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Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Mercy killing after they became lost without water while camping in the desert
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: August 8, 1999
Date of arrest: Next day
Date of birth: 1974
Victim profile: David Coughlin, 26 (his best friend)
Method of murder: Stabbing with knife
Location: Rattlesnake Canyon, New Mexico, USA
Status: Sentenced to fifteen-years in prison, and suspended thirteen-years of the sentence as probation. Served 16 months. He was released in November 2001

David Coughlin was killed in 1999 in the desert of southern New Mexico, in the United States, after he and Raffi Kodikian got lost while hiking. Kodikian later pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and served 16 months. He was released in November 2001.

Rattlesnake Canyon

Kodikian and Coughlin, best friends since college, were in their twenties and lived in Boston, Massachusetts. Kodikian was an aspiring journalist and Coughlin was a traffic policy analyst.

In July 1999, the two set off on a road trip from Boston to California, where Coughlin planned to attend graduate school. On August 4, they arrived at Rattlesnake Canyon in Carlsbad Caverns National Park and made camp.

After days of hiking, the two became lost and dehydrated. Kodikian and Coughlin had only brought three pints of water and one pint of Gatorade. One pint of water was used to boil hot dogs during their first evening in the canyon. Although they had a topographical map, neither knew how to properly read it. The two took extreme measures, including licking rocks, eating cactus fruit, even drinking their own urine. Kodikian abandoned the idea of drinking his own urine after gagging.

The third night, Coughlin began vomiting, according to Kodikian. On August 8, Kodikian wrote in his journal:

"I killed & burried (sic) my best friend today. Dave had been in pain all night. At around 5 or 6, he turned to me and begged that I put my knife through his chest. I did, and a second time when he wouldn't die."

Lance Mattson, a park ranger who had been searching for the campers, discovered Kodikian badly dehydrated. When the ranger inquired about Coughlin, Kodikian pointed to a pile of rocks and replied, "I killed him."

Investigation and trial

Kodikian's attorney, Gary Mitchell, described the killing as an act of kindness. He further stated that it was part of a death pact between the friends and Kodikian intended to kill himself too, but was too weak to do so. Eddy County sheriff, Michael A. Click stated that Kodikian was "moderately to severely dehydrated," and wasn't close to dying when Mattson found him. Authorities further noted that Kodikian had buried Coughlin's body under rocks, some weighing more than 70 pounds. The weight of the rocks and the completion of the task seemed remarkable for someone seriously dehydrated. The autopsy on Coughlin revealed that while he was dehydrated, it didn't appear to be fatal.

While one theory was that Coughlin confessed to having earlier had a liaison with an ex-girlfriend of Kodikian, Sheriff Click sent Capt. Eddie Carrasco to Boston, but Carrasco discovered nothing.

"No one I talked with ever heard a cross word between them. They were the best of friends".

At his trial, Kodikian pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. During the sentencing part of Kodikian's trial, it became clear that Coughlin's vomiting was not indicative of severe dehydration but instead was most likely a reaction to unripe cactus fruit.

While Kodikian faced a possible maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, he was instead sentenced by District Judge Jay Forbes to 15 years with all but two years suspended, followed by five years of probation.

Further reading

Kersten, Jason. Journal of the Dead : A Story of Friendship and Murder in the New Mexico Desert


Hiker gets 2 years for stabbing

By Michelle Koidin -

May 11, 2000

CARLSBAD, N.M. - A 26-year-old hiker who stabbed his best friend to death in what he called a mercy killing after they became lost without water while camping in the desert was sentenced Wednesday to two years in prison.

Saying Raffi Kodikian poses no danger to society and that he is remorseful, state District Judge Jay Forbes sentenced him to 15 years but suspended all but a two-year prison term, to be followed by five years of probation. The maximum penalty was 20 years.

Kodikian pleaded no contest to second-degree murder Monday in the stabbing of David Coughlin, 26, of Millis, Mass. The killing occurred on their fourth day in the backcountry of Carlsbad Caverns National Park last August.

Kodikian, who listened intently as the judge announced his decision, told reporters after the hearing that he still believes he did the right thing.

"I feel that anybody in my position who would turn their back on their friend wouldn't have been deserving of coming out of the canyon in the first place," he said.

His lawyer, Gary Mitchell, who asked the judge for no prison time, said the sentence is "extremely fair," and he has not decided whether to appeal. Under the plea bargain, Kodikian retains the right to appeal the judge's ruling barring the defense from arguing before a jury that Kodikian suffered from "involuntary intoxication" brought on by dehydration at the time of the killing.

Forbes said Kodikian deserved to be punished but that a long sentence, as requested by the prosecution, was not necessary.

"He had a conscious and rational understanding of what he did at the time he murdered David Coughlin," Forbes said. "(But) Raffi's remorse is genuine; I don't question that."

Coughlin's relatives were not present but faxed a statement to prosecutor Les Williams, who read it in court.

"We can think of no reason why Raffi would have wished David any harm or pain," the statement said. "Moreover, we cannot presume to know what transpired, or the thoughts and emotions the two experienced during the days before David's death. To be sure, we have questions. However, we find it difficult to believe there was any malicious intent."

In his closing argument, Williams cited testimony from experts in dehydration, who said both men were dehydrated enough to be in pain, but Coughlin would have survived had he not been stabbed.

"Where there is life, there is hope. The defendant purposely took David Coughlin's life. ... David Coughlin would be alive today if Raffi Kodikian had not killed him," Williams said. "The law says you may not murder another person just because you think it's in their best interest."

Williams also cited Kodikian's testimony that he and Coughlin considered suicide, but the knife was too dull to cut Kodikian's wrist. Holding up the folding knife used to kill Coughlin, Williams said it was sharp enough, and the fact that Kodikian did not kill himself meant he had hope to survive.

"This defendant is not an evil person," Williams said. "He is not a bad person. But he did do a bad thing."

Defense attorney Mitchell, meanwhile, compared Kodikian's situation to soldiers in combat who know one of their friends isn't going to make it. He said Coughlin and Kodikian were "placed in an absolutely horrible situation of total hopelessness."

During the hearing, which began Monday, Kodikian recounted the moments that led up to the stabbing.

The men had stopped at the park during a trip to the West Coast, where Coughlin intended to pursue a master's degree in environmental science at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

They planned to camp in Rattlesnake Canyon for one night, then head back out the next morning. But they couldn't find the trail they took down, Kodikian said. He said they spent the next three days searching for a path that would lead them to the top. When they couldn't find one, they would return to their campsite in hopes they would be rescued.

They quickly ran out of water. After two days, with buzzards circling overhead and nothing to eat except prickly pear fruit, they discussed committing suicide. On the third day, Coughlin spent several hours vomiting mucus and bile, Kodikian said.

The next day, Coughlin, convinced the two would never be found, begged Kodikian to end his pain, Kodikian testified. He said Coughlin told him to get the knife and put it in his chest. Kodikian stabbed him twice.

During the sentencing hearing, the prosecutor asked Kodikian whether he knew what he was doing at the time.

"What I thought I was doing was keeping my friend from going through 12 to 24 hours of hell before he died," Kodikian said.


Murder Mystery In New Mexico

May 10, 2000

It's a normal rite of passage.  Every year students crisscross the country on their quest to higher education and seeking adventure.  Raffi Kodikian and David Coughlin were very close friends for a long time.  Heading west where Coughlin planned to study for his masters degree in California, they stopped at Carlsbad Caverns National Park for a one night stay in the desert.  What should have been fun in Rattlesnake Canyon turned into a four day hellish ordeal.  In the end Coughlin was dead, fatally stabbed to death by Kodikian who described the act as a mercy killing.

The two friends arrived at Carlsbad Caverns on August 4th of 1999.  Both were very intelligent but didn't have any desert camping or hiking experience.  They purchased a topographical map and hiked into Rattlesnake Canyon woefully unprepared with only three pints of water and one pint of Gatorade.  The next day when they went to hike out, their meager water supply already gone, they couldn't find the trail.  After a day of wandering through the desert they returned to their camp, exhausted, demoralized, and without food or water.

As the hours turned into days dehydration took it's toll.  Kodikian described the desperate measures they took to survive, including licking rocks, eating prickly pear cactus fruit, even drinking their own urine.  On the third night in the desert, the two were having cramps from dehydration and Coughlin spent most of the night throwing up according to Kodikian.  The next morning, with buzzards circling overhead and what seemed like no viable chance for rescue, Coughlin woke with an awful resolve and begged Kodikian to kill him.  The two argued and then making a suicide pact wrote farewell messages in a notebook to their families.  Kodikian stabbed Coughlin in the chest twice, the second blow piercing his heart.  Minutes later Coughlin was dead on the desert floor.  Kodikian cut his own wrists but claimed the knife was too dull to cause lethal wounds.  Hours later park authorities found a dazed, dehydrated and wounded Kodikian.  Coughlin had been buried under a pile of rocks.

Even before the helicopter lifted off of the ground to rush Kodikian to the hospital, park and local authorities were questioning his story.  Kodikian had buried Coughlin in a makeshift tomb of rocks, some weighing more than 70 pounds.  Quite the effort for someone who had cut their wrists and was dehydrated.  No one doubts that Coughlin was in pain, but was the request a reasonable one?  An autopsy revealed that Coughlin was dehydrated, but not fatally.

What of Kodikian's medical condition?  Doctors disagree but some experts say that his condition did not represent someone who had been without food and water for four days in the desert.  Park officials testified that Kodikian was coherent in the afternoon sun when they found him lying in his tent with only a pair of shorts on.  As far as the story of being lost, two trail markers were within view of the camp, no further than eighty feet apart.  Although Kodikian told authorities they climbed onto the ridge to try to find the trail or a road, park roads are clearly visible from the top of the ridges that surrounded their location.  As Kodikian received saline through IV at grizzly scene, he was handcuffed.

Kodikian recovered and returned to his native Pennsylvania.  Back in New Mexico, a Carlsbad grand jury decided to indict him on charges of second-degree murder.  Charges that in New Mexico could come with a twenty-year sentence.  On May 9th, the story came full circle.  Legal experts had advised Kodikian to plead temporary insanity due to dehydration.  However Kodikian struck a plea bargain and agreed to plead no contest to the charges.  By avoiding a trial by jury and putting his fate in the hands of a judge, he spared himself and his family the rigors of a trial, while leaving the door open for an appeal.

Over the next two days during the sentencing phase the Carlsbad courtroom heard chilling testimony of that fateful morning on August 8th in the New Mexico desert.  Prosecutors showed a video tape of officials removing the rocks from Coughlin's tomb, showing his shirt soaked in blood from a chest wound.  Kodikian had testified he buried his friend to prevent Coughlin's body from being eaten by the buzzards.  Park officials testified that Kodikian and Coughlin were only a half-hour walk from their car, and woefully equipped for desert camping.  Kodikian buried his head frequently and in shocking testimony described how he killed his friend.

Defense lawyers painted a different picture of two very close friends who were under emotional and physical distress during a camping trip that went incredibly wrong.  They criticized the National Park Service for the quality of the map and tried to convince the judge that their own inability to understand survival in the desert dropped them into a very extreme case of circumstance.  Medical experts testified how heat related panic has been documented for hundreds of years and that under the conditions Kodikian and Coughlin were suffering, could have very easily put them in a mental state where they would make very irrational decisions.  Kodikian's lawyers tried to show that under the same set of circumstances, any of us would have done what Kodikian had done.

On May 10th with family members of Kodikian and Coughlin present, Chief District Judge Jay W. Forbes sentenced Kodikian to fifteen-years in prison, and suspended thirteen-years of the sentence as probation.  Gary Mitchell, the lawyer for Kodikian, who softly cried when the sentence was read, described the sentence as fair.  It was not decided if an appeal would be made.

By not having a trial we may never know what happened those four days in the searing heat of the New Mexico desert.  Only two people know the complete and true story, and one of them has taken it to his grave, and the other will have to live with the events of those four days for the rest of his life.


Raffi Kodikian


Raffi Kodikian



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