Future Tense

How Not to Deal With Murder in Space

A bizarre 1970 Arctic killing over a jug of raisin wine shows that we need to think about crime outside our atmosphere now.

Supplies being airdropped onto the ice.
Supplies land on T-3 by parachute in June 1969. The murder occurred the following year. Dave Scoboria, USGS via Library of Congress

Mario Escamilla was furious. A colleague of his, nicknamed Porky, had just stolen his jug of raisin wine. So the 33-year-old Escamilla grabbed a rifle and set out to reclaim it. He had no idea he was about to get tangled up in one of the knottiest homicides in history—a killing that also raises serious questions about how humankind should handle the first, inevitable murder in outer space.

Escamilla worked on T-3, also known as Fletcher’s ice island, a Manhattan-size hunk of ice that at the time was floating north of Canada in the Arctic Ocean, roughly 350 miles from the North Pole. T-3 had been occupied off and on since the 1950s, and 19 scientists and technicians were stationed there during the summer of 1970, studying ocean currents and wind and weather patterns.

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Despite the constant polar sunshine in the summer, the weather could be harsh, with temperatures dipping down to minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit sometimes and winds reaching 160 miles per hour. But the worst thing the scientists faced was boredom: Besides work, there was almost nothing to do. For movies, they had a few 16-millimeter reels they’d seen a dozen times each. For music, they had two eight tracks. One was Jefferson Airplane.

To compound the problem, the scientists had virtually no contact with the outside world. Satellite communication was iffy and often failed. And planes couldn’t land on T-3 most of the summer, since the surface of the ice turned mushy under the sun. So after the initial arrival of people in the spring, that was it. Just 19 smelly dudes, with little to do but stare at one another and drink.

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As a result, T-3 attracted some real misfits at times, including alcoholics and weirdos. And all that angry, bored energy finally came to a head exactly 50 years ago—on July 16, 1970.

If contemporary accounts can be believed, Donald “Porky” Leavitt was a drunk, and a mean one. Three separate times on T-3, after running low on liquor, he attacked people with a meat cleaver to get his hands on their booze. On the night of July 16, Porky targeted electronics technician Mario Escamilla, breaking into Escamilla’s trailer and stealing a prized jug of homemade raisin hooch.

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When Escamilla found out, something snapped. He was actually an unlikely vigilante. He was pudgy and wore glasses, and was considered quiet, even wimpy. But when he heard about the theft, he grabbed the base rifle and marched over to confront Porky. It was nearly 11 p.m., but the arctic sun was blazing like a Wild West high-noon showdown.

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Unfortunately, Escamilla didn’t know that the rifle he’d grabbed was faulty. One hard bump—even without pulling the trigger—and it would fire.

Escamilla found Porky in a trailer with a meteorological technician named Bennie Lightsy, a 31-year-old from Louisville, Kentucky, who was Escamilla’s boss on T-3. Porky and Lightsy were, to put it mildly, shitfaced. They’d been drinking a truly foul mix of raisin wine, grain alcohol, and grape juice; Lightsy’s blood-alcohol level was later estimated to be 0.26.

A struggle for the raisin wine ensued, and in the confrontation that followed, Escamilla shot not Porky Leavitt, but his boss, Bennie Lightsy, square in the chest. He bled out moments later. With the help of newspaper articles, court transcripts, and online reminiscing from people who were there, I’ve laid out more details about the killing in my new podcast—along with many more details about life on the impossibly remote T-3 (including, because I know you’re curious, how they went to the bathroom). But here I’d like to focus on what happened after Lightsy’s death, because that’s when the real chaos started—the legal mess.

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T-3 was technically run by the U.S. Air Force, but Escamilla was a civilian, so they couldn’t court-martial him. The nearest land mass was Canada, but T-3 lay well outside Canada’s territorial waters, so it had no jurisdiction there. Perhaps the United States could have claimed the ice island—similar to the many uninhabited “Guano Islands” full of rich, natural fertilizer that the U.S. government seized during the 1800s. But unlike the Guano Islands, T-3 was temporary—it would melt away in the 1980s—so under international law, no nation could claim it. Perhaps the law of the sea applied? After all, T-3 was in some sense the literal high seas, being high-latitude frozen seawater. Except, the law of the sea applies only to navigable areas, and T-3 wasn’t navigable.

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In sum, T-3 was neither fish nor fowl. “Murder in Legal Limbo,” Time magazine called the case. Some legal scholars seriously questioned whether any nation had the right to try Escamilla. As one noted, “It may shock the layman to learn that there may be parts of the world in which possible murders may go untried.”

In the end, might essentially tried to make right here. Four U.S. marshals undertook a harrowing, multiday journey via plane and helicopter, first to Greenland and then T-3, fighting brutal Arctic winds and weather. Upon landing, they grabbed Escamilla, the rifle, and Lightsy’s frozen body for transport back to the United States.

Escamilla was then charged with murder in a federal court in Virginia. Why there? For the less-than-airtight reason that, well, Virginia was the first place the marshals and Escamilla landed after leaving Greenland, at Dulles Airport. Escamilla initially appeared in court in the same black Arctic rubber boots he’d been arrested in.

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But the trial presented all sorts of legal issues. First, there was the question of whether the government even had the right to try Escamilla, given T-3’s legal limbo. Second, there was the question of venue. Technically, the marshals and Escamilla had landed in Greenland first on the trip back home, so according to international law, he should have been tried there. The U.S. government simply ignored this. Federal prosecutors also attempted to charge Escamilla under special maritime law for crimes committed on vessels, despite the fact that T-3 wasn’t a “vessel” in any real sense.

In addition, the judge in the case instructed the jury to ignore testimony about the harsh, crazy-making conditions on T-3—which was surely relevant in determining whether Escamilla had been negligent in wielding a gun there. Along those same lines, there’s the question of whether the trial was fair from a constitutional standpoint, on the grounds that Escamilla couldn’t possibly be tried by a jury of peers in Virginia. After all, T-3 had no police force or other legal authority—and it did have a meat cleaver–wielding maniac running around. Property rights there were enforced with guns or not at all. Contrast that to suburban Virginia, where most people’s grimmest daily fears involved traffic. Could a jury there really understand the pressures Escamilla faced and properly judge his actions?

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Ultimately, after an initial conviction for manslaughter and the inevitable appeals and remands, Escamilla was acquitted of all charges, given the faulty rifle. But because of that acquittal, all the juicy legal issues remained unresolved. T-3 was essentially treated as a freak occurrence—a random, one-off event. But it won’t be.

The July 16, 1970, ice island killing took place one year to the day after the launch of the Apollo rocket that brought the first human beings to the moon. And even at that time, legal scholars realized that, given the legal limbo of T-3, the Escamilla case had huge implications for crime in outer space. No matter how noble and uplifting spaceflight seems, human nature is human nature, and sooner or later somebody will stab or shoot somebody else up there. And we have no idea how we’ll handle it.

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When looking for analogues to crime in outer space, some scholars point to Antarctica, where a surprising number of crimes have already taken place—including an ax murder over a chess game; an assault with the claw end of a hammer; and arson, when a stir-crazy doctor burned down a building to try to force an evacuation. (Most recently, at a Russian base in 2018, an engineer stabbed a welder in the chest with a knife—either because, depending on the report, the welder insulted the engineer’s manhood by offering him money to dance on a table, or because the welder kept spoiling the ending of books the engineer was reading, and he finally snapped.)

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In some ways, however, Antarctica isn’t a great analogy for space. However remote and undeveloped, it’s still permanent territory, on Earth, and several countries have made territorial claims, however disputed. Bases down there are largely run by governments anyway and are essentially treated as sovereign territory. The no man’s land of T-3 seems a better analogue, legally, to the near-vacuum of judicial oversight in space.

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About the only existing law governing space is the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. But the treaty focuses almost entirely on what nation-states can and cannot do (e.g., deploy nuclear bombs, seize celestial bodies). It’s virtually silent on what private companies or individuals can do—which suddenly seems like a glaring loophole given the rise of private space companies like SpaceX, which recently transported its first astronauts to the International Space Station. These private vessels are far murkier in a legal sense.

To be sure, a clause in the Outer Space Treaty does require nations to monitor their own citizens in space, which works fine when astronauts are few. But when hundreds or thousands of people reach orbit, that will become increasingly untenable. And so far, most crimes in remote places like T-3 have involved the citizens of one country alone (e.g., one Russian attacking another).

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In 2019, news reports surfaced of the first-ever alleged crime in outer space, when an American astronaut reportedly accessed her estranged wife’s bank account from computers on the International Space Station. Since then the astronaut has been cleared, and the wife charged with making false statements.

But even if that crime had taken place, it would have involved two Americans and an American bank, and taken place on the American section of the International Space Station. As a result, only American laws would have applied. But the International Space Station is already, well, international, and future spaceflight likely will be, too. So consider this scenario: a German woman poisons a Congolese man on a spaceship owned by a Chinese-Belgian conglomerate that’s headquartered in Luxembourg. Who the hell’s in charge then?

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When colonies get set up on Mars or the moon and people start having children there, things will get even more dicey. Should an Earth court really have jurisdiction over people who have never set foot on Earth in their lives? If exercising legal power over T-3 was a reach, imagine the consequences for doing so on another planet.

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As another issue, how would you arrest someone in space? It took U.S. marshals two full days to reach T-3 and grab Escamilla. Mars is multiple months away at its closest, and often farther. So is it really worth sending someone on a billion-dollar interplanetary mission just to make an arrest? Where do you hold the perp in the meantime? (In the most recent Russian assault in Antarctica, the engineer was tossed into the base’s tiny Orthodox chapel, since no proper jail cell existed.) And if you do drag them back to Earth, what about finding a jury of peers? Could any earthling truly understand life on Mars and pass judgment on someone living there?

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Mario Escamilla had no desire to become a legal pioneer. He just wanted his raisin wine back. But as we return to the moon over the next few years—NASA has plans to land people there in 2024, and push for Mars in the decade after—expect to hear more about this obscure homicide.  At a minimum, the spacefaring nations of the world need to update the Outer Space Treaty to account for private space flight.

Sure, bickering over treaty clauses and extradition issues isn’t as romantic as the quest to land on Mars or as sexy as the technology to get us there. But the Escamilla case shows that mundane legal issues matter, too. Laws don’t save lives by themselves—the first murder in space will happen with or without them. But a little forethought in handling such a case could go a long way toward ensuring that the society we’re working so hard to build up there gets a chance to survive as well.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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