True Crime

David Coughlin – What would you do in Rattlesnake Canyon?

Mercy or Murder? Doubts About a Death in Desert

Two best friends David Coughlin & Raffi Kodikian enter the Rattlesnake Canyon but only one of them survives leaving people to wonder if it was a mercy killing or murder.

Sometimes, everyday people are forced to make truly unthinkable decisions. Take, for example, somebody who goes to work like normal, and then a fire breaks out in their office. They can’t get rescued, and suddenly, this person is deciding whether they want to burn to death or jump out the window to their death.

Now, when we hear about these totally tragic stories, we all wonder the same thing: What would we do in that situation? Well, I want you to keep that question in the back of your mind as you listen to today’s story because it’s about these two people who find themselves in a totally hopeless situation. So, as it unfolds, ask yourself, what would you do?

Okay, let’s get into today’s story

At about 1:30 in the afternoon on August 8th, 1999, a park ranger named Lance Mattson stood frowning down at a dusty red Mazda car inside of an otherwise empty parking lot just outside of Carl’s bed Caverns National Park in New Mexico.

Lance Matson
Lance Mattson

Lance knew the two men who owned this red Mazda had taken out a one-night permit to be allowed to go into Rattlesnake Canyon, which is one of the most isolated parts of this National Park. It’s basically just a single long scrubby little Trail that’s kind of all desert with high Canyon walls on either side.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Carlsbad Caverns National Park

In order to get access to Rattlesnake Canyon, people need to go to the visitor’s center and literally fill out paperwork so the park rangers know they’re out there and can go out and check on them if they don’t come back in time. The two men who owned the Mazda had done that; they had filled out all the paperwork.

However, Lance was noticing they had not returned at the end of their permit. They had stayed out, presumably in Rattlesnake Canyon, for an additional three nights. Lance was not concerned because people did do this. It was more like he was annoyed because now he would have to go out into Rattlesnake Canyon and find these two guys and figure out what was going on.

So, Lance and the park volunteer that he was with began walking on the trail in the direction of Rattlesnake Canyon. After walking less than a mile on this Trail, Lance and this volunteer looked up ahead, and just off the trail, there was a green and maroon tent that was pitched right out in the open.

Rattlesnake Canyon
Rattlesnake Canyon

Lance immediately assumed that this had to be the two men who owned the red Mazda. Very quickly, Lance’s annoyance was replaced with relief because it turned out it was really easy to find these two campers, and he’d be able to go figure out what was going on.

When Lance and his partner walked down the trail and left the trail to go walk over to this tent, they started to notice there was something off about it right away. As they got closer and closer to this tent, they began to smell this horrible kind of chemical burning smell. Also, all over the ground were all these little bits of burned pieces of trash.

Finally, when Lance and his partner actually arrived right in front of the tent and they were looking down at the closed flap, it was zip shut. They saw clearly there was something moving around inside of the tent, but whoever or whatever it was wasn’t making any noise.

Lance and his partner looked at each other, and they both at this point were pretty nervous. Their hearts were racing, and they didn’t know what was going on here. Then Lance impulsively reached down, unzipped the tent, and lifted it open. When he saw what was inside, he immediately was hit with this wave of fear and anxiety.

Three days earlier, on August 5th, 1999, a 26-year-old man named David Coughlin woke up in a sleeping bag inside of his green and maroon tent in Rattlesnake Canyon. As soon as David sat up, he smiled because he could hear right outside of his tent the sound of his best friend Raffi Kodikian making breakfast and gathering up supplies for that morning’s hike.

Raffi Kodikian
Raffi Kodikian

David Coughlin and Rafy were on what they called a trip of a lifetime. Six days earlier, they had left their hometown of Boston, Massachusetts, and traveled more than 2,000 miles west, sleeping at campsites and cheap motels along the way. Their final destination was a university in Santa Barbara, California, where Dave was going to be getting his Masters in environmental engineering.

But they were going to basically turn the journey out to California into a big vacation, and Carlsbad Caverns National Park was easily both of the men’s favorite spot so far because, unlike the other campgrounds they had stayed at so far, which were kind of cheap and small, Carlsbad Caverns was huge. It was 47,000 acres of just wild desert.

So, for David Coughlin and Rafy, whose normal everyday lives were kind of safe and boring doing desk jobs and the like, this felt sort of thrilling like they were cowboys exploring the wild west.

David Coughlin
David Coughlin

As David Coughlin sat inside of his tent listening to Rafy make breakfast and get ready, Dave noticed he was already sweating despite it being pretty early in the morning. It was just already so hot outside. Dave grabbed his water and took a sip, and as he did, he thought about that park ranger who had helped them fill out their paperwork to be allowed to come out into Rattlesnake Canyon.

The park ranger had made a really big deal about ensuring that Dave and Rafy each have at least one gallon of water per person per day that they were going to be out here because of the heat. But after they had left the park ranger, Rafy, who had way more experience camping than Dave did, explained to David Coughlin that that was totally overkill, and they didn’t need that much water.

So instead of bringing two huge gallons of water for the single night they planned to be out in Rattlesnake Canyon, Rafy had brought along for both of them just three 16-ounce bottles of water. For reference, that’s approximately six times less than what the park ranger had suggested.

The men had already used one of those 16-ounce bottles of water to boil hot dogs the night before for their dinner. Now the bottle that Dave was drinking from was already half empty, and so he was pretty much down to the last of his water.

But David Coughlin wasn’t really worried about his water because he and Rafy were going to be hiking out of Rattlesnake Canyon that day and heading back to their car, continuing their journey out to California. They knew they had set up their tent very close to the parking lot, and so it was a short hike back to their car, and then they were good.

David Coughlin capped his water, got out of his sleeping bag, left the tent, and joined Rafy in prepping their supplies to get ready for their hike out. By 8:30 a.m., their entire site was packed up, and the two men were on their way.

Heading back, the two men walked at a leisurely pace in the direction towards their vehicle for about an hour. As they walked, they did see signs that they were on the right trail. There were these stacks of white rocks that marked the trail. But after walking this full hour, they knew they probably should have been at the parking lot, but they didn’t see it yet.

However, the men were not worried yet because, remember, they knew they were close, and so they were thinking, okay, maybe a couple more minutes and we’ll see the parking lot. So they stopped, had some more water, and then they kept on walking.

After walking for another 2-3 hours still in the direction that they believed was towards the parking lot, they did not see the parking lot. In fact, they didn’t see anything that looked familiar, and there were no more stacks of white rocks to show they were even on a trail. They were totally lost.

So, David Coughlin and Rafy, who were doing their best not to panic, sat down, pulled off their packs, and pulled out their topographical map and began looking for some sign of where they were. Neither man could read the topographical map, so all the swirls on the map showing every contour of every geographical feature just didn’t make any sense to them.

Map of the area
Map of the area

The map was of no use, and it was getting hotter and hotter by the minute. Dave and Rafy put the map away, feeling totally frustrated. For a second, they thought about getting up and continuing to walk roughly in the direction they thought they should go, but as soon as they stood up, they both felt so exhausted from walking and the heat. It was now noon, so it was really burning down on them.

The two men walked over to the edge of a canyon wall where some shrubs were kind of hanging off the wall, providing a little bit of shade. The two men just plunked down right underneath the shade, and they just sat there in silence. Both men knew they did not have the supplies to stay out in this canyon for much longer. They certainly didn’t have enough water, which now really was starting to feel like a huge oversight.

But luckily, as they were just sitting there, these huge storm clouds rolled in. For a very short amount of time, there was this incredible downpour of rain. Dave and Rafy began catching the raindrops in their mouths and drinking the water off of rocks and leaves. It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough to kind of boost their spirits. They got a little bit more hydration in, and they were kind of ready to deal with the problem they were facing.

After the storm had gone, Dave and Rafy decided that their best move was just to continue walking and try to find this parking lot. Despite this motivation, Dave and Rafy would walk for hours and hours into the night. They would not find the parking lot.

Finally, they realized they would have to stop and set up camp for another night. So, Dave and Rafy, who by now were really starting to feel scared, found this washed-out gully and set up their green and maroon tent.

Neither man could sleep, so they just sat outside of their tent, telling each other that, “Don’t worry, the park rangers are bound to have noticed that we did not come back in time. We only had that one-day permit; we’ve exceeded the limit. They’re bound to come out here and find us.”

But in the back of both Dave and Rafy’s minds, they weren’t so sure that was definitely going to happen. They didn’t really know how long it would take for park rangers to notice when people stayed too long.

As Dave and Rafy were speaking, they suddenly noticed far off in the distance something that looked like headlights on a car, and it was moving across the horizon. Both Dave and Rafy thought, “Wait a minute, that’s got to be a road right there. All we have to do is go to that road, and we’re saved. We don’t need the park rangers to come rescue us.”

Suddenly, Dave and Rafy were filled with hope. They forgot about how thirsty and hungry they were, and they just crawled into their beds and fell asleep almost immediately because all they wanted to do was get to the next morning, where there’d be daylight so they could hike out, get to that road, and get back home.

Dave and Rafy woke up early the next morning, and they were very eager to get up and start making their way towards this road. Instead of packing up their campsite and bringing it with them, they decided instead to leave their campsite and leave behind a journal that had some information about who they were and what they were doing in case park rangers came looking for them.

David Coughlin pulled out a journal from his pack, drew a kind of crude map of where this campsite was and where they were going towards this road that appeared to be up on this ridge. Dave included in this note their names, ages, where they live, some contact info, and also the fact that they were completely out of food and water.

“If you find this journal, please follow up and make sure we’re okay.”

After leaving behind this journal at the campsite, Dave and Rafy set off to go to this road. After walking for hours and hours up a gradual incline, they reached what appeared to be this kind of third ridge where up and above the ridge was this road. To get up onto this wall right in front of them was really challenging. There was cactus everywhere, and the gullies that led up to the top of this ridge were very slippery and almost vertical—nearly impossible to climb.

Eventually, Dave and Rafy were able to get up onto this ridge. They looked out, and there was no road. There was nothing; it was just pure desert as far as they could see. They had no idea what those lights were that they saw; clearly, it was not headlights. For all they knew, it could have been a figment of their imagination.

As the two men stared in stunned silence at nothingness in front of them, they noticed that a buzzard had actually begun flying in slow circles over their heads, almost like it was just waiting for the two men to die so the buzzard could come down and eat them.

Now David Coughlin was ready right then and there to head back to their campsite and just wait. But Rafy was insistent that they just keep on going because you never know, maybe there is a road just a little bit farther along.

After walking for maybe a couple more hours, they did not see a road. By this point, both men were beyond exhausted. So, the two men finally turned around and painstakingly walked their way all the way back to their campsite.

And as they’re walking, they’re telling themselves, you know, maybe we’ll get there and park rangers will be waiting for us. You know, a search party will be here. But when they got to their campsite, there was absolutely no sign that anybody had come to their campsite since they left. Their journal with their note and their crude map and all that was still just sitting right in the middle of their campsite untouched.

It was at this point that Dave and Raf’s spirits were just totally broken. The next morning was Saturday, August 7th, so Dave and Rafy were now beginning their fourth day in the desert and their third day without any water. Rafy had gotten really sick from drinking his own urine, and Dave had begun to experience all these horrible stomach cramps, very likely from eating unripe prickly pears. Also, Dave’s legs were starting to seize up, which made it nearly impossible to walk. And so, the two men knew they had no chance of hiking out of here to safety. They really just had to wait for their rescue to come.

That day, Dave and Rafy attempted with the little energy they had to make a huge SOS symbol on the ground using rocks. But after putting the S down and the O down, they didn’t have enough energy to collect more rocks to make the last S. So, they did not finish their SOS symbol. And then also, Rafy, at some point, soaked his sleeping bag in fuel and lit it on fire to try to create a smoke signal that somebody might see. But the smoke didn’t get high enough, and so it didn’t work. All that really accomplished was it destroyed Rafy’s sleeping bag and also created this terrible stench around their campsite of burning chemicals from having burned the polyester material that made up the sleeping bag.

SOS message
SOS message

So, by that afternoon when the sun was right over their head and beating down on them, Dave and Rafy just crawled inside of their tent and laid there in silence. And as they did, they noticed the stones underneath their tent felt kind of cool. So, they cut the bottom of the tent out and just laid directly on these loose rocks. And inside of their tent, by that evening when still no rescuers had arrived, Dave and Rafy really began to realize that this could be the end.

So, David Coughlin, he grabbed that notebook where they had drawn that crude map of where the lights in the road had been, and he flipped the page. Then, he wrote a note to his girlfriend, basically saying goodbye because he knew he was probably going to die. And then, Rafy, he took the journal, then he did something similar but also included that, you know, he would not allow the buzzards to get them, that they would at least ensure their bodies were intact for their families to find.

And then, after writing these notes and tucking the journal away, Dave and Rafy crawled out of the tent because by now it’s dark out. The sun’s not out. It’s a little bit cooler outside. And the two men, they sat down and they began having a fairly matter-of-fact conversation about the situation they were in. Both men were very emotional. At one point, Dave began screaming and crying just out of despair. But at the end of this conversation, the two men made a decision, an unthinkable one that really would only ever be made in a situation like this.

And so, after both men were on the same page, they crawled inside the tent and zipped it up. It was the next morning, August 8th, 1999, when that park ranger and his volunteer that was with him had walked along the trail towards Rattlesnake Canyon and discovered Dave and Rafy’s ransacked campsite. And they had walked up and they had seen all the burned materials nearby, which was Rafy’s sleeping bag and other bits of trash they had tried to burn. And then, they had gone to the front of the tent, and Lance had opened it up.

When he looked inside, he saw Rafy, who was alive. He was laying on his side and he was only wearing these filthy green shorts, and he just looked totally emaciated and terrible and haggard. I mean, the guy really looked like he was on death’s door. Then, Rafy, when he saw Lance looking in, he just said, ‘Please tell me you have some water.’ And Lance did have some water; he gave it to him. And then, Lance, knowing that Rafy was with another person, Dave, he said, ‘Hey, where is the person you were with?’

And Rafy, as he’s drinking the water, just kind of casually pointed out of the tent somewhere off behind where Lance and his partner were. So, Lance and his partner, they turned around and they didn’t see anybody. They were just kind of looking off towards the canyon wall, and there was nothing there. And so, Lance turned around again and he said, ‘Are you sure he’s over there?’ And Rafy, without any expression on his face, just continued to point and said, ‘Yes, he’s right over there.’

So, Lance, he got up, he turned around, and he began walking towards this canyon wall. But before he got there, he nearly tripped over this arrangement of rocks on the ground. And when he looked down at them, he knew someone clearly had arranged these rocks in a particular way. And so, with a growing sense of dread, Lance reached down and he moved aside one of these rocks. And underneath it, he saw Dave’s face.

It would turn out the night before when Rafy and David Coughlin had crawled outside of their tent and began having that very intense conversation, what they were talking about is, ‘What do we do? We know we’re going to die. No one’s going to reach us before we die of starvation or we die of dehydration, or maybe some animal is going to come attack us and kill us. Like, we don’t have any hope.’ And so, as they were sitting there, Dave actually pulled out his pocket knife and attempted to cut his wrists. But he couldn’t cut deep enough to actually kill himself.

And so, David Coughlin said to Rafy, ‘You’re going to have to kill me.’ And then, after that, ‘You’re going to have to kill yourself.’ And Rafy had agreed. And so, Rafy and Dave, they went back inside their tent with no floor; it’s just open rocks in the bottom. And Dave, he lied down on his back and he pulled his shirt up and he exposed his rib cage. And then, Rafy, he pulled out his 4-inch pocket knife and he placed it right up against Dave’s rib cage.

And then, with Dave basically egging him on to stab him, Rafy attempted to push the knife into his heart.But he couldn’t break the skin. And so, Dave, he’s now screaming out in pain, but he’s still urging Rafy to come on, just do it already. And finally, Rafy does manage to get the knife right through his ribs and into Dave’s heart. Dave did not die right away, but Rafy covered his mouth and continued to push that knife in until he did die.

And then, once David Coughlin was dead, Raffi used the little bit of energy he had to drag his body away from the tent where he buried him under those rocks.

Then, Rafi, who now has no energy left, just crawled back to his tent and laid down on those loose rocks inside of his tent and waited to die. But just a few hours later, on the morning of August 8th, Lance the park ranger, along with his volunteer, had come down and discovered Raffi before he had died.

Little did Dave and Rafy know, this campsite where they had been for the past few days was just a 15 or 20 minute walk from their car.

Raffi Kodikian
Raffi Kodikian

Nine months later, on May 11th, 2000, Raffi pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to 16 years in prison. However, Raffi insisted throughout the trial that the reason he killed Dave was because Dave asked him to. It effectively was a mercy killing, and Raffi intended afterwards to die himself. This was murder-suicide, and Dave’s family believed Rafi, and so did another judge. Ultimately, Raffi would only serve 16 months in prison before he would be released.


Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button
error: Content is protected !!

Adblock Detected