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The Strange Case of the American Tennis Pro Who Forgot English One Day and Thought He Was Swedish

The troubled life and mysterious death of a man named Michael Boatwright.

by Mike Pearl
Dec 30 2015, 2:44pm

In February of 2013, a 61-year-old veteran named Michael Boatwright turned up in a Palm Springs hospital with an unusual case of amnesia. He'd been found in a nearby motel room apparently incapacitated, and when he returned to consciousness at Desert Regional Medical Center, Boatwright—a US citizen from birth—only spoke or understood Swedish.

Straddling the line between neuroscience and magic, the headlines were straight from Ripley's Believe It or Not!, and marked the beginning of the appropriately bizarre final chapter in Boatwright's bizarre life.

Local newspaper coverage of Boatwright's strange diagnosis of "transient global amnesia," begat national, then international attention. Like many flavor-of-the-month personalities before him, Boatwright—who at first only answered to the name of his Swedish alter ego Johan Ek—became known by his one-line summary, and the narrative cried out for a satisfying conclusion. The story did indeed conclude, not with his memory being returned, but with his resettlement in his retroactively-adopted Scandinavian homeland, where he could get by in his new native tongue, and ostensibly live happily ever after.

But then a few months later, the story concluded all over again, this time with Boatwright's abrupt early death by suicide.

"He wanted to escape," Gifford Searls, a friend from Boatwright's past, told VICE in an interview. Searls says he once saved Boatwright during a suicide attempt, and thinks Boatwright's final act was the consummation of a long-held desire. Searls told VICE he believes, in no uncertain terms, that Boatwright was faking his neurological condition, but still considers him a friend.

Linda Kosvic, a local representative of the Vasa Order of America, a social club for Swedish-Americans, also knew Boatwright, but didn't consider him a friend. She told VICE, "We believe that something fishy was going on and nobody would come out and actually say anything." Kosvic said when the press was fixated on Boatwright in 2013, she stopped short of going out on a limb and declaring him a faker, but only because, "I'm not a psychiatrist. I'm not a professional in the health industry, and I don't know what's going on his head."

She also has a different view of Boatwright's death from Searls. "What we heard later was that the Swedish government was questioning Michael's reasoning for being [in Sweden], and if he really should be there. So Michael was getting worried about that, and that was just before he died."

During the months he spent as the celebrity resident of a hospital, and later a homeless shelter in Palm Springs, seemingly everyone around the world who remembered Boatwright fondly made contact so they could try their hand at jogging his memory. In this way, those who surrounded Michael Boatwright in 2013 cobbled his biography together without any of the material coming from Boatwright himself.

Born in Florida in 1952, Boatwright appears to have led a rudderless life with a few close calls with stability and normality. He joined the Navy, where he served as an aviation mechanic in Vietnam from 1971-1973. Sometime later, he moved to Sweden, possibly to play tennis. "He said he didn't remember anything, but in another instance he said he father sent him to Sweden to play tennis," said Viola Wyler, another Vasa Order of America member who came to know Boatwright well. Tennis remained one of Boatwright's lifelong passions.

"He married a Swedish girl, and then they moved to Florida, and then they got divorced. From what I know, she lives over here but she [would] have nothing to do with him," said Kosvic. Boatwright and his Swedish wife divorced in 1983.

Starting in the mid-1980s, Boatwright apparently lived on a boat off the coast of Newport, Rhode Island. Then he found himself darting around from Houston to Mexico, to his parents' place in Miami. During that time, he corresponded with an old Swedish girlfriend named Ewa Espling. The addresses on his letters are the only documentation of his whereabouts during all that time. In 2003, he lost touch with everyone he knew.

Photo courtesy of Gifford Searls

Around that time Boatwright moved to Japan, where according to the account he gave to Searls he taught English for about ten years. Later, living in China, he told Searls he'd fallen in love again in Japan. The photo above is, according to Searls, Boatwright's Japanese wedding day. He and his wife had a son named Taiki.

Searls, who was a late-in-life friend, only meeting Boatwright in 2012, relays Boatwright's experiences in Japan in terms that make it sound like one of the happiest times in Boatwright's life. "He said their house was 500 years old—he loved it there." While in Japan, Boatwright came into possession of a high-quality samurai sword with connections to his then father-in-law. Boatwright became very attached to his sword.

"They got a divorce, but apparently it was extremely bitter because she would not even let him contact his son. She totally cut him off 100 percent," Searls said.

Johan Ek wasn't Boatwright's first alter ego. A nickname from his past was "Strongbow," his name when he was a knight who participated in Swedish live action role-playing (LARP) events in the 1980s. Johan Cassel of the Society for Creative Anachronism told the press that in those days Boatwright "was pretty good at jousting." Cassel described him as "one of the better performers," and called Boatwright's Swedish "decent."

His fascination with sword battles never faded, and as technology improved, Boatwright was able to find other creative outlets. As "Korstemplar" on DeviantArt (an identity he cultivated during his time as an ESL instructor in China after leaving Japan,) he posted Lord of the Rings fan art, and invented his own miniature universe of elves and other magical creatures using consumer-grade 3D modeling software.

In short, underneath it all Boatwright was undeniably an old-fashioned geek. He also had an eccentric take on world events. In 2011, around the time the Occupy movement was sparking protests around the world, he wrote on a web forum called Project Avalon that a "global economic revolution," was on its way. "Does anyone see the military white hats turning on their governmental masters?" he asked, and then described a possible scenario in which heroic members of the military blow up the Federal Reserve.

Boatwright's public YouTube history reflects that same personality. He clicked "like" on 9/11 conspiracy videos, martial arts demos, medieval reenactments, tennis tips, and tutorials on elf imagery. But through the years, videos about the afterlife and near-death experience apparently also held a certain fascination. During the time he would have been in China, he liked a video of a man named Rich Martini speaking for over an hour about reincarnation.

It was in China, that Boatwright befriended Gifford Searls, a tennis instructor, in 2012 when they were among the few tennis-loving Americans living Zhuhai, a Chinese city near Hong Kong. Searls was a teacher at United International College, while Boatwright was an ESL instructor at TPR English School. Searls described Boatwright as a skilled tennis player and "one of the most fun" he'd ever competed against.

Boatwright and Searls' friendship seems to have been largely tennis-based. They bonded on the court, and once off the court, they talked about their shared fascination with female tennis star Ana Ivanović. Boatwright abruptly stopped working at TPR, and it remains unclear why. Still, according to Searls, Boatwright couldn't go back.

One Friday night Searls unexpectedly received a phone call from Boatwright. Boatwright was heavily drugged and begging for help. According to Searls, Boatwright had taken a fatal dose of animal tranquilizers, and then changed his mind. Most reports say his ex-wife in Japan had just remarried, but this detail remains unconfirmed, and her identity has never been publicized.

Boatwright's suicide note, photo by Brady Ng

Boatwright left a suicide note, which Searls has held onto. It included a bulleted list of the reasons for his suicide: "No family, no job, no money, and nowhere to go," the list read. "See you on the other side!" it concluded.

"The real mystery is why he called me," Searls said. However, since Searls says he paid the penniless and now jobless Boatwright's medical bills, and let him recover at his house in the days after the suicide attempt, it seems to have been a wise decision. After a week at Searls's house—during which Searls's wife Xiaoli was uncomfortable with Boatwright's presence, Searls says—Boatwright's Chinese visa was set to expire. He had to leave the country.

Searls says he paid for Boatwright's plane ticket and gave him a lead on a possible job opening: He knew a guy named Jim Leupold, the director of tennis at the JW Marriott hotel in Palm Desert, California. In return for the favors, Boatwright left his laptop, and his most prized possession, a samurai sword, in Searls' possession. "He gave it to me with tears in his eyes," Searls said. "When he left, I was optimistic."

Boatwright traveled to Palm Desert on February 24, and booked a room at the local Motel 6 in neighboring Palm Springs. His only worldly possessions were a duffel bag of tennis clothes, multiple cell phones, multiple ID cards, a stockpile of tennis rackets, and $400 in walking around money.

His meeting with Leupold was apparently the last documented time Boatwright ever spoke English. For reasons that remain unclear, Leupold couldn't offer Boatwright a job. It must have been a grave disappointment for Boatwright, who had traveled halfway around the world on a job tip, only to wind up empty handed once again. Boatwright would have returned, still jobless, to a motel where he could only afford to stay for about another week. His prospects were gone, and his small stash of money was dwindling.

Those were the circumstances on February 28, when some sort of catastrophe occurred that apparently scrambled Boatwright's brain. The nature of the event, however, has never been elucidated publicly, and Boatwright's amnesia diagnosis made him the last person who could be asked to explain what happened.

"I think they found him unconscious, as if he had just fainted or collapsed, and possibly wrung his head," Brett Kelman, an investigative reporter for The Desert Sun told VICE in an email. "I've seen it reported in some places as if he was injured in a robbery, but I'm fairly certain that was not the case." Most reports leave that part of the story out and let the public imagination fill in the gaps. A soap opera character who wakes up in a hospital with amnesia would almost certainly have been maliciously bludgeoned by their evil twin. For all anyone knows, that's what happened to Boatwright.

"When I first woke up in the emergency room, that's the name I knew that I had," Boatwright later told a local camera crew from the College of the Desert Foundation. "That was my name: Johan Ek. It feels natural for me, and it feels natural to answer to that name." Among Boatwright's few possessions were multiple forms of photo ID, in the name Michael Boatwright, including a Department of Veterans Affairs ID, and a recently-used passport.

From late February of 2013 until July of that same year, Boatwright languished at Desert Regional Medical Center, becoming a curiosity for employees of the hospital like social worker and former archeologist Lisa Hunt-Vasquez, who sought the help of the local Swedish-speaking community to try and communicate with Boatwright. That's how Kosvic and the Vasa Order of America became involved. "We shared Swedish foods," she said, along with "Swedish literature, magazines, and books—anything that could help him jog his memory."

"[The Vasa Order was] reaching out trying to help him, but the other thing is you don't want to be taken advantage of," Kosvic said, adding, "Sometimes you don't know if you're really stepping into a rat's nest."

After more than four months of Desert Regional Medical Center doing amateur detective work, The Desert Sun reported on the Boatwright case, opening it up for the professionals—and the whole world—to have their say. It also allowed Boatwright, now "Johan Ek" in his own mind, to publicly state his own case.

"Sometimes it makes me really sad, and sometimes it makes me furious, at the whole situation—the fact that I don't know anybody. I don't recognize anybody," he told the College of the Desert Foundation. Many people quickly came to the conclusion that he was faking. To anyone who doubted the truth of his story he said, "walk in my shoes for one day. Then you'll experience the nightmare of a lifetime."

Organizations of amateur detective like Websleuths.com got in on the action. Some sleuths remained convinced he was pretending, despite Hunt-Vasquez's insistence that she had tried to trick him into speaking English, and he "has not slipped up once."

One of the Swedish speakers who became closest to Boatwright was Wyler, a native of Sweden now in her 80s who seems to feel like those who were helping Boatwright let themselves invest too much emotion. "Because of his fairly good looks, and his very nice manners, and nice smile, women would really fall for him, and want to take care of him, and he seemed fairly happy being taken care of by women," Wyler opined to VICE.

According to Wyler, "Johan Ek" did not pass for an actual Swede. "I knew the Swedish he was speaking was learned Swedish, and not something he was brought up with." She described errors a native speaker wouldn't make, like over-reliance on the written pronunciation of words, when "that's not the way you would actually speak."

When she asked "Ek" to recall the foods he grew up with, he seemed to have been raised on rich, banquet meals, not Swedish home cooking. "The food he always mentioned was, let's say, high-end, expensive food that the average person would not eat. He was talking about salmon. He would talk about various cheeses. And that is stuff for when you try to put on a nice dinner," Wyler said.

He also seemed to occasionally understand English. Kosvic claims Boatwright was "not fluent, but fluent enough that he understood what I was trying to communicate with him."

The Desert Sun story was picked up by USA Today, then became TV news all over the United States. Nine days later, one of his sisters turned up in Louisiana. Michelle Brewer told The Desert Sun she hadn't heard from her brother Michael since 2003, probably around the time he left for Japan. "He's always been just a wanderer. Then he'd come back when he needed some money or something from somebody. Then he'd take off again," she said. Brewer may have been his sister, but locating her didn't resolve the situation.


A slideshow of Boatwright's character designs

What's more, while no one could look inside Boatwright's head, the early diagnosis of "transient global amnesia"—a temporary state in which you don't create new memories—didn't seem to track. According to Popular Science, Boatwright's apparent symptoms might have reflected something more akin to "psychogenic amnesia."

In 2004, a German man experienced a kind of linguistic memory loss with interesting parallels to Boatwright. The 33-year-old showed up in a mental institution claiming to have lost his memory and the ability to speak his native German. He spoke English with a German accent, his case report said. Upon his release, there was some doubt that he'd really lost all of his memory, or all of his German-speaking ability. "He appeared to retain implicit knowledge of autobiographical facts, and of the semantic or associative structure of the German language," the report said.

In short, historical precedent says Boatwright could have been telling the truth—or some version of it—about his amnesia even if his mind wasn't a total blank, or even if his ability to speak English hadn't disappeared altogether. According to Kosvic, "if you tell this to Ewa [Espling], she will shut you out because she was using the fact that he spoke only Swedish as the way she got him over there into Sweden."

There was a little over a month between the initial media blitz, and Boatwright's departure for Sweden. Espling, Boatwright's Swedish ex-girlfriend, got involved when she heard that Boatwright was in distress.

In early August, Boatwright was discharged from the hospital, and relocated to a homeless shelter where he would only live for about three weeks. In a strange turn of events Riverside County paid for Boatwright to be flown to Sweden. Jerry Wengerd, director of the Riverside County Department of Mental Health told The Desert Sun that in Palm Springs, Boatwright had "no alternatives to homelessness," while in Sweden, people were willing to help.

Boatwright's samurai sword. Photo by Brady Ng

Today, a cheap ticket from Palm Springs to Gothenberg, Sweden, where Boatwright landed, would set the county back a little over $1,000. On the face of it, $1,000 might seem like a good use of public funds if it really did move someone from abject poverty to a productive, happy life. "We were satisfied he was not going to nowhere," Wengerd said, waxing somewhat poetic.

For eight months, Boatwright lived what outwardly appears to have been a happy, Swedish life. He met with a journalist in the home of Ewa Espling, although it's not clear that they resumed their relationship. Boatwright finally found a job as a private tennis coach in the small coastal city of Uddevalla, and even played a little competitive tennis in Gothenburg. "I feel like I've been born again," he told the Swedish Press, adding "I'm so lucky."

During his time in Sweden, Boatwright continued to use the internet as "Korstemplar." He liked a riveting 1992 documentary called "Shadows: Perceptions of Near-Death Experiencers," in which dozens of people give firsthand accounts of their experiences in the afterlife. Most of them are of that "I walk toward the light," type. Some verge on the psychedelic. All, it should be noted, are in English, and Swedish subtitles are not offered.

Then on April 22, 2014, Boatwright killed himself. Details of his death are nearly nonexistent, apart from the fact that he was found dead in his apartment by a friend. However Tony Helander, spokesman for the police in Uddevalla told VICE in an email that "the case was a suicide."

It's obviously odd and unsatisfying to be left with the story of a man who ended his life even though he appeared to have gotten everything he wanted. Ewa Espling turned down an interview request, saying, "I have made a promise to Mike, a promise I will keep, that is to not allow more of all the strange and for him hurtful writings about a life that he him self couldn't remember."

"If he took his life in Sweden, it was by accident. It was not because he wanted to do it," Wyler told me. She feels that Boatwright's initial brain injury was the result of a somewhat embarrassing type of accident, and so was his death, which is why there was so much mystery surrounding his initial injury. According to Wyler, a local policeman "told me lots of things that shouldn't be known," specifically, that "quite a few famous men, when they commit suicide, they don't do it by intention to commit suicide."

Helander disagreed with that interpretation. "His death was not an accident and it was not a crime either," he said, adding, "we are not going to tell you any more about this case."

To Gifford Searls, however, the Boatwright story finally arrived at its logical conclusion. "He tried to kill himself here. He goes to Sweden. He succeeds. I don't think he was afraid of death; I almost think he was looking forward to what happens after he died."

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