Zora, the Mega-Bullshit Detective — OR — How Kelly McEvers Got Had, Bad

(8/18/2018 Update: Literally thousands of people are finding this 12-year-old blog post thanks to Ira Glass and This American Life. Therefore, I need to update this post. If I’d heard the broadcast for the first time today, I’d probably not react to it as brutally. I’d probably post a link on Facebook and say something to the effect of “fake news” before moving on. I certainly harbor no ill feelings toward Zora. I do, however, believe more strongly than ever that it’s the job of professional journalists to seek out and report the facts of any given story. I feel McEvers failed to do that in this instance. If you’re still reading, please read all the way through and then the comments, where one of Zora’s associates has posted. Of course, I responded. Thanks!)

 

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(8/23/2018 Update: Because some people can’t be bothered to read all the comments, they can’t read, AND they expect me to be responsible for updating a 12-year-old blog post about a 17-year-old story with information didn’t happen until 2 years ago…this is why we can’t have nice things. Comments CLOSED.)

On Sunday afternoon, I was listening to KCRW, our local NPR channel, as I was driving to my Frenchman’s house. I was drawn into a story being told by journalist Kelly McEvers about an “international private investigator, a bounty hunter and bail bonds enforcer” named “Zora”, who had dreams since adolescence about being a superhero and made mega-lists of “things to master” by certain ages.

Zora claims that, by 21 years of age, she had finished her coursework for her Ph.D. in Geopolitics. She also claims that she had a list of skills to master by age 23:

martial arts
electronics
chemistry
metaphysics
hang gliding
helicopter and airplane flying
mountain climbing
survival
weaponry
rafting
scuba diving
herbology
CPR
first aid
mountain emergency medicine
throwing stars
compound bows
throwing knives

Kelly McEvers then says the following of Zora by age 23: “And the most incredible thing about all of this is that Zora accomplished nearly every item on the list.”

Huh?

Zora’s story doesn’t add up — not in minutes and years, and certainly not in finances. Zora claims her father is a professor at University of Minnesota. It’s possible if her father is a professor that she could have gotten her education for free, but U of M does not offer a Ph.D. in Geopolitics. How then could she afford, even with grants, her entire education in addition to helicopter lessons and archery equipment? Was her family rich? She doesn’t say, but it’s not likely if her father is a prof. These are very expensive sports. Also, my Frenchman is a Ph.D. from Princeton. He tells me stories of geniuses who finished their Ph.D. in three years. BUT…these geniuses are only good at maybe one other thing, not twenty.

Yet, McEvers never questions this. She lets Zora tell us a story — a fun story, one we wish were true — that is just flatly unbelievable, yet lets it lay as if it were God’s truth. It would be one thing if McEvers winked even briefly at the audience, letting us know that she knows it’s all a bit too much. But instead, she gives Zora wide berth to weave multiple unlikelihoods without anything but a gee-golly narration. (Zora missed her calling as a fiction writer, truth be told. But if she’s remotely as strong as McEvers claims she is, and she reads this, she might be inclined to hunt me down and kick my ass.)

To be fair, maybe McEvers took some liberties with how she pinned together a much-tamer story told by a somewhat adventurous person. Still, you’d think that she could, um, add.

I’m not sure why this bothered me so much this weekend. Maybe because this kind of “storytelling” in regular life causes too much heartache and hurt. Or maybe because journalism is already so problematic. The media is suffering so badly from credibility these days. Why exacerbate it, even for entertainment’s sake? Lord knows, we’ve got plenty of entertainment these days from other sources.

It turns out that McEvers story is dated February 23, 2001. Less than seven months before 9/11. She created a great many of these audio stories for NPR since then, and for subjects about the Middle East that I know far less about. As a diehard NPR listener, I wonder what I’ve really been hearing. And how much of it I can rely on…

20 Comments

  1. This American life doesn’t claim to be all factual. On their website it says not everything is true. Good story though right? I was all over it. So much so that I found your article.

    • Hey Josh! Thanks for stopping by and commenting. 🙂

      The original show wasn’t part of This American Life. If it had been, it would have given the story a better context, as you rightly point out. Here’s a link to “Audio Journal,” which originally featured the story:

      http://www.audiojournal.com/zora.html

      Thanks again!

    • Although, that said, This American Life has been in trouble before for not presenting totally factual information. In 2012 they had to retract an episode (I remember this well) about Mike Daisey. Check it out:

      http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/460/retraction

      Maybe they’ve changed their policy since then. Or maybe it’s okay because she’s only making statements about herself, rather than libeling a corporation. But TAL has held itself to journalistic standards in the past.

  2. Randall Alexander

    July 14, 2017 at 6:45 am

    Interesting. I have known and worked with Zora for about 15 years. She put herself through law school, while working full-time and recently passed the California State Bar, which can be verified online by her skeptics. BTW, the CA State Bar exam is the most difficult bar exam in the US. Zora is highly intelligent, yet very modest. It’s interesting that you write about the media suffering from a lack of credibility, yet you write this piece without citing any form of investigative journalism on your own, making this little more than a snarky waste of cyber space. I suggest maybe you meet with Zora and interview her yourself.

    • Hi Randall,

      Thanks for your comment. It gives me a chance to update my thoughts. I wrote this blog post over 11 years ago. In the years that have passed, do I regret being so acerbic? Perhaps. Had I written this post today, would I word it differently? Most definitely. (Although, today I might have simply posted a brief statement on Facebook and included the link, something you might not have ever found.) As for the rest, though, I stand by my initial skepticism and opinions of the story as reported by McEvers. It just leaves open too many questions, which I’ve already identified.

      I’m not an investigative journalist. Very few people are. Thanks to the First Amendment, Americans get to evaluate what the free press reports and express opinions about it without any journalistic training. And, lord knows, they certainly do. As evidenced by pretty much the entire Internet, one man’s waste of cyberspace is another’s thoughtful consideration of said reports. One thing I do know about investigative journalists is they don’t necessarily speak directly with the subject in question. Rather, they look for verifiable, objective evidence to back up or discredit claims. I can understand why: I’ve encountered plenty of people who are comfortable conveying contradictory statements — like the man our country elected president — without realizing that what they’re saying doesn’t add up.

      That said, I certainly do believe smart people can put themselves through law school, and I congratulate Zora if she’s done so. Since I’m married to an attorney and am friends with many others, I know what a feat that is.

      I’m sorry that you found my post upsetting. Since 1999, I’ve lived with people expressing opinions about me, my writing, and all else, which I may or may not have found kind. As an older, wiser author once told me, “The tallest trees get the most wind, but they also get the most sun.” I’m sure that, for every “windy” statement, the piece on Zora has also received lots of sun.

      Wishing you and yours all the best,

      Maria

    • How can we verify these claims without knowing her name? The code name is a brick wall for anybody attempting to verify the story which is a shame because McEvers didn’t bother when she had Zora as a captive audience.

  3. I tuned into TAL late this morning and came on line to learn more about the amazing Zora. I thought she sounded like a guy and that I may have missed that part of her bio. Only to find that she either totally remodeled her life’s house or simply made most of it up.

    Well, I never. Oh, wait. I did.

    As a story maker-upper (retired screenwriter) myself, I was still entertained and amazed by Zora’s stories. Back before I had done anything on my own, embarrassed at what a dud my life so far was, I used to lie like the proverbial threadbare rug. My “real” father was former race car driver Mike Nazeruck (back then, I knew how to spell it), I had been an NYPD cop, had a stratospheric IQ, and had once spent a revealing and cheerful evening with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor where we talked until dawn and I don’t know what all.

    I suppose this was some of my first “creative writing” in which I was the hero, the adorable mark, the fondly remembered, but mostly the worthwhile. Later as a genuine late-bloomer, I phased out the bullshit and started telling the truth (as I remembered it). Much of it can be found on my blog at http://achowpuppyinhollywood.blogspot.com.

    I wish I hadn’t lied so much but clearly somehow I needed it then. I wonder if Zora has come to this yet.

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Bill, and the link to your blog. Your perspective is a more compassionate way of looking at Zora’s story, and I appreciate it very much.

  4. I listened to the TAL podcast this morning on my way to work and experienced a certain level of incredulity too. But really most of the things on the list aren’t too hard to come by if you hit them at just an intro level. For example, a PADI open water diving cert costs a couple hundred bucks (with classroom time, equipment rental, pool time and open water dives) and depending on who’s teaching it, about two weeks of your time, I took a wilderness first aid class last year that was a week-long and cost about $80. That said, cost and time commitments go up if you go into any of them in depth or maintain currency after your initial training. (For example at basic VFR pilot’s license isn’t too hard, but if you go for IFR or go for a type rating then the bucks add up.)

  5. I’d love some evidence both for and against Zora’s claims. McEvers didn’t present evidence and didn’t seem to dig to verify claims, but this blog post urging caution only says the things Zora claims are difficult and therefore unlikely. What is Zora’s name? Are there public records of her getting multiple degrees by 21?

    I was captivated the story, but like others came away skeptical. I’ve met exceptional people so my mind is open.

    • Thanks for your posts, Jessica! This blog post doesn’t go further than that because you’d need her SSN to call the various universities to find out if she has those degrees. I used to work for a people search company that sold public records, and even they can’t tell you if someone actually has a degree. A private investigator can for a chunk of money because they have licenses that allow them to have access to sophisticated databases that do have that kind of sensitive personal information. OR…everyone could email This American Life and make them answer these questions, which was the point of my post. Here’s their contact page:

      https://www.thisamericanlife.org/about/contact-us

      Thanks again!

  6. Hi All,

    I think I may have an answer to the question of true or not. Doesn’t take much googling to find a full name, “Zora Colakovic”.

    Doing a google search of the full name does come up with this:

    http://www.cali-pi.org/index.php?option=com_community&view=profile&userid=27174947

    So, if that is her, then she is certainly an investigator and has a JD. I’m willing to bet that most of the other things she claims to have done is true as well. This being said, the concept of ‘mastering’ a skill could be very different to some people. Either way, the romanticist in me wants to believe in this.

    Cheers

    • Maria Alexander

      August 22, 2018 at 8:17 am

      Yup. I found that info a while ago, Jordan. But, look — just because two statements check out doesn’t mean that everything else is true. For example: I have a Wikipedia page. Whoever put that together (bless them) and edits it can only state what’s referenceable. If I go around telling everyone that I’ve *also* climbed Mt. Everest three times, mastered all string instruments, and worked for the CIA as un undercover spy in the local Russian mob, those statements stretch believability. I’d never assume everything was true just because you can find my books on Amazon and some articles about my awards. For me, that doesn’t stand the test of reason. So, two things are correct, one of which wasn’t true until only recently. That’s where believability ends for me, I’m afraid. The rest still just doesn’t add up.

      (Also, if you were googling, you probably saw that she sold the rights to her “life story” for a film.)

      • I agree. I would say some things have been exaggerated and a basic fact check doesn’t immediately prove anything, it simply shows that there is some fact to it. Plus, I’d like to believe it.

        You worked for the CIA? Wow! I shall update your Wiki accordingly.

      • Maria Alexander

        August 22, 2018 at 2:56 pm

        HAHAHAHA! Exactly. Actually, my father did work for the State Department in the 1950s, but he was part of the diplomatic corp to Greece. When he died a few years ago, I posted a scan of his passport. He used to give me stink eye whenever I’d tease him by saying, “Well, back when you worked for the CIA…” LOL.

  7. I, too, was drawn to this blog post after looking up “Zora private investigator” on my local interwebs search engine. I wish Randall (Randy) had provided a direct link to back up what he’s saying, but since he didn’t, I’ve had to look for it myself. It seems like there is a Zora Colakovic in California, but none of the details from The List could be verified. Oh well.

    http://www.cali-pi.org/index.php?option=com_community&view=profile&userid=27174947

    http://members.calbar.ca.gov/fal/Licensee/Detail/310396

  8. Here’s her Master’s thesis from Simon Fraser submitted August 1991.

    https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/56368026.pdf

    Says she has a BA from Mankato University, which jives with her father being a UM professor. TAL story says she completed her course work for PhD, but doesn’t say she defended. This story from a Tuscon newspaper, dated 1995, quotes Zora as having ditched her PhD for bounty hunting, while at Syracuse University–apparently around 1993. She was 23 at the time of the article’s publication.

    Apparently that’s Zora on the left:

    https://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-bounty-hunters-tombstone-zora-colakovic-daisy-cindy-shumate-dee-all-7455257.html

    Master’s by 1991 (age 19). So BA no later than 1989 (age 17?), assuming a 2 year Master’s program. Ditched PhD by 1993 for wilderness training (age 21), giving her two years to master the things she had yet to master by age 23.

    Sounds like an extraordinary person. I bet she finds being a lawyer really boring.

    • Maria Alexander

      August 22, 2018 at 2:31 pm

      Great work, Maize! Thanks for that. We need to keep in mind when looking at people’s stories (and I’m saying this to everyone) what can be verified, not what’s been merely claimed. I think this is all a really great exercise in examining evidence of claims, rather than just claims themselves. I’m going to put a question mark after the “bounty hunter” photo as it’s a stock photo for sale on Alamy. Stock photos can be anyone or anything.

      And, yes, I have it on good account that being a lawyer would be dreadfully boring. My husband would like to add that it also makes one a bad person, which is why he had to stop doing it. (He keeps up his MCLE’s, though.) I’m not sure about that, as I have many lawyer friends who are perfectly lovely, but that’s his experience.

  9. Guize, I think she’s real.

    https://www.tucsonweekly.com/tw/03-30-95/cover.htm

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