Love and Madness in the Jungle

Friday, May 17th, 2013

Ned Zeman tells a tale of love and madness in the jungle, near San José, Costa Rica:

Rich expats gravitate to a suburban area called Escazú, because that’s where the embassies are and because misery loves company. It was there, in a high-security apartment complex for short-term diplomats, that I first met Ann Bender, Central America’s most captivating accused murderess.

By this point — October 12, 2012 — nearly three years had passed since the strange and bloody death of Ann’s husband, John Felix Bender. John, 44 when he died, was known on Wall Street as the troubled genius who’d quit the billionaire track without explanation in 2000 and retreated to a fortified compound in the Costa Rican jungle. His end came just after midnight on January 8, 2010, in the top-floor bedroom of a circular mansion that looked like something Colonel Kurtz would have imagined in his dreams. John was naked in the bed he shared with Ann, who was then 39. The cause of death was a single pistol shot to the back of the head.

The only witness to the shooting was Ann, who’d spent a dozen years as the yin to John’s yang. Together they’d built the tropical Xanadu that surrounded the mansion: a 5,000-acre wildlife preserve built on and around the highest mountain in the most forbidding rainforest in Costa Rica. They nursed each other through a shared battle with manic depression, and together, thanks to a dicey blend of extreme isolation, mental health challenges, and conflicts with enemies real and imagined, the Benders had apparently gone mad.

On the night in question, Ann was found stroking her dead husband’s hand while saying, “I tried to stop it, but I couldn’t.” She claimed John finally made good on his long history of suicidal behavior. But investigators came to doubt her — partly because of forensic evidence that didn’t appear to match Ann’s story. The day I met her, she was awaiting trial on a murder charge that could put her away for 25 years.


Ann, during our brief e-mail correspondence — which had been initiated by her brother, who’d contacted me at the suggestion of a reporter I knew in Detroit — told me she was suffering from various physical ailments, among them Lyme disease and a potentially lethal blood clot situated just above her heart. Her afflictions and legal problems had caused her to be, by her own admission, a model of instability. There had been hospitalizations, talk of suicide, and anxious late-night e-mails hinting at dangers and conspiracies.

And then she walked in.

“First question,” she said. “Can I hug you?”

She was a tiny thing — five-three, 105 pounds, but in a sleek, elegant way. Black halter, black skirt, black suede boots; piercing brown eyes and unlined caramel skin; hair pulled back in a shiny ponytail. She displayed only one marker of ill health: an adhesive bandage, located just above her right clavicle, discreetly concealing a catheter that dripped small doses of morphine into her veins, to keep her pain and moods in check. “I’m not stoned,” she said. “Trust me.”

Quelle folie à deux.

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