Aug. 7, 1980. A man's bloated body is found, bound with chains, covered with plastic and caught up in the gate of the California aqueduct.
It would be more than two decades before this crime was cracked — not by teams of detectives, and forensic investigators, but by a divorced hairdresser in Colorado — Kathi Spiars.
Spiars' remarkable tale begins after years of what she calls violent relationships with bad men. She says she was swept off her feet by the quiet charm of a caring but mysterious stranger named Steve Marcum.
"I had been through so much in my life that this was my blessing from God," Spiars said.
Not Your Average Busboy
Though Wright was a busboy at the time, he showered Spiars with lavish gifts — exotic vacations, even a Porsche. But this was no average busboy, as Spiars would learn. He had a strange and dangerous past that captivated her.
For starters, the money he so freely spent came not from your ordinary greenbacks but from seven glittering bars of gold Marcum said he had inherited from his father and kept hidden in the toilet tank.
Then there was his name, Steve Marcum. As fate would have it, Marcum was no blessing in Spiars' life, he was a man on the run, whose real name was Eric Wright.
Spiars says Wright told her that he was a former assassin for the Central Intelligence Agency, being hunted by CIA-backed killers because he knew too much.
Spiars was able to believe these tales, she said, because his stories were so detailed, and because he was kind to her. "This was the first man who never hurt me and abused me. And he encouraged me … the friendship was so deep," she said.
They married six months after they met and were happy, for a while at least, living a quiet life in rural Colorado. Spiars raised horses and cut hair. Wright took odd jobs at the local ski area and hot springs. However, over the years Spiars' blissful ignorance began to fade.
She never met any of his old friends or family and knew practically nothing about his past. Finally, Spiars demanded some answers.
She says she demanded that he to take her to his hometown. She wanted to know the truth.
Spiars thought a trip with Wright to his hometown of Exeter, Calif., would bring them closer together, solidify their relationship. She was wrong.
Right off the bat, Spiars says, she caught him in a lie. A trip to his high school revealed his real name was Eric Wright — not Eric Stone as he had told her. Wright's behavior wasn't exactly what you'd expect from someone who was student body president and voted "most dependable" in his senior class. Spiars said she was looking for an answer, and, of course, she got one — and an emotional one at that.
He broke down and began sobbing, telling Spiars it was just too painful for him to talk about, because he lost everything due to the CIA.
He said that he never told her his real name because it was too dangerous for her to know. And that he'd be straight with her from now on.
He took her to the house where he said he grew up. But when they got to the spot, there was no house — only an open orange field. Wright appeared devastated and started cursing the CIA, saying they burned down his home. Wright then rushed with Spiars to the cemetery to show her his mother's grave, seemingly desperate to provide proof of his background.
"He swore to God he knew where his mother was buried," Spiars said. But they never found her headstone. Again, Wright blamed the CIA, telling Spiars they had taken his mother's headstone.
Despite these odd incidents, she believed Wright. "Who could lie about their mother being dead?" she said.
Her husband, that's who.
Living With a ‘Boogie Man’
As much as she had wanted to believe the love of her life, Spiars knew there had to be more. She eventually called his high school to get more information about Eric Wright, and the man she got on the phone would change her life.
"She was really determined to find out the truth and I think that's why I filled in some gaps of information for her," said Chuck Knox, a teacher at the school who was a classmate of Eric Wright's. The man Knox described turned out to be a very different man from Spiars' husband.
Wright had told Spiars he had no siblings and that his parents were dead, but Knox said he knew Wright's parents and would have known if they were dead. Not only were Wright's parents alive, he had a sister as well. Plus, Knox told Spiars he had just driven by Wright's house a few days earlier.
Spiars said, "My mother used to tell me there's no such thing as a boogie man. But she was wrong. There is a boogie man and I lived with him," she said.
Spiars says when she confronted him about his lies. "He lifted me up off my feet and then threw me across the room and jumped on top of me and said, 'I'm a f***ing killer. I will kill you. That's what I do. If you don't stop messing with my life, I will kill you.'"
After 13 years of living a lie, Spiars divorced Wright, but she was far from done with him.
She moved to a tiny cabin on the Roaring Fork River where, she says, she lived in fear for her life, swearing that her ex-husband even opened fire on her in the middle of the night.
But all the adversity only steeled her resolve. She believed Wright was bad and had done bad things, and she was going to take him down.
Uncovering a Secret Past
For the next nine years, Spiars taught herself how to dig out facts the way detectives do. She spent days in the library, worked the phones, chased down every lead.
What she found would make Sherlock Holmes proud. She discovered the root of Wright's alias. He had actually stolen the name and identity of Steve Marcum from a dead baby.
What she didn't find was any evidence of a CIA plot. All those stories she says he told her about being hunted by the CIA were lies. He had never lived a life of international espionage.
But perhaps nothing cut Spiars as deeply as the lie he told about his love life. He had sworn to Spiars that she was his first, the woman he had waited for to marry his entire life.
Not only had he been married twice, Spiars learned, but he had been married when he met and married her.
He was married and the father of a young daughter, as well as the son-in-law of a respected judge. Even more ironic, he had once been the youngest lieutenant ever in the Alameda County Sheriff's Department.
But this is where Wright's true mysterious past really began. Just days before his daughter's birthday, Wright went out to buy her present … and never came back.
Police found Wright's car with a .38 caliber bullet hole and blood smeared on the door. But what looked liked a murder or kidnapping proved to be something much stranger.
Police found the clues to his disappearance in Wright's desk drawer. They found a book that gave step-by-step instructions on how to create a new identity.
"It became apparent that he had a bunch of things that he'd put in motion like getting the birth certificate … On the door of his car, it was insect blood. It wasn't human blood," said Lt. John Huber of the Alameda sheriff's department, who is now in charge of the case.
Once police realized that, Huber said, they closed the case. They never connected him to anything more sinister.
But Spiars' instincts told her that Wright disappeared because he had committed some terrible crime.
The Gold Bars and a Cold Case
Kathi called the sheriff's department where Wright used to work and told them about her suspicions — the lies, the threats, and, of course, the glittering bars of gold.
"We probably would have never opened the case again if Kathi hadn't made the phone call to Alameda County and it would have sat maybe forever," Huber said.
When Huber heard about the gold, it sparked a memory of a long-forgotten murder case. The body found on that August day back in 1980 was that of Lester Marks, who had been trying to sell seven bars of gold, Huber recalled. And in Mark's apartment the name Eric Wright was scribbled on a notepad.
Authorities re-opened the case, and nine years later tracked Wright down in Mexico.
Wright has pleaded not guilty to murder charges and is awaiting trial. Despite the passage of time, authorities say the case against him is strong — especially with the list of 50 witnesses provided by one Kathi Spiars.