At the time of the last census, in 2010, the combination of Nevada’s 11 lowest populated municipalities hovers close to 65,000. Accused rapist, brothel owner, and future deceased Nevada Assemblyman-elect Dennis Hof is still alive. Route 91 Festival has not been created. There is far more than has been recorded by the United States Census Bureau, far more than will be recorded here. This has nothing to do with Nevada’s counties, or their nascent demons, merely their statistics. The time frame and the population are useful markers. They supply an image to work with, a reality, something to break down.
So we take 65,000 people, 11 Nevada cities’ worth, and imbue everyone with a higher than normal probability of having contracted hepatitis. We shift to the first half of 2008. On March 13, Assemblywoman Susan Gerhardt says to the Sun, “We are in a crisis right now ... we need to make sure this doesn’t happen again. There are a lot of fearful people out there, a lot of angry people out there.” How far this incident spreads is uncertain. How many people may have contracted the disease fluctuates from source to source.
Six months previously, two cases of acute hepatitis C go unnoticed. In December, Health District investigators notice a pattern, and a third case is soon identified. The Outbreak Investigation Team discovers evidence of medical malpractice. Motivated by cost-cutting, nurses are instructed to reuse single-use syringes during colonoscopy procedures at the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada, on Shadow Lane. The number of those who could have been infected rises quickly.
The majority owner of the clinic, and prime suspect, is Dr. Dipak Desai. He will experience a series of strokes over the next five years that will continually delay his trial once the investigation reaches him. By 2011, Judge Valerie Adair will have reached her limit with these delays, calling Dr. Desai an “exaggerator.” Two other culpable figures, nurse anesthetists Ronald Lakeman and Keith Mathahs, will experience these delays along with the doctor, until 2013, when all three will be sentenced to prison. For Desai, life without parole; eight to 21 years for Lakeman; 28-72 months for Mathahs. In 2008, Desai is 59 years old.
With retrospection, the previous years serve as harbingers for events that have yet to pass. Memory forms a road, with 2008 and the years that precede and follow it dotted in the distance. We are all selective in what we individually continue to grasp as time moves forward. The past drains off into the gutter. There is a conviction that things will never be the same. This is how reliefs are made, with loss and what is left behind.
In March of that year, the new Palazzo has been open three months. The Sun begins its journey toward the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for a series of articles covering construction deaths on the Strip. In May, the Detroit Red Wings win the Stanley Cup for the fourth time, though hockey and its top prize bear no significance to Las Vegas yet. Obama speaks to a crowd of 18,000 at Bonanza High School in October, urging voters not to slacken their support. “What we need right now is a real debate about how to fix our economy …”
Through all of this and more to come, invisible structures arisen previously begin to collapse in the background. Nine million jobs are about to be lost nationwide. Corporate stock owners will lose trillions. Houses will drop in value. A new president approaches, is about to come into a weighty inheritance.
On memory’s road, you hear a familiar voice say, “How am I going to think that I'm going to rob somebody and get away with it? Besides, I thought what happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas." O.J. Simpson’s words are often poorest when in close proximity to an impending trial. His first since January 1995 begins on September 8, 2008. On the docket are 12 charges, including robbery, kidnapping, and assault. Simpson and his associates, he believes, were merely retrieving what was rightfully his, pieces of sports memorabilia held hostage in a Vegas hotel room.
What many describe as a “flurry” of media coverage ensues, complete with outlandish speculation, ballooning conspiracy theories, and renewed hope for what some see as long-delayed justice never served. There are documentaries about these things. What do you believe happened on the night of June 12, 1994, when Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were murdered? Does that belief extend to the night of September 13, 2007, when Bruce Fromon, a friend of O.J.’s, was robbed at gunpoint? There are always many of these nights. They pass in isolation before their significance coalesces at a later time. Somewhere in the valley, Dr. Dipak Densai sits amidst the uncertainty of his future. Meanwhile, Simpson appears on national television, yet again, flanked by lawyers.
“The Juice” has a flair for the coincidental. A book titled If I Did It, perhaps the most misguided of “hypothetical” projects, is published the same day as the robbery. It is a ghostwritten account of what might have happened to Ms. Simpson and Mr. Goldman had the safely acquitted O.J. indeed committed the murders. The Goldman family fought hard for control of this book, winning the rights after its initial publisher dropped it. They are the publishers of someone they believe to be a murderer and, as such, add Confessions of the Killer to the title. As Zadie Smith writes, “Every moment happens twice: inside and outside, and they are two different histories.”
No matter how one views it, this time around, Orenthal James Simpson is about to lose nine years of his life. It is the 4th of December. Simpson is 61 as the sentence is given, a minimum of nine years, a maximum of 33. “I stand before you today, sorry, somewhat confused.” The Lovelock Correctional Center, more than 400 miles outside of Las Vegas, awaits. O.J. will be 70 before he is eligible for parole.
Eighteen days later, on December 22, 2008, two years after breaking ground, the Encore opens at 8 p.m. A $2.3 billion endeavor aiming for a litany of prizes, including Mobil Travel Guide’s coveted five-star rating and the AAA Five Diamond Award, Steve Wynn’s attempt to recreate the success of the first Wynn namesake towers and curves towards a hopeful future. The man behind it all is 66.
Those who would seek some insight into and satire about this situation are free to rent the final installment in the George Clooney-led Ocean’s series, released the year before. It features an Al Pacino-shaped stand-in for Wynn named Willy Bank, a gaudy hotel named The Bank, a coveted five-diamond award, and the imagination to believe someone with their own name suspended by steel and concrete and glass hundreds of feet in the air could be taken down a peg in this city, instead of promoted.
Facing construction setbacks, Pacino’s Willy Banks says, “I don't want the labor pains. I just want the baby!” Facing sexual misconduct allegations in 2018, famously cantankerous Steve Wynn says, “We find ourselves in a world where people can make allegations ... It is deplorable for anyone to find themselves in this situation.” But this is only 2008, so Wynn’s spirits are high. Elsewhere, the valley watches as a deflated Christmas approaches. The temperature hangs around 46 degrees. Days ago, a snowstorm, the eighth largest in Las Vegas history, brought in a mere 3.6 inches.
We often don’t examine the past; memory’s road seems as if it has never carried the weight of a single car, the darkness beyond expansive, shrouding snakes, coyotes, and a desert that settles deeper into the night. Until now, at least, when I have left the door open, the engine running, for anyone who wishes to see what has yet to be swept away between now and 2008.
There are undercurrents in this account, if you want them, of justice, or a lack thereof, of events unprecedented but somehow unsurprising, of time and what we try to glean from it. What do you see? I see these three men loom large in the valley, so bloated by ego, narcissism, and self-righteousness that they are too large to fit into the gutter.
Dr. Dipak Desai will die in prison at the age of 67, 14 years before he is eligible for parole. O.J. Simpson will be released from prison the same day as the Route 91 shooting, at the beginning of another decade of life, after meeting his minimum. And not long after, Steve Wynn, unable to curtail the weight of the allegations against him, will step down as CEO of his company, and as finance chairman for the Republican National Committee.
There is a sentiment often given in the wake of disaster to understand what went wrong, to know who is responsible, and in a characteristically American sense, speculate as to what punishment will be adequate. But there are two histories, always: the one we live through, and the one we attempt to organize into a meaning we can hold.
It is a mistake to believe that the past decays as soon as you look away. It stretches on no matter if you look at it, like the road you stand on, and though it may feel timeless, that road has been built. The materials used are vital, as is the motivation given to animate them, as is the balm we provide when a failure without solution strikes.
In 2015, after a prolonged silence regarding the hepatitis outbreak, Dr. Desai offers the judge the same statement so many guilty but ultimately well-lived and privileged people give before they evaporate from the wreckage they’ve caused. He tells the judge, “I’m sorry, sir.”