Ray Dolin was hiking across the U.S. when he was attacked and nearly died. At least that's what he said. His story quickly unraveled, but his real truth has never been told - until now.
This is a story about a lie.
In June of 2012, Ray Dolin set off hitchhiking across the country with his camera in hopes of capturing any evidence he could find of “human kindness in America.”
Dolin — a stout man of 45, with an easygoing personality and candid way of telling you he hasn’t always lived life like an angel — says the idea to undertake the journey came to him when he encountered a homeless veteran in front of a Walmart in his hometown of Julian, West Virginia.
The veteran was in his early twenties, and “troubled,” as Dolin puts it. Standing with his army duffel, he endured verbal abuse from patrons coming in and out of the store’s parking lot. Dolin says one driver slowed down just to yell “get a job.” A veteran himself of both the British and American armed forces, Dolin established an easy rapport with the young soldier, and insisted they get something to eat.
He learned the man had been hitchhiking from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to his home in Logan, West Virginia — a real “redneck shithole,” as Dolin puts it — only to find his belongings, bank accounts, and wife had vanished. Everything he owned was now hanging off his back.
Dolin had his own problems, but his homecomings were never so cruel. He was accustomed to the warm welcome of his father, Melvin, an Air Force man who met and married Dolin’s mother while on tour in England. She died when Dolin was young, so he and his father grew close. “I know two things in life,” he says, “that I’m going to die, and that my father loves me unconditionally.” Dolin extended that same compassion he had always received from his father to the young soldier. He bought him clothes and supplies for his journey — and handed over his last fifty dollars.
Dolin admits he isn’t the easiest person to get along with. At 24, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He takes his medications religiously, without a drop of alcohol – excepting a recent Champagne toast to one of his close friends, Sarah, whose wedding he photographed while serving as her “maid of honor.” His friends and family learned how to stand by through the ups and downs of what he calls his “brain problems.” Unfortunately for Dolin, the young vet’s callous reception in the “redneck shithole,” which seemed so disproportionate to him at the time, would become all too familiar in the coming month.
Dolin decided he would see for himself how the world outside of Julian was treating those who were down on their luck. He asserts he wasn’t trying to prove anything in particular by making his hitchhiking trip, only to pay homage to the young soldier, and bear witness to the small acts of kindness he was certain were happening in plain sight all across the country. After all, photography was one thing that made sense to him, and he was good at it. Written and spoken communication can be difficult due to his severe dyslexia, but he can make people laugh. His humor gets him far, as long as he is taking his “crazy pills.” So into the duffel they went, along with $200, his trusty camera, some MREs (meals ready to eat), a few changes of clothes, and a .22 caliber pistol for “protection and critters.”
On June 4, Dolin boarded a westbound bus in Charleston, West Virginia. He wanted to get a jump on his hitchhiking and gain some ground between home and adventure. His run-ins with “Kindness in America,” as he christened his project, began before he could even take a nap.
On the bus, a well-dressed preacher offered unsolicited and heartfelt blessings for his coming days. He met an Amish family in Indianapolis who waved the Bible at him as his only salvation, while an older woman dressed like Punky Brewster who “wasn’t all there” interrupted just to hand Dolin five dollars. Most people assumed he was homeless. He met a man on the road who had just gotten out of jail, who tried to give him $2.33, the only money he had, as well as the literal shirt off his back. Dolin said he encountered an outpouring of kindness from the poor of this country — particularly from the Native and formerly incarcerated population — and was met with general indifference from the “well-off.” Not many wanted their picture taken, but many wanted to help. He says he never accepted a dime, but would stay in people’s homes, make phone calls, and share a story or two at the dinner table.
On June 9, he made it to Montana. He found a place along Highway 2 that reminded him of a favorite spot in England, so he decided to rest for a sunset picnic.
The spot was near the Buffalo Country historic marker on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, outside Glasgow, Montana. While prepping his roadside meal of ramen noodles, he says a maroon pickup truck slowed in front of him and rolled down its window. Before he could blink, Dolin said he was shot through the shoulder. Then everything blurred. Dolin was surrounded by law enforcement and news crews, thrilled by the irony of his situation: “Man Shot While Pursuing Kindness In America” a British paper eagerly reported.
His pills were confiscated. His camera was confiscated. The digital storage card upon which all evidence of the “kindness” he encountered was confiscated. And because the incident took place on government land, the FBI turned up at the hospital to ask questions, as did “Good Morning America.” They were chasing down a story too good to be true. Turns out, it was.
Dolin made it up.
While it was true Dolin sought a quiet place for a picnic that afternoon, he failed to mention earlier that day he experienced one of his “funny feelings” — something he gets about once a year — which is a strong indication of the onset of a manic episode. The gunshot wound was self-inflicted.
For bipolar sufferers, manic episodes are known to span varying periods of time. Some last hours, weeks, months — even years. Bipolar sufferers find themselves in situations they wouldn’t wish on their worst enemy. Unfortunately, that “worst enemy” is usually themselves.
This was Dolin’s third suicide attempt. The previous attempt happened a year prior, when he tried to hang himself from a tree, but the branch snapped. He dislocated his shoulder, and faced the day-to-day reality of fabricating a reason for his injury. “I can’t even kill myself right,” he says, with his usual wry humor, though the shame and rage over what transpired in Montana is still evident in his face.
He says as he walked that day, all he could think about was the weight of his many failures, and he couldn’t take it anymore. “[The] line for me between life or death is so faint sometimes I can hardly see it. It’s truly easier for me to end my life than to live it, and other than calling it a mental illness, I have no idea why.” He asserts this faulty line or “veil” blinks in and out of existence even when he’s taking his medication. “It does not matter if you take your meds, maintain a healthy balance, and do all the things you should be doing,” he says. “At any moment, boom. You switch.”
He aimed his .22 at his heart, but when he pulled the trigger, he flinched. The bullet entered through the armpit of his blue t-shirt and exited through his shoulder. He says in the moments that followed, he was filled with an otherworldly embarrassment – an “oh shit” moment, if ever he had one, and the “veil” blinked back into place.
He tossed the gun as far as he could in an involuntary dismissal of what he had done. A woman drove by and found him bloody and scared. She attempted to stall the bleeding, and dialed 911.
So he lied.
He lied to cover up the fact he had made an attempt on his life. He lied because he couldn’t determine how he’d gotten to this point; almost two thousand miles from anyone he cared about, and fighting to stay conscious in an ambulance on its way to Frances Mahon Deaconess Hospital.
When pressed, he blurted out something about being shot, and said the driver of a maroon pickup truck was to blame. More questions were fired, so he said something about a middle-aged white man behind the wheel. “It all happened so fast,” he says. “At the time, I didn’t think it would hurt anyone.” He certainly never thought the police would make an arrest.
Lloyd Christopher Danielson III was picked up on June 13 — under the influence of alcohol, but otherwise minding his own business — making his way from Williston, North Dakota to work in the region’s oil fields. Danielson is Caucasian, 52, and happened to be driving a maroon pickup truck that matched Dolin’s description, but Dolin was unable to pick him out in a lineup, or identify his vehicle. The police reviewed the GPS in Danielson’s truck to determine his exact location at the time of the shooting. He was several miles west when it happened, at a rest stop, and a residue test revealed no firearm had been discharged inside his vehicle. After another search of the scene, they found Dolin’s .22 caliber pistol approximately 68 feet from where he was found, as well as some discarded bullets. Dolin’s story was unraveling fast, and it became apparent that an innocent man was in custody.
Dolin admitted to falsifying his report. He said his true intent was to kill himself, and at that point, he wished he had succeeded. Danielson was released, and his DUI charge dropped. After that, as Dolin puts it, the real “shit storm” began.
Most articles covering the incident assert Dolin shot himself as a publicity stunt in order to promote a memoir he was writing – a desperate attempt to salvage a miserable life and failing photography business. After reading these various reports, I felt there must be more to the story, and reached out to Dolin to arrange an interview. He agreed to meet me in person, and was able to connect me with friends, family, and former Army comrades who could speak to his mental history and character. Dolin also provided me with copies of his medical history in order to corroborate his bipolar diagnosis. This is the first time he has told his side of the story.
“They made it up,” Dolin says, in response to the articles depicting him as a self-serving publicity hound. “I shouldn’t have done what I did, but they made it up to make me look bad.” Not one report mentioned Dolin’s severe dyslexia or history of mental illness, but a cavalcade of damning reports propagated the publicity-stunt story while spreading the details of his hoax. Even the Daily Mail published updates, so his half-brother and sister, still living in the U.K., were well apprised of his humiliation.
Internet trolls had a field day wishing Dolin all manner of mortification. He received death threats via his Facebook page, which he called “One Shot Impressions,” the logo depicting the crosshairs of a sniper rifle. Some said the logo was evidence enough of his ill intent. Dolin says his girlfriend at the time was scared off by the negative publicity, and wrote to him in a letter: “I wish you had killed yourself, because you ruined my life…[I] wish you more success next time.” Dolin made his father and friends promise not to come to the hospital. He didn’t see the point.
In the hospital he tried once more to end it — this time with a razor blade. The scars he carries on both forearms are the size of large slugs: pink-gray and shiny. He begged the police to let him die, but “they knew it wasn’t Ray talking.” Dolin says he can only remember one of the officers’ names — Casey — and that his kindness will never be forgotten. He was tasered seven times, and eventually shot in the leg so he could be restrained. He was transferred to a VA hospital in Wyoming to get treatment, and make sense of what life would mean if he were released. He says it looked like his story would end “like a bucket of shit thrown off a roof.”
Dolin was charged with falsifying police reports, obstructing a peace officer, and tampering with physical evidence. He pled guilty to the two misdemeanors, but denied the felony charge of tampering with evidence. He received a deferred felony sentence of two-year probation and paid a $5,000 fine without jail time. His lawyers’ fees and fines totaled around $25,000, and he found himself in the same spot as the young vet he had met a month earlier — no belongings, no money, and no girlfriend to return to.
The incident made his small-town life in Julian feel even smaller, though he says he felt like he deserved it, for all the trouble he caused. He moved all around the Midwest after that, eventually settling in Washington State to work on a close friend’s cannabis farm.
Dolin has a new theory about his history with manic episodes. He says it’s possible his completing college was the result of one long manic episode, which puts some real perspective on his life. The highs or lows for every episode, he says, can be intense and lengthy, providing either chaos or focus, fear or bliss. The only thing he really fears is the possibility of an episode he can’t control. Control has become very important in his life, not only for himself, but those around him. He wants to keep his loved ones as far as possible from any emotional or “collateral damage” should another “funny feeling” come his way, wearing the face of chaos. Obviously long stretches of bliss are preferred. When asked if the entirety of the “Kindness in America” tour might have been the result of a “chaotic” episode, he fails to comment. But the next time he gets such a feeling?
“I can’t guarantee you will agree or understand. It’s impossible and not fair to expect [that of] people… Yes, having people who care and love you is important, but sometimes you will settle for some asshole who will just shut the fuck up and listen, and refrain from telling you it’s going to be ok, because the truth is it might not be ok. I’d rather hear, ‘fuck that sucks’ than some bullshit prayer [you’ve] heard a thousand times. I believe in ‘fight the good fight’ to a point, but if you don’t suffer from this shit, you will never realize how tiring that fight can be,” he says.
“One part of me is ‘fuck I didn’t go through all this shit just to off myself’ and the other part is ‘fuck it all, it’s overrated and I’m out.’ Which one prevails? Depends on what day it is. If you are in the middle of a full-blown episode it can be as simple as a toss of a coin, and yes I’ve done that. Twice.”
“Here’s something no one knows and I have never spoken of,” he continues. “That day in Montana was decided by a simple toss of a nickel. Heads I roll the dice one more time, tails I pull the trigger. Tails won, but I fucking flinched… So this is what I’m going to do [if it happens again]. It’s not some elaborate plan that will save me… [But] if I become so indifferent that I don’t care if I live or die, I will go off the grid and take my chances. Maybe I make it, maybe I won’t. But at that point, controlling the collateral damage as I see it…becomes priority.
“If it’s a good day, maybe I make it to the nut ward… There’s no science to overcoming this shit… It comes down to the simple fact of how much gas you have left.”
Or how much change is in your pocket.
Heaven knows there is enough kindness in the world to lend him a nickel.