The first time Callie Quinn met Youssef Khater, she hated him. He was standing in the kitchen of their shared house in Santiago, Chile, carrying on about some extreme marathon in front of her other new roommates. While he smiled easily and was objectively handsome—a tightly coiled five feet six inches or so, with luminous brown eyes and boyish features—he also had tasteless tribal cuff tattoos on both biceps, seemed obsessed with expensive athletic gear, and was talking nonstop about the sponsors who were clamoring to support him as one of the best Palestinian runners in the world. She had just moved in, and already she found him insufferably arrogant.
A 23-year-old with blue-green eyes and alabaster skin, Callie had arrived in Chile just five weeks earlier. As a native of Canyon Lake, an hour outside Austin, she had longed to live abroad ever since taking a high school trip to the Galapagos Islands. Travel—specifically immersing herself in other cultures—electrified her, and when she enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin, she declared herself a geography major. In class, her professors repeatedly projected pictures of Chile and lectured on its sublime terrain. Callie vowed to live there after graduation. It didn’t matter that she didn’t know a soul in South America. (“I admired her courage and independence,” her father would later say. “At the same time, I wanted to wring her neck.”)
On March 4, 2011, she bid her parents and older brother farewell and boarded a flight for Santiago. Chile is the longest country on earth, with the driest desert, the Atacama, to the north and the volcanic daggers of Patagonia to the south, and Callie marveled at the landscape even from her airplane window. Santiago, the capital, sits nestled in a smoggy bowl between two mountain ranges; on the bus from the airport, Callie eyed concrete buildings and the chocolate-milk-colored Mapocho River. The city had a postapocalyptic patina, but it also had a strong economy, well-regarded English schools, and the second-lowest homicide rate of any major metropolis in the Americas.
Callie, photographed in Austin in April 2015. (Photograph by Joel Salcido, grooming by Lynda Coleman)
Not that Callie was concerned about crime; first on her mind was a work visa. Chile, she’d heard, handed them out like candy, and she hoped to stay a year or two. Sure enough, it took only a month for her to earn an English-language teaching certificate and snag a job at Bridge Linguatec Institute. There she learned of an opening in a twelve-bedroom, hostel-like house on Avenida Condell, a tightly partitioned two-story in the leafy neighborhood of Providencia that was painted in almost as many colors as it slept nationalities. Loud and mouthy, Callie easily befriended several of her roommates. She accompanied Edmund Attrill, a leonine Brit who had studied theater, to protest the impending construction of a hydroelectric plant in Patagonia; she went out dancing with Sabine Schmidt, a stern German with a gap between her teeth who once got upset at a study showing Germany to be the least funny nation; and she told goofy jokes over pisco sours with Molly Parsons, an English teacher from San Antonio whose eyes fluttered upward when she spoke. Bonding over their Texas roots, the two soon became best friends.
The house on Avenida Condell that Youssef and Callie shared in 2011.
And then there was Youssef, who complained that she talked too much. At 33, he was older than the others. He had been born to Palestinian parents in Haifa but grew up in Denmark, and now the Federación Palestina de Chile—an organization representing the country’s sizable Palestinian population, the largest outside the Middle East—was sponsoring him in his quest to set a record by running the 2,653-mile length of Chile. Over dinner after his long hours of training, Youssef would regale the roommates with accounts of his time in the Danish special forces—how he’d had to stand for minutes in a room full of mace or swim to the bottom of forty-foot-deep pools. Ed and Sabi, who were especially close to him, hung on his every word. Callie just rolled her eyes.
But after several weeks in the house, she had to admit that he did have a certain magnetism, and that his heart was nearly as big as his tales. If a roommate caught a cold, he’d run out to the grocery store for kiwis and limes, to make what he called a “vitamin C smoothie.” He gave away the extra Under Armour sports clothing he received from his sponsors and administered acupuncture, which he’d learned in Denmark, in the living room for free. One rainy afternoon, he decreed it “chocolate day” and, after ransacking the grocery store for sweets to share, gathered the roommates for a showing of Cool Runnings, his favorite movie. When he began dating a fellow Palestinian, a stunning dance teacher and single mother of two named Sohad Alamo, he hosted a barbecue birthday party for her nine-year-old daughter. Callie began to take his stories in stride. Once, when she was Skyping with her mom, he poked his beanied head into the frame. “Now I see where Callie gets her good looks,” he said, smiling.
Youssef in Brazil in 2010.
So in July, when Youssef mentioned that he’d just purchased two new condos downtown and offered to rent one to her and Molly, Callie didn’t think twice. It was winter in the Southern Hemisphere, and their house had no heat—it was 36 degrees outside and in. The condos were not only heated but at the center of the city’s nightlife. She and Molly gave Youssef a security deposit and their first month’s rent, about $1,000 between them. On Wednesday, July 20, the day before move-in, Callie arranged to meet Youssef at eight in the evening on a street corner downtown so he could show her where to pick up the keys the following morning.
Youssef arrived thirty minutes late. He was in high spirits; three Danish women had been kidnapped in the Atacama, he said, and he was meeting up with some of his old buddies from the Danish special forces later that evening to make plans to rescue them. But first, he announced, he would take Callie out to celebrate her new digs. After an almost hour-long, meandering journey to the real estate office—Youssef didn’t seem to know where he was going, and when they finally reached the office, Callie noted that it was surprisingly dingy—they agreed to walk the mile or so back to Providencia, where they would eat. It was the first time Callie had hung out with Youssef one-on-one. As they ribbed each other, she found that she was actually enjoying his company.
A little past the river, Youssef’s cell rang. It was Sabi, and Callie could discern from the sharp tones that she was upset. Youssef, it turned out, owed Sabi money; over the past few months, he had borrowed from her and two Mexican students who had recently moved out of the house. He had not yet repaid them, and the three now needed the money back: the Mexicans were leaving for Buenos Aires the next morning, and Sabi was leaving for Ecuador shortly thereafter. Youssef assured her that he had the cash—in fact, he was carrying it in his backpack. He would not be home until late, but he would send the backpack home with Callie.
It was nearly eleven o’clock when Callie and Youssef finally sat down for dinner at Entre-Choke, a bar a few blocks from their house. Youssef ordered lomo a lo pobre and vodka drinks for the two of them. She had never seen Youssef touch alcohol; in fact, he always declined the Carménère shared around the house. Yet here he was, downing three consecutive screwdrivers. The Chilean national soccer team was playing on a TV in the corner, and Callie was amused watching Youssef grow animated, talking faster and faster, saying how happy he was to help her and Molly. Did she remember, Youssef asked at one point, that house he’d pointed out on their walk, the one that had burned down a week ago? Callie nodded, noticing his long, upturned eyelashes. He’d heard there was a golden toilet seat inside. He grinned.
Callie’s phone rang. It was Sabi, calling to ask why she wasn’t home yet. Callie explained that she was at dinner but, per Youssef’s request, didn’t say with whom. Fifteen minutes later, Sabi called again. Callie promised to be home soon. When Sabi called a third time, Youssef told Callie to ignore the phone. “She’s obsessed with me,” he said. He changed the subject back to the golden toilet seat. They should go find it, he said, looking into her eyes and smiling again, a little flush. Callie laughed. It was ridiculous, but she was game.
The house was actually one of Santiago’s oldest tire shops, Vulcanización Escoda, and after the fire, the facade had been covered up with corrugated metal. When they reached it, Youssef parted the rusted sheets, and he and Callie slipped in. The ceiling had burned away completely, leaving a portal onto the fuzzy midnight sky. Ashes fluttered from every surface like millions of moth wings. Youssef, after looking around for a tool with which to pry the toilet seat off, rustled up a crowbar. He led the way to find the bathroom.
“That’s not gold,” groaned Callie as soon as they edged into the lavatory. The toilet seat was generic beige plastic. Institutional eggshell.
Youssef decided to pry it off anyway, working the crowbar around the back edge.
“I’ve got to go,” said Callie. “I have work at seven-thirty.”
Youssef told her to wait; he didn’t want the soccer fans who were now spilling out onto the streets to give her trouble. Callie, unconcerned, made her way back toward the entrance. She didn’t hear the footsteps in the ash behind her.
“Hey, Callie—” called Youssef, and as she began to turn, she felt the crack of metal across the back of her skull. She fell backward. A knee shunted into her ribs and pinned her to the cold concrete. When she opened her eyes, Callie saw Youssef’s face, contorted with rage, inches away from her own. He was straddling her now, his hands grabbing her neck.
“Why did you tell Sabi that I owed you money?!” he spat, his fingers wringing her windpipe tighter and tighter, his brown eyes fixed on her with an unflinching intensity. “Why!”
Callie couldn’t comprehend. “You’re going to kill—” she choked, before the hot ringing pain, the anger, and the ash overtook her. Then she saw nothing at all.
The tire shop where Youssef lured Callie.