A murder mystery worthy of Hollywood

GEORGE KIMBALL/America at large: A few days ago in Tahiti, French authorities, accompanied by a 13-man team of FBI agents whose…

GEORGE KIMBALL/America at large: A few days ago in Tahiti, French authorities, accompanied by a 13-man team of FBI agents whose jurisdiction is somewhat tenuous, were swarming over a 55-foot catamaran in search of clues.

Although a recently-affixed nameplate on the stern said the boat was called the "Aria Bella", the investigators had already established that it was in fact the "Hakuna Matata", owed by Bison Dele, the former National Basketball Association player formerly known as Brian Williams.

The Hakuna Matata had set sail from Auckland on May 2nd with a four-person crew consisting of Dele, his girlfriend Serena Karlan, a hired French skipper named Bertrand Saldo, and Dele's brother Miles Dabord, whose name used to be Kevin Williams.

None save Dabord has been heard from since July 8th, when Karlan left a telephone message on her parents' answering machine announcing that "all is well". Then, two weeks ago, a man fitting Miles Dabord's description but using Brian Williams' credit cards and passport as identification, attempted to purchase $500,000 worth of gold bullion from a precious metals firm in Phoenix, Arizona.

Although he later reduced his request to 300 gold coins, worth a mere $152,000, the nature of the transaction was sufficiently suspicious to attract the curiosity of the authorities, and Miles Dabord dropped out of sight before it could be completed. A few days later the boat with the doctored nameplate was found in Tahiti.

Although no bodies have been found, the assumption is that Bison Dele, Ms Carlan, and the French captain are all dead. An arrest warrant has been issued for Dabord, who is believed to be in hiding in Mexico.

Bison Dele and Miles Dabord, under their given names Brian and Kevin Williams, were the sons of Gene Williams, who sang with the 1950s group The Platters. (Suffice it to say that there are considerably more former Platters extant than there are six-foot, eight-inch African-Americans wandering around Mexico, which leads one to wonder just how assiduously the Mexican authorities are actually looking for Dabord.)

Beyond that, the entire affair remains an intriguing mystery. You'd be tempted to say that this will all wind up as the subject of a film, except that the Australians already beat Hollywood to the punch: apart from the element of fratricide, the whole thing is eerily reminiscent of Dead Calm, the 1989 Phil Noyce film starring Sam Neil and the young Nicole Kidman.

As Brian Williams, the 6ft 11in Dele had played an integral role alongside Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen on the 1997 Chicago Bulls' World Championship team. He parlayed that into a lucrative free-agent contract with the Detroit Pistons. The next year he officially changed his name.

Williams explained that he had chosen to be called "Bison Dele" in dual tribute to his family's Cherokee descent and the Yorubian language of Nigeria, an ancestral home.

His brother Kevin had already renamed himself, choosing Miles Dabord in tribute to the jazz trumpeter Miles Davis in combination with an old family surname.

"I always like Brian Williams," Woody Paige, who covered the player during his four-year stint with the Denver Nuggets, recalled last week. "He was always, well, different from your average NBA player."

In 1992, while playing for the Orlando Magic, Brian Williams had survived an overdose of sleeping pills, and was placed on the injured reserve list after being diagnosed with clinical depression. His best NBA season came in 1996, when he averaged 15.8 points a game for the lowly Los Angeles Clippers.

Three years ago Bison Dele, not yet 30, stunned his family, friends, and team-mates by abruptly retiring from the Pistons, forfeiting a guaranteed contract that had five years and $36,450,000 remaining.

In the intervening years the eccentric ex-player roamed the world. He travelled to Lebanon (he had invested in a water-purification plant in Beirut), and then in 2000 relocated to Australia, where he reportedly lived out of a truck, camped, and surfed.

He bought the catamaran last year, determined to sail the South Seas. After last year's World Trade Centre tragedy, he phoned Serena Karlan, a friend of 10 years' standing (she had been the room-mate of his college girlfriend) who had been working as a real estate agent in New York, and invited her to join him as a respite from a post-September 11th funk. A romance soon blossomed.

Karlan returned to New York, but in February flew to New Zealand to permanently reunite with Dele. Sometime between then and May, Miles Dabord joined them in New Zealand, ostensibly to "build a relationship with his brother".

The quartet is known to have arrived in Tahiti aboard the Hakuna Matata in mid-June. Bison Dele and Karlan checked into a motel on the island of Moorea on June 16th, and were seen several times over the next few weeks.

The last word from any of them came in Karlan's July 8th phone call, but French authorities have learned that Dabord returned a rental car in Papeete on July 6th, paying with his brother's credit card, and flew out of Tahiti on July 20th. After being briefly questioned over the bungled gold transaction, he was released by Arizona officials and is known to have crossed into Mexico on September 10th. A week ago Mexican police found personal items belonging to Dabord in a Tijuana hotel room.

French authorities have confirmed that they are treating the disappearance as a murder investigation.

"I'm not putting any energy into trying to figure out what happened," Dele's and Dabord's mother Patricia Phillips told the Denver Post this week.

"It takes all my mental, spiritual, and emotional resources to handle every moment and get to the end of each day. I just know that something very dreadful happened in Tahiti - to both of my sons."