May 10, 2000 - It's a normal rite of passage. Every year students crisscross the country on their quest to higher education and seeking adventure. Raffi Kodikian and David Coughlin were very close friends for a long time. Heading west where Coughlin planned to study for his masters degree in California, they stopped at Carlsbad Caverns National Park for a one night stay in the desert. What should have been fun in Rattlesnake Canyon turned into a four day hellish ordeal. In the end Coughlin was dead, fatally stabbed to death by Kodikian who described the act as a mercy killing.
The two friends arrived at Carlsbad Caverns on August 4th of 1999. Both were very intelligent but didn't have any desert camping or hiking experience. They purchased a topographical map and hiked into Rattlesnake Canyon woefully unprepared with only three pints of water and one pint of Gatorade. The next day when they went to hike out, their meager water supply already gone, they couldn't find the trail. After a day of wandering through the desert they returned to their camp, exhausted, demoralized, and without food or water.
As the hours turned into days dehydration took it's toll. Kodikian described the desperate measures they took to survive, including licking rocks, eating prickly pear cactus fruit, even drinking their own urine. On the third night in the desert, the two were having cramps from dehydration and Coughlin spent most of the night throwing up according to Kodikian. The next morning, with buzzards circling overhead and what seemed like no viable chance for rescue, Coughlin woke with an awful resolve and begged Kodikian to kill him. The two argued and then making a suicide pact wrote farewell messages in a notebook to their families. Kodikian stabbed Coughlin in the chest twice, the second blow piercing his heart. Minutes later Coughlin was dead on the desert floor. Kodikian cut his own wrists but claimed the knife was too dull to cause lethal wounds. Hours later park authorities found a dazed, dehydrated and wounded Kodikian. Coughlin had been buried under a pile of rocks.
Even before the helicopter lifted off of the ground to rush Kodikian to the hospital, park and local authorities were questioning his story. Kodikian had buried Coughlin in a makeshift tomb of rocks, some weighing more than 70 pounds. Quite the effort for someone who had cut their wrists and was dehydrated. No one doubts that Coughlin was in pain, but was the request a reasonable one? An autopsy revealed that Coughlin was dehydrated, but not fatally.
What of Kodikian's medical condition? Doctors disagree but some experts say that his condition did not represent someone who had been without food and water for four days in the desert. Park officials testified that Kodikian was coherent in the afternoon sun when they found him lying in his tent with only a pair of shorts on. As far as the story of being lost, two trail markers were within view of the camp, no further than eighty feet apart. Although Kodikian told authorities they climbed onto the ridge to try to find the trail or a road, park roads are clearly visible from the top of the ridges that surrounded their location. As Kodikian received saline through IV at grizzly scene, he was handcuffed.
Kodikian recovered and returned to his native Pennsylvania. Back in New Mexico, a Carlsbad grand jury decided to indict him on charges of second-degree murder. Charges that in New Mexico could come with a twenty-year sentence. On May 9th, the story came full circle. Legal experts had advised Kodikian to plead temporary insanity due to dehydration. However Kodikian struck a plea bargain and agreed to plead no contest to the charges. By avoiding a trial by jury and putting his fate in the hands of a judge, he spared himself and his family the rigors of a trial, while leaving the door open for an appeal.
Over the next two days during the sentencing phase the Carlsbad courtroom heard chilling testimony of that fateful morning on August 8th in the New Mexico desert. Prosecutors showed a video tape of officials removing the rocks from Coughlin's tomb, showing his shirt soaked in blood from a chest wound. Kodikian had testified he buried his friend to prevent Coughlin's body from being eaten by the buzzards. Park officials testified that Kodikian and Coughlin were only a half-hour walk from their car, and woefully equipped for desert camping. Kodikian buried his head frequently and in shocking testimony described how he killed his friend.
Defense lawyers painted a different picture of two very close friends who were under emotional and physical distress during a camping trip that went incredibly wrong. They criticized the National Park Service for the quality of the map and tried to convince the judge that their own inability to understand survival in the desert dropped them into a very extreme case of circumstance. Medical experts testified how heat related panic has been documented for hundreds of years and that under the conditions Kodikian and Coughlin were suffering, could have very easily put them in a mental state where they would make very irrational decisions. Kodikian's lawyers tried to show that under the same set of circumstances, any of us would have done what Kodikian had done.
On May 10th with family members of Kodikian and Coughlin present, Chief District Judge Jay W. Forbes sentenced Kodikian to fifteen-years in prison, and suspended thirteen-years of the sentence as probation. Gary Mitchell, the lawyer for Kodikian, who softly cried when the sentence was read, described the sentence as fair. It was not decided if an appeal would be made.
By not having a trial we may never know what happened those four days in the searing heat of the New Mexico desert. Only two people know the complete and true story, and one of them has taken it to his grave, and the other will have to live with the events of those four days for the rest of his life.