On September 9, 2007, a line of 40 people snaked single file through the highlands of Papua, New Guinea. Native Kaiberem villagers, perched on mountain ledges above, watched the travelers make their way uphill. It looked like an entire small town was trekking toward them through the forest.
The villagers are a diminutive people dressed in grass skirts, necklaces filled with the bones of the dead, and headdresses of cockatoo, lorikeet, and parrot feathers. The natives can slip unencumbered along the muddy paths of the New Guinea highlands, walking dozens of miles without food or drink. To them, that line of travelers loaded down with video equipment and energy bars must have looked as ridiculous as a colony of ants lugging twice their weight in bread crumbs. Few of the villagers watching the procession that day had ever laid eyes on a white person.
When the strange party arrived at Kaiberem that afternoon, the visitors handed around unimaginable devices: flashlights and compasses, sunglasses, cameras, and watches that signified time in ways the villagers hardly understood. The Kaiberem people huddled and grinned for the first photos they'd ever posed for, waving tiny American flags. Hosts and guests sat down to a lunch of sweet potatoes, corn, and green beans cooked in an underground pit. Afterward, a village elder remarked that he was "happy to see a white face" before he died.
One of the white faces was Harvey Oyer III, a 39-year-old attorney from West Palm Beach. Tall, well muscled, with dusty reddish-blond hair, cool blue eyes, and translucently pale skin, Oyer was as great a novelty for the villagers as any flashlight or digital camera. The group Oyer had joined was a flag expedition mounted by the Explorer's Club; its purpose was to find and document remote Papuan villages in more than a month of walking.
Oyer was planning to interview all the Papuan people he could before their myths and histories were obliterated. And he could hardly move fast enough: The country was "crawling with missionaries," he wrote in his field report. The people he'd met in outlying villages were already reluctant to talk about the old ways: ancestors who flew from tree to tree, skull houses crammed with the bones of their fathers, sorcerers. The people of New Guinea knew they could trade their fresh Christian piety for medicine, clothing, and education. And communication wasn't easy: The natives spoke 400 separate languages.
Oyer was pushing into the heart of darkness for his own private reasons. The clay path he walked was slippery. Poisonous snakes known to strike a man dead lay hidden in the trees. He was damp, mud-stained, traveling through countryside the U.S. State Department had listed as "extremely dangerous." But with every step toward the remote interior of New Guinea, he moved away from a failed marriage, from the West Palm Beach law firm from which he'd just resigned, and from the tangled land deals he'd brokered.
Also receding in the distance behind him was the largest public corruption conspiracy to hit Palm Beach County in nearly a century. In an investigation that had spanned the previous 11 months, Oyer had been associated with crimes that had brought a Palm Beach County commissioner and one of the most powerful and well-connected lawyers in South Florida to their knees. Attorney Bill Boose and County Commissioner Tony Masilotti were headed for prison. With every step, the scandal and Oyer's own role in it grew dimmer, the embarrassing months of grilling by FBI agents and prosecutors, the late-night phone calls from reporters, the rumors whispered in the halls of the courthouse. Oyer had somehow slipped away from it all, a free man.
But few close observers, studying the pages of the court papers, could say just how Oyer had managed to do it.
Like the native people of New Guinea, Harvey E. Oyer III may be one of a diminishing tribe. Earnest, curious, intense, and learned, Oyer's a throwback to eminent Victorian gentleman scientists. He's a geeky hobbyist with prodigious, far-ranging interests: lawyer, historian, educator, cattle rancher, explorer, children's book author, civic leader, preservationist, advocate, archaeologist, ex-Marine. At 41, Oyer has already lived a brimming, Technicolored life. Handsome and solidly built, he's a regular in the society pages. He sits on dozens of boards. Oyer is a guy who delivers newborn calves in the barn at his 350-acre cattle ranch in Okeechobee County as easily as historical lectures to the Rotary Club. And he's inclined to list every calf and coffee klatch on his curriculum vitae.
He's as South Floridian as any gator or spoonbill. Five generations of Oyer's family have settled here. Great-Granduncle Charlie Pierce arrived as a boy of 8 in 1872 with his parents from Chicago and moved into an abandoned house in the scrubland south of Fort Pierce (the city named for a distant relative, Benjamin Pierce, brother of President Franklin Pierce). When Charles Pierce and his parents set up house, there wasn't another Caucasian living within 50 miles.