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In Prison, The Passion That Drove A Yogurt-Maker To Arson Still Burns

A few weeks ago, I went back to the federal prison in Seagoville, Texas, for another conversation with Edgar Diaz.

Diaz, you may remember, is the yogurt-obsessed entrepreneur whose story appeared here in The Salt last year. He had built a small, award-winning company in Dallas called Three Happy Cows. It was losing money, though, and when a new set of investors took over and ordered changes, Diaz felt betrayed and dispossessed. In a fit of anger and paranoia, he set fire to his own yogurt factory, destroying it.

I returned to the prison for another look at the Three Happy Cows story, this time as part of a collaboration with Gimlet Media and its StartUp podcast. The episode launched last week.

In some ways, the story hasn't changed that much from a year ago. Diaz remains in prison. His account of the events leading up to the arson is pretty much the same as a year ago.

In other ways, though, we got a whole new perspective on the Three Happy Cows drama. Bruce Wallace, a producer with Gimlet, and I spent time with Diaz's wife, Diana Ocampo, and their younger daughter, Michelle, riding along with them as they drove to visit Diaz in prison.

One of my favorite moments was hearing Ocampo describe how she studied the contents of refrigerators in the houses that she cleaned, in upscale Dallas neighborhoods, looking for clues to what those people liked to eat. It was a world far removed from their social circle of Latin American immigrants. She compared what she saw in those houses with, for instance, the labels on her husband's yogurt. She thought to herself that the Three Happy Cows label looked too cheap and gaudy.

"And I say, 'I don't see those labels in those refrigerators. Improve that label,' " Ocampo told us. "And I say, 'Edgar, less sugar, less calories, because they always want to be in shape.' That was my help!"

Wallace and I were able to obtain documents that gave us a glimpse of the mood at Three Happy Cows as it headed toward disaster. There was, for instance, the employment contract that the company's new investors and future owners offered to Diaz. On the first page, in the top left-hand corner, there was a handwritten note in capital letters: "NO!" It was Diaz's response to the employment offer. He wanted a share of ownership instead.

Emotionally, Diaz and Ocampo appear to be less distraught, and more settled, compared with a year ago. And 9-year-old Michelle sounded like any other girl her age as she called the prison's dress code for visitors — pants have to be below the knees — "insane, especially in summer!"

Just a few days before we visited, Diaz had received an intriguing letter. It came from a Texas dairy that once had supplied milk to Three Happy Cows. It was exploring the idea of getting into the yogurt business, and asked whether Diaz would be interested in working with them.

Ocampo told us that when she visited her husband in prison, he spent much of the time talking about what might be possible, working with that dairy.

"I just let him talk," she told us. "You know, like, dream about it. Like, nothing of that is for real. It's just, like thinking aloud, I guess? He's dreaming. He's dreaming already. And this letter makes him, like, dream more."

Diaz won't walk out of the Seagoville prison for three more years. So Ocampo is right — this is not "for real." But it's real enough that it gives him something to focus on.

He can't do the thing he loves right now. He can't mix the milk and the bacteria, tap the container to see if the yogurt has set just right. But imagining it, planning for a time when he can do it again, gives him something to hold on to.

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