The Mystery of Bartlett Lake — (Vanity Fair)

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Vanity Fair Magazine

by Bryan Burrough

September 14, 1997 1:45 pm

T.C. Thorstenson rode into Margaret Lesher’s life on a 2,500-pound buffalo, and six months later the wealthy, widowed California socialite married the handsome cowboy. Ever since Lesher’s body was found at the bottom of a lake in May, her friends and family have been debating whether Thorstenson murdered her.

The rain was already coming down hard as the five dozen trail riders, wranglers, and scouts gathered in a field of amber prairie grasses off Smartville Road that afternoon. The cattle, 160 head of rangy longhorns, were growing restless, lowing and scraping in their corral. The trail boss, Lee Rosser, a veteran cowboy with a strawberry-blond mustache, glanced up past the brim of his buff-colored Stetson at the darkening skies. It didn’t look good. The plan for this, the third annual Twin City Slickers Cattle Drive, which would last five days, was to drive the herd 35 miles through the undulating scrub around the periphery of Beale Air Force Base, down into the old 49er goldfields along the Yuba River, and then straight into the heart of Marysville, a town of 13,000, an hour north of Sacramento. There they would rumble past crowds of cheering townspeople and into the rodeo grounds.

Rosser’s wranglers gave the greenhorn trail riders, who had paid $400 to $500 apiece and traveled from as far as Chicago, a lesson on the basics of cattle driving, the best ways to rope, herd, and generally make it to Marysville in one piece. “We told ’em a lot about cattle psychology, which is not too complicated,” remembers Rosser. “If [the cattle]’re looking this way, they’re probably headin’ this way.”

As the wind whipped up, Margaret Lesher spurred her Paso Fino, a superior Spanish breed of horse. Lesher had driven up from her estate in Contra Costa County, which encompasses the sprawling suburbs east of Oakland and Berkeley, with her groom Estel “E.L.” Mclelland. A striking blonde with a vivacious personality, Lesher was 64, but she looked at least 10 years younger. Her husband of 20 years, Dean S. Lesher, the publisher of the Contra Costa Times and 27 other small California newspapers, had died three years earlier.

Lesher was very stylish, very wealthy—estimates put her fortune at $200 million—and very lonely. A devout Christian who attempted to fill the void in her life with Bible passages, Prozac, and grief therapy, she had confided to friends that she longed to find a Christian cowboy to keep her warm at night. And who knew? Maybe on this trail ride she would find one.

The trail riders were supposed to pitch their tents by the corral that night and start the drive the next morning, but as the rain beat down, Rosser realized the ground was becoming too muddy to camp on. Reluctantly he ordered everyone to dismount, jump into a waiting convoy of cars and trucks, and head to his family’s Flying U Ranch. Once everyone had dried off, they joined a V.I.P. barbecue the Rosser family was holding for local politicians, rodeo organizers, and volunteers. Inside the ranch’s cavernous baby-blue barn they dined on grilled steaks and potato salad and listened to country music. Long accustomed to such shindigs, Lesher, wearing a brightly colored, sequined western-style blouse, fit right in.

The chitchat ebbed when the entertainment began. Into the night air charged a massive, 2,500-pound buffalo, fully six and a half feet high at its shoulders. Atop it straddled a cowboy who, to the guests’ amazed delight, rode the buffalo like a horse, turning it in circles, then making it first go down on its knees, then lie on its side. The high point of the 20-minute show came when the cowboy rode the buffalo up a steep ramp onto the roof of a long, shocking-pink trailer and there made the animal spin like a top.

Down in the barn Margaret Lesher stood transfixed. The following month she was sponsoring a charity event in Contra Costa County, and the cowboy’s act, she felt, would be the perfect entertainment. “When I saw that buffalo,” Lesher told a local magazine months later, “I thought, ‘Go, girl, go!’ ”

But as later events would suggest, it wasn’t the buffalo that caught Lesher’s eye. It was the cowboy, a muscular 39-year-old named Collin “T.C.” Thorstenson, who sported forearms as thick as ham steaks and a butt as hard and round as an apple. Lesher cut a beeline through the crowd and struck up a

The call came in to the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office just before sunrise, at 5:11 A.M. The man was using a radiotelephone and his first words were garbled. “I woke up about 3:30,” he said. “I’m looking for my wife and my boat and they’re both gone. I don’t know. She wouldn’t have left. I don’t know where she’s at. I’ve been down to the marina looking there, looking at the other marina. She’s not, she’s got to be here somewhere. But she’s gone.”

“O.K.,” the dispatcher said. “So the boat’s out on the water somewhere?”

“It’s not where we docked it,” the man said. “Her and the boat are both gone.”

“O.K. We’ll have a deputy started out there. What’s your name, sir?”

“Thorstenson.”

Bartlett Lake is a slash of electric blue across the brown hills just north of Phoenix, a baking desert haven for weekend boaters and fishermen. Rhonda Converse, a deputy with the sheriff’s department’s lake patrol, found T.C. Thorstenson standing beside the red emergency-phone box on a low rise overlooking the public boat ramp. Thorstenson explained that his wife of six months, the former Margaret Lesher, had disappeared during the night while the couple was camping on a remote wedge of scrub called Quarry Point. After driving up from their new home in Scottsdale, Thorstenson said, they had gone to sleep around 10:30. But when he woke at 3:30, Thorstenson continued, he found both his wife and their new 14-foot jet boat missing. He had walked up and down the shoreline for half an hour shouting her name—Thorstenson called Lesher “Margee”—and checked at two nearby marinas, but there was no sign of her.

Converse and Thorstenson were soon joined by a crowd of sheriff’s deputies and investigators and a search-and-rescue team. A helicopter was brought in, and a few minutes after eight it spotted the jet boat, resting against the shore two and a half miles from the campsite. On the boat’s seat, deputies found the sweater Lesher had gone to sleep in, and, on the floor, her blue jeans and a flashlight.

By midafternoon, as deputies combed the brush at Quarry Point and low-flying helicopters criss-crossed the lake basin, there was no other sign of her. Then, just before four, came a radio call from the news helicopter operated by Channel 12, the local NBC affiliate. They had spotted something. Within minutes divers were in the water off Quarry Point. There, in 8 feet of water, 25 feet from shore, they found the body of Margaret Lesher, clad only in bra and panties, on the muddy lake bottom.

At first glance the mysterious drowning of Margaret Lesher, a woman so prominent in San Francisco’s eastern suburbs she has been called the Jacqueline Onassis of the East Bay, showed every sign of becoming a classic American media spectacle: A lonely, fabulously wealthy widow suddenly marries a trailer-park cowboy and six months later turns up dead in a remote desert reservoir. In swooped Hard Copy, followed by the Today show, The New York Times, and hordes of local reporters in Phoenix and San Francisco. When it was discovered that one of Thorstenson’s previous wives had three times filed complaints against him for beating her, the arc of the story line seemed preordained: Thorstenson, the greedy, wife-abusing husband, would be hauled off in handcuffs, charged with murder, and convicted at a dramatic trial, then have his whole, sordid story retold in a book or two and a television movie starring Barbara Eden and Clint Black.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the casting couch. At Lesher’s memorial service, one of her four adult daughters, Wendi Alves, disclosed that the family stood wholeheartedly behind Thorstenson. Alves said she had received a spiritual message from her dead mother saying the good-looking cowboy hadn’t harmed her. Then, two weeks after Lesher’s death, Arizona authorities ruled the death a drowning. There was, announced Philip Keen, the Maricopa County medical examiner, no physical evidence suggesting foul play. Other than a slight abrasion on her forehead, where Lesher’s body had presumably brushed against the lake bottom, there was not a single bruise or wound that could not be explained. Moreover, her blood-alcohol level was.10, the minimum legal level to be considered drunk.

In the first week of July, Sheriff Joe Arpaio held a press conference clearing Thorstenson of any wrongdoing. “If the question is, Am I 100 percent sure [of Thorstenson’s innocence], I’m never 100 percent sure of anything,” Arpaio told reporters. “But we feel rather confident that it was an accidental death.”

The end of the official investigation disturbed many of those who knew Margaret Lesher best. A few, including her housekeeper, her minister, and her personal assistant were troubled enough to launch their own informal investigation. Others, including several family members, said they were satisfied with the sheriff’s findings. “In anybody’s mind, it’s suspicious,” muses Vicky Grinnell, Lesher’s decorator and friend during her brief time in Scottsdale. “It’s still very suspicious. [But] I’ve never felt like T.C. did it. I’ve been very supportive of him. It was dark, she’d been drinking, and she must have gotten lost.”