The Strange Life and Mysterious Death of a Virtuoso Coder

Once untethered from his main source of stability, Haas swiftly succumbed to his worst impulses. His behavior turned increasingly erratic, and his body withered from lack of food. By the summer of 2017, his mother, Judith Wallace Huff, had become alarmed enough to intervene. She convinced her son to move, sans girlfriend, into a vintage camper on her remote 30-acre property. He white-knuckled his way through opiate withdrawal with only a patchy satellite internet connection to salve the pain.All was going well until the autumn chill set in. Haas complained that the camper, which lacked heat and adequate natural light, had the aura of a jail cell. One night after Thanksgiving, he ran off into the Appalachian forest and went roaming for days. He was eventually arrested for breaking into a backwoods church in an attempt to stave off frostbite, and returned to his mother's care. Haas would later claim that he'd had a profound spiritual experience while on his forest trek: He said he sensed a phantasmic deer alongside him as he hiked, and that the animal taught him “to walk in the world again.”
Wallace Huff knew her son was deeply unhappy in the camper, so in December she helped him move to Columbus, the place in Ohio where he seemed likeliest to find work. She rented him a furnished apartment and stocked it with groceries. When January came, however, Haas had to move into a homeless shelter. But he was finally sober and, despite his dismal circumstances, clawing himself toward something better. He sold loose cigarettes to other shelter residents and used a public library to send his résumé far and wide.
Haas' luck began to change when he met a woman at a coffee shop who invited him to stay at her apartment. This was Charles Ford's friend. Soon enough he was crashing with Ford, who in turn connected him with Etienne Fieri. Within four months, he was a cofounder of one of the most promising blockchain startups in Columbus. When he spoke to old acquaintances about his meteoric rise from vagrant to entrepreneur, he radiated clarity and joy. “It was the first time he'd been totally coherent since he went off to Ohio University,” says Mike Czarnecki, a childhood friend. “I was so happy for him, so happy I could almost cry.”

Wallace Huff keeps a photo of her son along with some mementos in her home in Ohio's Appalachian foothills. Photograph: Hana Mendel

She has pored over the file investigators assembled while looking into Haas' death.

Photograph: Hana Mendel
After returning to Warren County, the detectives assigned to the Haas case attempted to check out Charles Ford's bizarre story. The manager of the BP station where Ford filled his gas tank and bought snacks said there was no way the credit card system had malfunctioned for 45 minutes; 20 minutes was the absolute maximum downtime. The cops also talked to the clerk for whom Ford said he'd bought a double cheeseburger. She told detectives a man had offered to bring her food but never returned to the store.On November 7, police records show, the investigators called Judith Wallace Huff to see if she knew anything about her son's older friend, whose story seemed to be disintegrating. She told them she'd spoken to Ford in mid-September after Haas had been missing for two weeks and that she'd been struck by something he'd told her: He said that Haas would be discovered dead in a field. (Ford did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
That same day the detectives asked Ford to come to their headquarters in Lebanon, the seat of Warren County. They grilled him for hours about the oddities and inconsistencies in his statements, particularly the fact that he never once called Haas' cell phone after the day his friend vanished. The investigators told Ford they were certain this was because he knew Haas was already dead. But Ford countered that he'd seen Haas remove the batteries from his phone, as a way to avoid being tracked by satellites, so there would have been no point in calling him. (Haas used one phone for voice calls, one for the internet, and one as a PDA.)
The detectives tried to wheedle a confession from Ford by assuring him they'd understand if some calamity had occurred by accident—say, a heroin overdose that led to a hasty effort to dispose of Haas' body. “I think you're a good person, and I think you ended up in a really bad situation that there was no good answer to,” one of the interrogators said. “You tried to solve the situation as best you could, because you're a problem-solver, you're an entrepreneur.” But Ford could not be shaken from his denials, even when informed that a cadaver dog had perked up upon coming into contact with his Saturn.