According to Google Earth, Estrella Vista doesn't exist. You can't see the little adobe house that sits on 80 acres of arid land in the Los Chisos Mountains, the part of West Texas that most people pass through on their way to the Rio Grande. The nearest town, Terlingua, is little more than a collection of tents, motorhomes, and boomtown ruins whose unofficial motto is "just a few exits past the end of the world."
The house at Estrella Vista is long and low-slung, with a tin roof and small windows overlooking the brutal dreamscape that is the Chihuahuan desert. Dan Dailey and Alex King, the only people who live there, don't seem to mind. "Even though the land is cheap, it's poor as hell, and nothing will grow here, it's incredibly beautiful," Dan told me.
Alex, now 27, spent most of his youth in a prison cell. He and his brother Derek made national headlines in 2001 as the youngest inmates in the Florida Correctional System, at 12 and 13, respectively. Derek had used a baseball bat to bludgeon their sleeping father to death while Alex watched, encouraging him. The boys set fire to the house and fled to their hideout—the basement of Rick Chavis, a 41-year-old family friend who routinely molested Alex and often hosted the boys when they needed to escape their allegedly abusive father. He had encouraged them to run away from home.
A sympathetic judge determined that Chavis' role in the killing plot exempted the boys from the life sentence called for by a charge of murder in the first degree. Alex and Derek pleaded guilty to third-degree murder and arson and were sentenced to prison terms of seven and eight years, respectively.
Dan, a widowed retiree who was living in Minneapolis at the time, noticed the media firestorm surrounding the trial. On a whim, Dan sent $100 [€88] to the brothers' defense attorney, and a box of books to the imprisoned boys. Eventually, he and Derek began exchanging letters.
As their relationship progressed, Dan, whose son Henry had recently left home to start his adult life, began to feel like a father figure to Derek. "I had great parents," Dan explained. "They never hurt me in any way. The thought of any parent abusing or abandoning their child just seemed outrageous to me. I came to the conclusion that these kids needed a good parent."
In the King brothers and others like them, Dan saw children who had made desperate attempts to free themselves from abusive households. "The fact is that these juvenile parricides have for the most part eliminated their problems when they kill their parents," he told me. "It's actually, in my opinion, the best and the brightest that strike back. The best and the brightest are those that defend themselves and don't take the bullshit." (The research on juvenile parricides isn't quite so cut and dry: Many parricides are afflicted with major mental disorders, while others are "prosocial individuals who feared for their lives.")
When the justice system gets its hands on these kids, Dan believes it deprives them of their freedom—and their childhoods—a second time. "I mean, they've lived their whole life in prison. That's like living on a worse desert than I live in. That's worse than death."
When he was released at age 20, Alex says he was "completely overwhelmed." He worked a number of construction odd jobs, but found himself bouncing around, unable to secure steady employment or a lease due to his record. "I ended up in a pretty bad situation, and that's how I came to Estrella Vista," Alex told me. "Dan was always in my corner. He always answered the phone."
Dan had his own regrets to overcome: Dan's parents divorced when he was young, and by the time his father passed away in 1988, Dan hadn't spoken to him in years. Overwhelmed by remorse, Dan spearheaded a park expansion project as a tribute to his late father, ultimately annexing about 80 acres to the Minneapolis park system.
Over the years, however, Dan grew increasingly unhappy in Minneapolis. A former managing partner at a business consulting company, he was living alone under a mountain of debt, and his health was failing. "I woke up one morning and I thought to myself, 'I hate this life,'" he told me. The city had begun to encroach on his park, and watching it decay was like experiencing his father's death all over again.
So he loaded up his BMW and moved to Marathon, Texas, in search of a peaceful bit of desert. He was ready to go off the grid, and he'd realized that with a little land, he could create a retreat for kids like Alex and Derek. Dan would be their surrogate father.
Soon after, in West Texas, Dan saw his chance. He heard about large swaths of land, way out in the desert, selling for practically nothing. He packed his things in Marathon and signed a mortgage on 80 acres of dust. Derek promised to move into the ranch after his release, writing to Dan about becoming an adventure guide, and maybe even starting a wilderness outfitter business.
Dan would call his piece of desert Estrella Vista. There, he'd finally live on his own terms, while giving parricides a chance to live on theirs—for many, their first real chance. It's theWestern frontier taken to its logical extreme: literally the land of no parents, where the earth and sky seem brand new. A place where a person is just a person, not the sum of his associations, and certainly not his history. Estrella Vista is the only context.
By then, Dan had started an advocacy organization called The Redemption Project, which hires lawyers to defend parricides in court, and provides financial assistance and mentorship to help them from prison back into society. From his organization, he named four trustees for Estrella Vista: his biological son Henry and three parricides, Alex King, Nathan Ybanez, and Lone Heron. Ybanez, 18, was sentenced to life in prison without parole after he strangled his mother; Heron, a female parricide, plans to move to Estrella Villa permanently in the near future. Right now, only Alex and Dan live at the retreat.
Although it isn't yet the full-blown sanctuary that he envisions, Dan has big plans for Estrella Vista's future. If any of the 13 or 14 other parricides Dan advocates for gets released, they'll be partial inheritors of the property. Anyone who wants to visit will be welcomed with what he calls "spiritual hospitality."
But the living's not easy. If they want to see a barber, doctor, or dentist they must drive 60 miles to Alpine, Texas; even the mailbox is six-and-a-half miles downhill. Flies swarm during the day, moths at night. "We shit in buckets, shower once a week, and use about 17 gallons of water per week per person," Dan said. Derek King, Alex's brother, moved to Estrella Vista just days after his release, and he spent his first three nights there wide-awake, shivering in the fetal position. He called his mother every day, until a storm killed the phones. Lonely, he left after six months.
Alex and Dan don't mind the isolation and the harsh conditions. "We are a bit removed from society," said Alex. "To me, that's of no consequence one way or another."
At this strange oasis that might one day be a home for the world's renegades, runaways, outcasts, and orphans, Alex is finally free to make his own future. These days, he's building a frame for solar panels and learning how to make adobe bricks, so he can add another structure to the property.
"Nothing appeals to me so much as having a true purpose and a true goal somewhere," Alex says. "Something that I can do to help people. Truly help them." He and Dan are working to create a spiritual sanctuary for any wandering spirit who happens to drift their way—"a place to rest, a place to sit and think, and a place to heal a little bit, to reflect." The possibilities are endless.
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