Editor's Note: Sam McManis takes over the thrice-weekly Contra Costa column from John King, who becomes The Chronicle's urban design writer. King's column on the new Ritz-Carlton resort is on Page One today. McManis, 41, has written columns and features for The Chronicle's Friday sections for three years. He has also been a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and a columnist for the Contra Costa Times.
Four nights a week, to wild applause and squeals of shock, he lies in the dirt and lets a 3,000-pound buffalo crush his chest. He sits astride the rampaging beast and soars through rings of fire. Toting .45-caliber rifles, his posse deftly shoots objects out of people's mouths.
At show's end, Collin "T.C." Thorstenson doffs his cowboy hat to bask in the approval of an adoring audience at the Rawhide Wild West Town in Scottsdale, Ariz. Folks cheer, they fawn, they pose for photos with him.
"People absolutely love his show," said Rawhide publicist Dawn M. Sullivan. "T.C.'s very popular." 
But he also occasionally hears the whispers, the vicious gossip, the scurrilous accusations that he had something to do with the death of Orinda newspaper heiress Margaret Lesher nearly four years ago at a remote lake outside of the couple's Scottsdale ranch. 
He hears the talk, but he chooses to tune out. Keep smiling, keep showing off his beloved buffalo, Harvey Wallbanger Jr. The show, you know, must go on.
"You got to get on with life," Thorstenson said in his first extended interview with a Bay Area reporter. "Things happen that are major, you still got to make a living. They're trying to throw s-- into my face all the time when what they say never happened."
If Thorstenson were to come back to Contra Costa -- where he is considered, in some social circles, as the male version of Anna Nicole Smith -- he'd hear a lot more than whispers about his six-month whirlwind marriage to Lesher, 25 years Thorstenson's senior.
Though the Maricopa County sheriff long ago ruled Lesher's death accidental,
and authorities say Thorstenson never was a suspect, some still point a finger at the widower.
These are people who crave neat and tidy endings, who want the closure only a criminal conviction would bring. To them, Thorstenson is the logical choice as the villain. He gained more than $5 million of Lesher's $100 million estate after her death. He was, remember, with her at the lake in the early-morning hours of May 14, 1997, when she disappeared. And he, in the minds of Lesher's relatives, never came off as sincere in the grieving-husband role.
"There's no one in this county who thinks my mother's death was an accident, " said Wendi Alves, one of Lesher's four daughters. "I mean, come on, I hear he sought out somebody like my mother. That's all I can say. My attorney doesn't want me to make any accusations. But I think the entire community thinks he had something to do with it."
Vanity Fair and People magazines have long since moved onto other scandalous celebrity deaths, ones with easily identifiable villains. Even "Hard Copy" dropped its weekly leering into the Lesher lives after Thorstenson was cleared.
In upscale Scottsdale and opulent Orinda, though, curiosity lingers. Thorstenson, 43, knows it and accepts it, but doesn't like it one lick. He sees himself as an O.J. Simpson figure, forever dogged by the taint of his wife's death. The major difference, he quickly notes, is that he never was arrested or even was officially a suspect in the investigation.
"There are some people who, every time they hear my name, think I had something to do with it," Thorstenson said. "They talk behind my back -- the reporters, the people up (in Contra Costa). It's a sorry situation when something like that happens.
"I'm a little bitter, to say the least. Unless you lose somebody you love, you probably won't ever understand how I feel. Picture something happening to your wife or kids and then have to (watch) people coming after you like you did it when you were 100 percent innocent. Wouldn't that put you in a defensive mode?"
Thorstenson and his bison haven't appeared in Northern California since 1998. These days, he works quietly at the 17-acre Scottsdale ranch he inherited from Margaret after an acrimonious out-of-court estate settlement with the Lesher children. He has an exclusive engagement, Thursdays through Sundays, to perform at the Rawhide Wild West Town in Scottsdale.
Rawhide is sort of a cowboy's Disneyland, and Thorstenson is its E-ticket ride. T.C.'s act is described on Rawhide's customer phone line as featuring "six-gun spinnin', cowboy mounted shootin', bullwhip crackin' and buffalo ridin' " fun.
Perhaps part of Thorstenson's appeal is the cowboy-widower storyline. Then again, it could just be his charismatic bison. Regardless, T.C.'s 15 minutes of infamy seems stuck on 14:59.
"You think I'm rich, but I work," Thorstenson said. "What's wrong with smiling and enjoying how you make a living? I personally guarantee that if anyone doesn't enjoy the show, I'll give them their money back. Not a single person has asked.
"People ask to come on down and have us shoot stuff they hold in their teeth. Between me and you, we know who we're picking out of the audience for that. It's important to have people who'll stand still while you shoot."
Trust him. Thorstenson certainly knows how to pick 'em.