reading your article. I'd like to commend you on your writing!

Regarding Ben/Bill, is it known how long he was unconscious for prior to being found? Is it assumed that his clothes and belongings were removed whilst unconscious?

mattmwolfe3 karma

Good question -- thank you. I can't remember the exact hour the Burger King closed the night before, but it was late -- around midnight, I think -- and he was not there then, so, presumably, less than six hours. No clue regarding where his clothes went.

citigirl1 karma

Fascinating, beautifully written story. You're a grad student at NYU - and wouldn't seem to have much in common with this man. Can you say a little more about what drew you to this story? It had to be more than its popularity on Reddit. :-)

mattmwolfe1 karma

Thank you so much for the kind words. I first got interested in BK when I stumbled across an article about "living John Does" -- people who were alive but couldn't be identified. This struck a chord with me. I was curious both about what you could learn about someone just by looking at them -- like, what does a person's body say about them -- and, then, for the people in that situation, who ARE they? How do they understand themselves?

It's the later question -- figuring out who you are, where you belong, where you home is -- that resonated with me. So, you're absolutely right that BK and I come from dissimilar backgrounds, but I think that particular longing is more or less universal.