The Strange Life and Mysterious Death of a Virtuoso Coder

Eric Meyers stayed silent as he trained his rifle on the eight-point buck. He fired once and watched the deer shudder from the bullet’s impact. But the wounded animal turned and fled through the woods north of Clarksville, Ohio, spattering autumn foliage with blood as it ran. Meyers followed the buck’s trail for hours before finally suspending his pursuit well past sunset. But he set out again the next afternoon, November 3, 2018, this time with two helpers: his father, William, and a family friend named Bill O’Bryan, a Cincinnati logistics magnate who owns the estate where the hunt was taking place.

The three men were scouring a thicket on the edge of a soybean field, hoping to stumble across the buck’s carcass, when Eric noticed a peculiar stonelike object lying on the ground. He knelt down for a closer look and saw that it was a human skull, its jawbone missing but its upper teeth still a healthy shade of white. He and his fellow hunters left the forest at once to call 911.

A dozen investigators from the Warren County Sheriff’s Office used ATVs to search the area around the skull. They soon spotted a headless skeleton slumped against a honeysuckle tree, its right leg bent sideways at a 90-degree angle, its left still flecked with strands of muscle. Nearby was a rib and a jumble of arm bones that had evidently been gnawed off by coyotes and foxes. There were no man-made objects in the vicinity that might indicate an obvious cause of death: no gun, no knife, no rope, no drug paraphernalia.

A few feet deeper into the forest, the crime scene unit found two black sneakers, a dark shirt, and a pair of black pants with a vine threaded through its belt loops. The clothes’ tattered condition suggested that they, like the skull and loose bones, had been removed from the body by scavengers. Inside a pants pocket was a wallet containing a wad of waterlogged cash, rewards cards from Subway and a chain of erotic boutiques, and an Ohio state ID for Jerold Christoper Haas, born September 30, 1975.

By running the name through an Ohio law-enforcement database, the investigators learned that Haas had been reported missing seven weeks earlier. Haas had lived in Columbus, 80 miles from where his remains were discovered, but he’d last been seen at a gas station one county over from O’Bryan’s sprawling property. He’d disappeared along with a black backpack in which he carried the tools of his career as a computer programmer: three smartphones, two Dell laptops, an Amazon tablet, and an array of USB sticks and cables. He never let the backpack out of his sight; even on trips to the office bathroom, the bag stayed glued to his shoulder. But the backpack was nowhere to be found in the woods.

Haas had vanished only months after he’d been on the verge of a life-altering triumph. He was a cofounder of Tessr, a buzzed-about Columbus startup that aimed to use blockchain technology to streamline data sharing in higher education. The company had created a blockchain-based token, known as TSRX, that it had started selling to insiders in the late spring and early summer of 2018; the sale’s lofty goal had been to raise $30 million from investors. Haas, who’d received 1.5 million tokens as part of his compensation package, believed he could make a fortune if Tessr panned out, and he’d been pushing himself to finish the code needed to launch the startup’s platform in the fall. Much of the critical software he’d written was stored on the hard drives he’d been toting in his backpack. He had neglected to make any copies of his work.

Such rank carelessness was not out of the ordinary for Haas, a man whose genius was frequently overshadowed by his penchant for self-sabotage. Anyone who’s spent time in the tech industry knows characters like Haas: frighteningly intelligent, fiercely iconoclastic, socially maladroit. They seem to live by their own inscrutable code. Often, due to a combination of arrogance and immaturity, they make a hash of all the big opportunities that come their way. Haas shrugged off his many failures by telling himself and others that he actually preferred life as an outsider. But he had come to regret his obstinance as he felt the undertow of middle age. He’d thrown himself into Tessr as a last-ditch effort to achieve the wealth and respect he’d missed out on during his wasted youth.

Haas’ hard-fought attempt at reinvention had somehow ended with his death in a forest far from home, his priceless software gone. For the detectives charged with unraveling how that grisly tragedy had come to pass, the first step was to follow the tokens.

Haas—in a photo taken when he was 15 or 16—tried to kick an opiate habit after moving into a camper parked at the home of his mother in the summer of 2017.

Photograph: Hana Mendel

A day after collecting evidence in the woods near Clarksville, four investigators from the Warren County Sheriff’s Office made the two-hour drive to Columbus. Their first stop was the headquarters of the police department, where they spoke to the detective who’d fielded the missing persons report for Haas almost two months earlier. The Columbus police hadn’t put any great effort into locating Haas, as he was an adult who was free to do as he pleased.

The Warren County investigators next split up into pairs: Two headed southeast to notify Haas’ mother, Judith Wallace Huff, who lived in the hills near the West Virginia border; the other two, Lieutenant Chris Peters and Sergeant Brian Hounshell, stayed in Columbus to interview acquaintances of the deceased programmer.

One of the first people Peters and Hounshell tracked down was Emanuel Sylvia, one of Haas’ cofounders at Tessr, who asked to meet the investigators in a Kroger parking lot near his home. As soon as he stepped out of his car, officers say, Sylvia startled them with an odd question: Did they offer police protection? Rather than explain why he felt the need to make such an inquiry, Sylvia launched into the story of his brief yet intense partnership with Haas.

In October 2017, while working as a storage engineer for JPMorgan Chase in Columbus, Sylvia had experienced what he terms an “Office Space moment”—a sudden realization that he could no longer let corporate culture diminish his soul. His solution to this crisis was to quit his job and start a business that he described as having “a purpose to help others.” This company would eventually come to be known as Tessr.

Sylvia’s core idea for the startup was to create a new kind of blockchain, a digital public ledger spread across a network of trusted computers. He conceived of a blockchain that could communicate seamlessly yet securely with all other blockchains regardless of their origin. Over time, Sylvia came to believe this innovation could revolutionize higher education, in particular, by simplifying basic transactions, such as the transfer of credits between institutions. Sylvia also envisioned a system of transparent “smart contracts” under which corporations would agree to buy courses for students they wished to recruit and monitor their academic progress on the blockchain.

Though Sylvia had two decades of IT experience, he lacked the advanced coding chops to create his ideal blockchain. In early 2018 he went looking for a programmer to serve as Tessr’s lead developer. He was in the midst of that search when he set up a meeting with a web developer named Etienne Fieri, who he hoped to enlist to help build the website. Fieri had heard that the startup also had an opening for a programmer, so she brought along a friend of a friend whom she’d been told was desperate for work—a tall and slender man with icy blue eyes and strikingly blond hair named Jerold Haas. Immediately after shaking hands with Sylvia, Haas flipped open his laptop and asked, “What do you need coded?”

After marveling at Haas’ ability to solve a slew of tricky programming challenges, Sylvia asked him to join Tessr on the spot. He was thrilled to have lucked into this virtuoso coder, and soon made him a cofounder. “The programming language we use to write smart contracts, Solidity? Jerold picked it up in a day or two,” Sylvia says. “I’ve been in this industry for 20-some years and met a lot of brilliant people, and Jerold was one of the best. He definitely had this extreme talent.”

Sylvia and Haas worked on Tessr in a friend’s vape shop after hours, hacking away at the code until they crashed from exhaustion on the store’s two sofas. Haas focused much of his labor on imbuing the startup’s blockchain with the ability to use the newly minted TSRX token for tuition payments. He also helped design cryptocurrency wallets that could be opened only with biometric data, rather than traditional passwords; Tessr dubbed this innovation the Bio-Key Ring.

After burning the midnight oil to code Tessr’s framework, Haas would dive into freelance projects to make ends meet as he awaited his startup payday. In his rare moments of leisure, Haas was usually in the company of Fieri, whom he’d started dating days after they both joined Tessr; the couple moved in together just two weeks later.

By early May, Tessr was causing a stir in the Columbus tech scene, a community keen to cultivate a reputation as a wellspring of blockchain startups. (Ohio was the first state to accept bitcoin for tax payments, a signal of the state’s desire to foster crypto ventures.) Small investors pumped in enough cash for Sylvia and Haas to lease an office at the Idea Foundry, a sleek tech incubator west of downtown.

Right after settling into their new digs, Haas and Sylvia made the rounds at Columbus Startup Week, where they promoted a presale of the TSRX token. For a few weeks, select buyers would be allowed to use the Ethereum cryptocurrency to purchase Tessr’s tokens for the rough equivalent of 10 cents each. If the token’s price rose when the crowdsale commenced that fall, presale customers stood to make a killing. “Investors in the tokens get 5,000 percent or more profits from the move,” Haas promised one potential buyer in a text message. “It’s a really weird hack to the whole standard financial system model of investors, stocks, etc., and I’m pretty chuffed about the whole thing.”

Afflicted with the fear of missing out, crypto enthusiasts scooped up tranches of TSRX that May and June. Sylvia and Haas discussed how their lives might change were Tessr to become a hit. The two men professed to have little interest in the baubles of materialism, and they joked that they would cash out of Tessr to become wandering Buddhist monks. But Haas also bragged to friends that he was looking forward to becoming “filthy rich.” (Sylvia now says that Haas soon had a change of heart: He says that Tessr canceled its plans to sell tokens to the public in July and that he and Haas became intent on figuring out how to distribute free tokens instead.)

In mid-August, as the Tessr team was scrambling to get its “educational blockchain” out of beta, Sylvia noticed that his business partner was becoming frazzled and glum. Haas confided to a concerned Sylvia that he and Fieri were having troubles. “She’s expressed wanting to keep me for herself, but doesn’t want to be kept herself,” Haas wrote in one text message to a friend. “This imbalance hits my Libra energy to the core.” He also said there were people intent on causing him harm, though he didn’t name them or offer a reason for their hostility.

Toward the end of his conversation with Peters and Hounshell, Sylvia recounted his last interaction with Haas, which took place just after a Tessr board meeting held in a suburban office park on the night of August 30. A visibly distraught Haas confronted Sylvia on one of the complex’s quiet sidewalks. He lay down on the concrete and moaned that Fieri’s “group” was out to get him; he also said there was sensitive material on his phone that he urgently needed to delete. Sylvia had never seen his friend so anguished, and he feared for his physical safety. Yet he wasn’t able to offer many words of comfort before Haas took off.

Their interest in Fieri clearly piqued, Peters and Hounshell asked Sylvia for his opinion of Haas’ girlfriend. “He said he does not trust her and does not like her,” an investigator wrote in his summary of the interview. “He described her as very rough around the edges and didn’t get a good vibe from her; that something was off about her.”

Judith Wallace Huff believes her son might have been murdered.

Photograph: Hana Mendel

That same day the detectives met Etienne Fieri in a Steak ‘n Shake parking lot. She seemed to be shattered by grief. Contrary to what Sylvia told the cops, a sobbing Fieri swore that she and Haas were very much in love and had been “inseparable” to the very end.

Fieri and Haas had been introduced by a mutual friend named Charles “Chic” Ford, a 67-year-old auto mechanic who sold nutritional supplements on the side. It was Ford who emailed Haas’ résumé to Fieri, leading her to bring the programmer to the Tessr interview. The two bonded over their shared passion for composing music, as well as their past struggles with the lure of drugs: Haas told Fieri that he’d recently gotten sober after years of abusing opiates, and Fieri had once been in the thrall of painkillers after a back injury. They made for a visually striking couple—the gangly Haas with his Nordic mien, the petite Fieri with her jet-black hair. They moved in together in a bleak extended-stay hotel in northeast Columbus but were saving up for a house in the affluent suburb of Bexley. They even opened a joint bank account. The 43-year-old Fieri, who’d previously envisioned herself going through life unhitched, claims to have believed it inevitable that she would someday marry Haas.

“He struck me hard,” she says in an interview. “I fell into … well, not to be too poetic, but I fell into the position where what I wanted in my secret places was possible in the real places.”

Fieri agrees with Sylvia that Haas’ mood had deteriorated as August wore on. But that’s where their agreement ends. She ascribed her boyfriend’s angst to turmoil inside Tessr. According to Fieri, Haas had become disillusioned with the startup. “We just had the feeling they were telling people what they wanted to hear, whatever they wanted to hear, because they were like, ‘Hey, let’s be millionaires,’ ” says Fieri, who cut back on her involvement with Tessr during the company’s token presale. “But Jerold wasn’t like that, I’m not like that. I dunno, maybe we’re just hippies at heart.” (Sylvia vehemently disputes Fieri’s assertion. He was solely committed to using Tessr to provide free education for the betterment of society, he says, with no regard for personal enrichment.)

Fieri told the detectives that she’d last seen her boyfriend on August 30, shortly before the Tessr board meeting. Haas had been coding nonstop for days, incessantly popping legal “smart drugs” such as phenibut, a Soviet-era tranquilizer, which is supposed to enhance concentration. He called Fieri to say he was suffering from acute anxiety; Fieri suggested they grab an early dinner to relax before the meeting. The two met at a mall and started to walk to a nearby restaurant. But Haas raced ahead and darted around a street corner. When Fieri made that same turn, the man she’d hoped to marry was gone.

Fieri said she wasn’t too concerned at first. Haas often isolated himself when he felt overwhelmed. He would pace the streets of Columbus with a baggy black hoodie pulled so tight around his head that his eyes were scarcely visible. After days passed with no word, Fieri assumed he’d gone to visit his mother, who she knew lived somewhere in southern Ohio. But when Haas’ mom emailed looking for her son in mid-September, Fieri became alarmed and contacted the police.

The third key person Peters and Hounshell interviewed in the Columbus area was Charles Ford, the mechanic who had introduced Fieri to Haas. A garrulous and slightly pudgy man who keeps his patchy gray hair pulled into a ponytail, Ford was also the last person known to have seen Haas alive.

Ford got to know Haas through a mutual friend—a woman Haas was having a fling with. When that relationship went sour in early 2018, Ford invited Haas to stay at his condo. The programmer ended up living at Ford’s place until he moved in with Fieri in late winter. The two men grew close enough to travel together to a nutritional conference in Indianapolis. (Haas was a devotee of herbal supplements sold by LifeVantage, the company for which Ford is an independent distributor.) Ford also invested a modest sum in Tessr, on the chance that such a bet would allow him to join the burgeoning ranks of blockchain millionaires; the startup, in turn, named Ford’s wife, who lives in Florida, to its board of advisers.

Haas, who didn’t have a car or a driver’s license, called Ford on the evening of August 30 to ask for a ride to the Tessr board meeting. Their agreed-upon rendezvous point was a park across from a shopping mall; when Ford arrived in his Saturn, Haas emerged from the bushes as if he’d been hiding. Getting into the car, Haas said that people were attempting to steal his money and that they were willing to “OD” him to get it.


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After melting down on the sidewalk after the board meeting, Haas went to Ford’s condo instead of returning to the hotel suite he shared with Fieri. He never slept, spending the whole night pecking away at his laptop. One of the emails he sent that night was addressed to a company he did freelance work for. It contained a request to mail him paper checks instead of depositing his payments into his joint account with Fieri.

The next morning, Haas asked Ford to drive him south toward Cincinnati; he did not give any reason for the trip, and Ford did not inquire. The pair tooled down I-71 for a ways before Haas insisted they switch over to I-75, once again providing no explanation for his request. Ford pulled off at an exit in sparsely populated Clinton County and decided to refuel at a BP station before heading west to I-75.

After refueling, Ford went into the station’s convenience store to buy water and snacks, while Haas stayed outside to smoke a cigarette. Ford told the police that the store’s credit card system was on the fritz, delaying his checkout by 30 to 45 minutes. When he finally emerged from the store with his purchases in hand, Haas and his backpack were gone.

Ford said he went looking for Haas in the soybean field across from the gas station and then all along the country roads that snake off the state route leading to I-75. He also said he stopped at a Burger King during his search and bought a double cheeseburger for the clerk at the BP station, since he’d heard her mention that she was famished.

Detectives felt there were several things amiss with Ford’s account, police records show, starting with his manner of delivering it: In response to brief and direct questions, Ford tended to speak in meandering 10-minute chunks filled with obfuscation. More important, the detectives couldn’t fathom how it could have taken 45 minutes for the BP station to fix a credit card snafu, or why Ford hadn’t bothered to call Haas’ cell phone even once after the day Haas disappeared. The investigators’ instincts told them that, at the very least, Ford knew how Tessr’s master coder had died.

Haas vanished from this Clinton County, Ohio, gas station while a friend was buying snacks.

Photograph: Hana Mendel

Like so many other children of the 1980s, Jerold Haas could trace his love of programming back to the Christmas he unwrapped a Commodore 64. As a preteen he would sequester himself in his room for hours to fiddle with the budget computer, writing elementary software on analog cassettes and exploring the nascent online realm with a 300-baud modem.

The son of a firefighter father and an insurance agent mother who divorced when he was young, Haas was bright enough to skate through school in Springboro, a well-to-do suburb of Dayton; he could ace any test despite having played Super Mario Bros. the entire night before. But his lax study habits caught up with him at Ohio University, where he was studying computer science, and he washed out after his sophomore year.

Haas’ response to this failure was to float around for a spell. He traveled to Florida with $200 in his pocket and lived on the streets for months, reveling in the chance to observe society from an outcast’s point of view. He didn’t spend a dime of the cash he’d brought along, instead saving it for bus fare to return to Ohio. (In the end he hitchhiked home.) He would later credit his dabbles in homelessness with shaping some of his core values: “Given my prior past, my idea of living maximally is likely closer to the Average Joe’s minimalism,” he once wrote to online friends. “I don’t like money or much of what it represents in modern society.”

Haas’ next stop was Hocking College, a two-year technical school in Nelsonville, Ohio, where he trained to become a broadcast engineer. Aside from twiddling knobs at the campus TV station, his main preoccupation was creating psychedelic audio-visual shows as part of a performance-art combo called the 555 Timers. (The group was named after a type of integrated circuit used in joysticks.) It was during his days at Hocking that Haas, who went by the nickname Darry on the Ohio rave scene, became an omnivorous consumer of drugs. “Darry would find something to put up his nose, and regardless of what it was, he’d get involved,” says Mark Yannitell, a fellow member of the 555 Timers.

Haas had a fondness for esoteric hallucinogens, particularly one called DMT, known for producing a “businessman’s trip” that lasts only minutes but distorts time perception in such a way that the user feels as if they were high for years. On occasion, Haas liked to get zooted on such potent intoxicants, then wade through a crowded rave in a three-piece suit and an Israeli gas mask; he loved how his appearance confused the glowstick-waving teens.

After earning his associate’s degree in 1998, Haas settled in the town of Athens and juggled a full-time job as an ISP technician with freelance coding gigs. The late 1990s and early 2000s were a time of abundance for skilled programmers; anyone proficient in LightWave 3D or Macromedia Director could make six figures. But Haas had a knack for botching every good opportunity. No matter how straightforward an assignment was, he’d take the most convoluted approach possible to demonstrate his superior intellect. If a client asked for a project to be coded in a relatively simple language like Lingo, for example, he’d do it in C++ instead and inevitably miss the deadline. “You ask him to walk a straight line, he’d find a way to insert algebra into it,” says Scott Yannitell, Mark’s younger brother and Haas’ roommate for a time.

Haas’ productivity was also hampered by his escalating drug use. He was now ingesting all manner of opiates—oxymorphone, hydrocodone, fentanyl, Dilaudid—and he suffered multiple overdoses. When friends expressed concerns about his narcotic adventures, he swore that his geeky attention to detail prevented him from risking too much harm. “I do that dumb thing where I actually research the drugs I use,” he wrote in an online chat. “I know, how silly of me.”

Mark Yanitell, a college friend who was a member of a performance art combo with Haas, urged him to capitalize on his skills.

Photograph: Hana Mendel

“You ask him to walk a straight line, he’d find a way to insert algebra into it,” says Scott Yannitell, Mark’s younger brother and Haas’ roommate for a time.

Photograph: Hana Mendel

There were occasions, however, when Haas would temporarily shake off the druggy haze and dazzle with his brilliance. Mark Yannitell recalls that Haas figured out how to dramatically improve an open source video encoder so that it could crunch multimegabyte files in a matter of minutes rather than hours. Yannitell urged his friend to capitalize on his achievement, but Haas hemmed and hawed before dropping the project altogether.

“He was like Cypher from The Matrix—y’know, ‘You see code, but I see brunettes and redheads,’ ” Yannitell says. “But when he reached that genius moment, when he was on the cusp of some big idea that could maybe change the world, he got nervous.”

In 2006, Haas’ childhood friend Jerritte Couture contacted him about a job. Couture headed up a web development firm outside Dayton and hired Haas to work as a full-stack developer. Haas did the job remotely, from Athens, for four years, until Couture drove over from Dayton one day to check on his employee. He was shocked to discover that Haas was living with his girlfriend and her father in a house that had literally been hit by a tornado; there was a gaping hole in the roof. The floors were buried beneath mounds of newspapers, old cereal boxes, and plates encrusted with rotten food that emitted an unholy stench.

Haas seemed oblivious to the filth, his attention devoted to chatting with people online. (“Maslow didn’t know about the internet when he created his hierarchy of needs,” Haas once wrote. “I could be wrong, but I think it’s just below food.”) Under the alias tonehog, he spent countless hours moderating a cyberpunk web forum where he opined about his pet topics: libertarian politics, social anxiety, high-fat diets, and shibari bondage.

Fearing for his friend’s well-being, Couture eventually convinced Haas to move in with him and his family in the suburbs of Dayton and start working full-time at his company, Edge Webware. Haas left his girlfriend behind in Athens and instantly curtailed his drug use. At the office, he embraced the role of the lone weirdo amid Midwestern squares—the resident expert on matters such as government surveillance and a newfangled invention called bitcoin. “The way his ego worked, he was turned on by the things he knew that you didn’t know,” says Ron Campbell, the president of U! Creative, a marketing firm that had brought Edge Webware in-house. “He felt like he knew a whole world that you didn’t—that you’re living in this polished, 2.2-children, white-picket-fence world, but he knows a dark world you know nothing of, a humanity you know nothing of.”

But Haas couldn’t sustain this state of near-normalcy. He moved out of Couture’s home in 2013, reunited with his girlfriend, and once again drifted into darkness. Dressed in ratty black clothes, Haas would show up hours late for work or nod off at his desk. His dental hygiene was so poor that several of his teeth rotted into goo. One Halloween he whipped off his shirt and ran around the office with arms outstretched while muttering, “I’m getting the idea, man, I’m getting the idea.”

Haas was also a fount of fantastic lies. He once submitted his notice to Edge Webware, for example, explaining that he’d saved up $40,000 and was going to move abroad with his girlfriend and her father; he said they needed to escape the US government, which had targeted his girlfriend’s dad because of his radical politics. After bidding his final farewells on a Friday, Haas showed up for work the next week, claiming that all his money had been stolen just hours before his flight to an unidentified foreign country.

As always, Edge Webware gave Haas another chance, because hyperpolyglots like him are so rare. “I can’t tell you how many times a client would say, ‘Can you program this in X?’ and I would go to Jerry and say, ‘I can hire a contractor to do this, but do you want to take a crack at it?’ ” Couture recalls. “And he’d say, ‘Sure,’ and within 24 hours he’d know the language well enough to have an intelligent conversation with our client, and within a week he’d be coding competently in it. I can’t tell you how many times that happened.”

Haas’ run at Edge Webware finally came to an end in November 2016. One morning, as usual, Couture went to give the nondriving Haas a lift to work. When Haas emerged from his ramshackle rental house, he was trembling and holding a .22-caliber pistol. He said he’d been up all night because people had been banging on his door, threatening to murder him and his girlfriend. He persuaded Couture to give him a day off to recover. He never showed up for work again.

Once untethered from his main source of stability, Haas swiftly succumbed to his worst impulses. His behavior turned increasingly erratic, and his body withered from lack of food. By the summer of 2017, his mother, Judith Wallace Huff, had become alarmed enough to intervene. She convinced her son to move, sans girlfriend, into a vintage camper on her remote 30-acre property. He white-knuckled his way through opiate withdrawal with only a patchy satellite internet connection to salve the pain.

All was going well until the autumn chill set in. Haas complained that the camper, which lacked heat and adequate natural light, had the aura of a jail cell. One night after Thanksgiving, he ran off into the Appalachian forest and went roaming for days. He was eventually arrested for breaking into a backwoods church in an attempt to stave off frostbite, and returned to his mother’s care. Haas would later claim that he’d had a profound spiritual experience while on his forest trek: He said he sensed a phantasmic deer alongside him as he hiked, and that the animal taught him “to walk in the world again.”

Wallace Huff knew her son was deeply unhappy in the camper, so in December she helped him move to Columbus, the place in Ohio where he seemed likeliest to find work. She rented him a furnished apartment and stocked it with groceries. When January came, however, Haas had to move into a homeless shelter. But he was finally sober and, despite his dismal circumstances, clawing himself toward something better. He sold loose cigarettes to other shelter residents and used a public library to send his résumé far and wide.

Haas’ luck began to change when he met a woman at a coffee shop who invited him to stay at her apartment. This was Charles Ford’s friend. Soon enough he was crashing with Ford, who in turn connected him with Etienne Fieri. Within four months, he was a cofounder of one of the most promising blockchain startups in Columbus. When he spoke to old acquaintances about his meteoric rise from vagrant to entrepreneur, he radiated clarity and joy. “It was the first time he’d been totally coherent since he went off to Ohio University,” says Mike Czarnecki, a childhood friend. “I was so happy for him, so happy I could almost cry.”

Wallace Huff keeps a photo of her son along with some mementos in her home in Ohio’s Appalachian foothills.

Photograph: Hana Mendel

She has pored over the file investigators assembled while looking into Haas’ death.

Photograph: Hana Mendel

After returning to Warren County, the detectives assigned to the Haas case attempted to check out Charles Ford’s bizarre story. The manager of the BP station where Ford filled his gas tank and bought snacks said there was no way the credit card system had malfunctioned for 45 minutes; 20 minutes was the absolute maximum downtime. The cops also talked to the clerk for whom Ford said he’d bought a double cheeseburger. She told detectives a man had offered to bring her food but never returned to the store.

On November 7, police records show, the investigators called Judith Wallace Huff to see if she knew anything about her son’s older friend, whose story seemed to be disintegrating. She told them she’d spoken to Ford in mid-September after Haas had been missing for two weeks and that she’d been struck by something he’d told her: He said that Haas would be discovered dead in a field. (Ford did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

That same day the detectives asked Ford to come to their headquarters in Lebanon, the seat of Warren County. They grilled him for hours about the oddities and inconsistencies in his statements, particularly the fact that he never once called Haas’ cell phone after the day his friend vanished. The investigators told Ford they were certain this was because he knew Haas was already dead. But Ford countered that he’d seen Haas remove the batteries from his phone, as a way to avoid being tracked by satellites, so there would have been no point in calling him. (Haas used one phone for voice calls, one for the internet, and one as a PDA.)

The detectives tried to wheedle a confession from Ford by assuring him they’d understand if some calamity had occurred by accident—say, a heroin overdose that led to a hasty effort to dispose of Haas’ body. “I think you’re a good person, and I think you ended up in a really bad situation that there was no good answer to,” one of the interrogators said. “You tried to solve the situation as best you could, because you’re a problem-solver, you’re an entrepreneur.” But Ford could not be shaken from his denials, even when informed that a cadaver dog had perked up upon coming into contact with his Saturn.

After a polygraph exam during which he was flagged for one instance of deception, Ford was allowed to go back to Columbus. But the detectives quickly prepared a search warrant for his phone data and a subpoena for his bank records. The suspected crime was listed as murder.

Though they had zeroed in on a person of interest, the investigators still could only guess at how Haas had died: The Warren County Coroner’s Office had been unable to establish a cause of death, due to the body’s paucity of soft tissue. On November 8, Haas’ skeleton was transported to the Human Identification Center at the University of Indianapolis. Krista Latham, the forensic anthropologist who runs the center, meticulously cleaned the bones, using a combination of water and enzymatic detergents. She was able to identify a significant wound that appeared to have occurred around the time of Haas’ death: a fracture at the top of the left femur, near where the leg connects to the pelvis. The femur is the largest bone in the body, and breaking it usually requires a tremendous amount of force—like getting hit by a car or falling from a great height.

Haas was restless and liked to walk the streets of Columbus.

Photograph: Hana Mendel

The city is eager to revitalize some of its grittier neighborhoods by fostering tech startups.

Photograph: Hana Mendel

Though the Warren County detectives had expressed confidence in their hunch about Charles Ford, the mechanic was vindicated by his phone and bank records. Verizon’s location data confirmed that Ford had explored the roads near the BP station on the afternoon of August 31. And his debit card statement listed an $11.21 purchase at a Burger King in Springboro, the last place Ford said he’d looked for Jerold Haas. There was zero evidence that he’d driven seven miles south to Clarksville to dump a body.

Now back at square one, the detectives sent out a press release asking members of the public to report “anything suspicious in the area” where Haas had disappeared. A local TV station and the Dayton Daily News picked up the appeal, and tips came trickling in.

The most credible potential witnesses were all residents of a cul-de-sac called Shepherds Way that runs along the western boundary of Bill O’Bryan’s estate—about a half-mile from where Haas’ skeleton was found and on the other side of the property’s soybean field. Among them was an elderly woman who said she’d been startled one mid-September morning to see a disheveled man in her wooded backyard. He was furtively peeking out from behind a tree but soon melted back into the mosquito-infested forest, where only well-equipped outdoorsmen usually dare to tread.

Two more sightings came from a man and his father-in-law, who said they’d seen someone fitting Haas’ description walking along the shoulder of State Route 22 in early September, possibly with a bedroll slung beneath his backpack. They had thought it odd that anyone would be walking in the late-summer heat, let alone dressed in heavy black pants. The father-in-law added that a friend of his, an ardent hunter, had placed a deer feeder in the area behind Shepherds Way, and he’d been surprised to discover that someone had been using the barrel-shaped contraption as a crude stove.

In light of what they’d learned from Clarksville locals, the Warren County Sheriff’s Office sent out a team of seven officers on November 21 to comb the thick woods that lie between the soybean field and Shepherds Way.

They made their first crucial discovery in a clearing covered with autumn leaves. A thin tree along the clearing’s edge had a cord running from high up on its trunk to an anchor in the ground, and someone had draped a tarp over the taut line to form a basic shelter. Close by was some burnt wood, arranged in the criss-cross pattern of a campfire.

This makeshift campsite was near a ravine with a small creek at its bottom, an offshoot of a larger stream to the south called Todd Fork. Two detectives hiked down the gorge and waded through the mucky water, which was then only a few inches deep. They soon encountered a mound of mud-caked leaves and broken branches. On top of the pile rested a zipped-up black backpack.

When they picked up the pack, they could see it was soaked through and covered with debris. Inside was Haas’ ruined computer hardware, as well as an assortment of less sophisticated items: seven lighters, a canister of pepper spray, electrical tape, blue work gloves, a Nissan hood ornament, a copy of the New Testament, three unwrapped Magnum condoms, and an ear of unshucked corn that bore char marks from roasting.

A new and convincing theory of Haas’ demise now came into focus, one that had nothing to do with foul play. It was clear that Haas’ mental health had frayed as he struggled to launch Tessr, a venture on which he’d pinned his hopes for personal redemption. The closer he’d gotten to success, the more anxious he’d grown at the prospect of being absorbed into the conventional world he’d long rejected. Haas had a history of dealing with such inner turmoil by running off: He’d gone to Florida to become a vagrant after dropping out of college, and he’d fled into the mountains of southeast Ohio while grappling with the realization that he’d squandered years on drugs. That walkabout yielded a spiritual insight that had renewed his sense of purpose.

So as he smoked outside the BP station on August 31, it seems entirely in character that Haas might have made an abrupt decision to bail on the high-pressure life he’d built in Columbus. All of us have probably daydreamed about taking a step or two back from the exhausting din of technology. But the overwhelmed Haas took that common fantasy of simplicity and molded it into something far more frightening and pure: He chose to abandon all community and comfort to become a hermit, swapping the stress of Tessr for the solitude of the Ohio wilderness.

After walking or hitchhiking the seven miles between the BP station in Clinton County and Bill O’Bryan’s estate, Haas probably survived in the Clarksville woods for weeks, foraging food and camping supplies from the farms that line State Route 22. As he lost weight due to the meagerness of the meals he cooked over open flames, he took to using a vine to hold up his pants. He seems to have never interacted with another soul, as if uttering a single word to someone might spoil his scraggly little Eden.

The fractured femur—a potentially fatal injury if bleeding was heavy and untreated—could have occurred in a number of ways. One detective theorized that Haas scaled a tree near the ravine to reach a deer stand, then accidentally tumbled out. Or maybe he walked too close to the edge of the ravine and lost his footing. In either scenario, Haas would have been separated from his backpack upon smashing into the rock-strewn creek below; if conscious, he might have watched in anguish as the bag was swept downstream. Somehow the badly injured Haas pulled himself out of the ravine and crawled for nearly half a mile through a labyrinth of soybean plants before reaching another stretch of verdant forest. Then he flopped against the base of a honeysuckle tree and closed his eyes to rest.

If this sad narrative is true, it leaves a vexing mystery. The injured Haas could have inched toward Shepherds Way or Route 22, both of which are closer to the area where he likely had his accident. He could have flagged someone down to take him to a hospital. Was he so disoriented from physical trauma and caloric deprivation that he couldn’t discern the shortest path to help? Or did he purposefully continue to avoid human contact even after it became apparent that doing so would mean his doom?

Before joining Tessr, Haas lived for a time in a Columbus homeless shelter.

Photograph: Hana Mendel

Whether intentionally or not, Haas destroyed Tessr by retreating into the woods. Even if the hard drives in his backpack could be salvaged, the ever-paranoid Haas—a self-described “tinfoil hat guy”—had rendered them unreadable with strong encryption. The code he wrote for Tessr’s blockchain seems fated to be locked away for good. Emanuel Sylvia briefly toyed with pushing forward with the company to honor the memory of his cofounder, but the task was just too daunting. “I could not keep going,” Sylvia wrote to Haas’ mother in February. Jerold “was more of a friend than my partner and with the code gone, I lost all motivation.” (Sylvia says he still plans to launch his “educational blockchain” and that it will be named after Haas.)

Judith Wallace Huff has dealt with her incalculable grief by becoming an amateur gumshoe. Holed up on her rustic property high in the Appalachian foothills, she has filled several notebooks with observations about Tessr’s investors, the criminal records of Clarksville residents, and the alleged shortcomings of the Warren County Sheriff’s Office. She is especially incensed by the detectives’ failure to follow up on a clue she gleaned from one of Jerold’s pseudonymous Twitter accounts, @CompositionFore. Wallace Huff kept close tabs on the account throughout September 2018, hoping to detect a glimmer of activity that might indicate her son was still alive. As of September 22, the three most recent posts were all dated August 27—four days before Jerold disappeared:

“This just in: At one point in time, having things meant things.”

“Ran out of phenibut feel ambivalent about it.”

“Numerous time in my life when I’d thought I was being the most selfless & considerate, in retrospect I found I was egocentric. Might have learn’t a valuable lesson.”

When Wallace Huff next checked the account, on September 25, those posts had been deleted. What was left at the top of the page was Jerold’s last surviving post from August 27—the most cryptic of his musings from that day:

“Meanwhile: Anachrists”

Wallace Huff has repeatedly asked the Warren County Sheriff’s Office to contact Twitter and obtain information about the IP address that was used to delete Jerold’s tweets—data that might give her a better sense of how long her son survived in the woods, and whether he ever leeched off someone’s Wi-Fi to satiate his internet addiction. But the investigators said that Twitter would need to perform “extensive engineering efforts” to recover information that is “not necessary,” and declined to follow up.

Wallace Huff has not given up on the notion that her son might have been murdered. The story that makes the most sense to her is that Jerold secluded himself in the forest to engage in a 30-day religious fast, which would explain the New Testament in his backpack. Maybe he had an accident while in a weakened state, or maybe he crossed paths with someone whose malevolence he was too naive to recognize. “His biggest flaw was that he had a loyalty for friends and a trusting nature,” Wallace Huff says. “This trait caused him to be hurt and betrayed more than once.”

Wallace Huff wants to recover the tangible items found in Jerold’s backpack, since they constitute nearly all the possessions her son left behind. But the Warren County Sheriff’s Office has refused to release the property to her. “I realize we have closed this investigation,” a deputy wrote to her in May, “but we feel obligated to maintain custody of the items we have to assist with further investigation should that become necessary in the future.” Nor has Wallace Huff been able to visit the woods where her son lived and likely perished: Bill O’Bryan will not let her come on the property, according to law enforcement. (O’Bryan did not respond to requests for comment.)

The rest of Haas’ legacy is located primarily on SoundCloud, where he uploaded dozens of original tracks as both tonehog and CompositionFore. The evolution of his music offers a glimpse of how Haas’ perception of himself may have changed through years of unfulfilled promise. The danceable beats of his collegiate rave days steadily gave way to ominous industrial noise, and finally to shapeless sonic experiments with titles like “High Fidelity Hate” and “Robotic Oompa Loompa March,” which all but a few listeners will find intolerable. These last songs, which the middle-aged Haas produced while grappling with the burdens of his past, feel explicitly designed to confound, to upset, even to invite scorn. It is almost as if Haas derived pleasure from being on the knowing side of a cosmic joke—a joke that only someone as cursed by narrow brilliance as he was could ever hope to understand.

Brendan I. Koerner (@brendankoerner) is a WIRED contributing editor and author of The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking. He wrote about the rapid pace of evolution in urban wildlife in issue 27.10.

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