Narratively

The Man with the Golden Airline Ticket

My dad was one of the only people with a good-for-life, go-anywhere American Airlines pass. Then they took it away. This is the true story of having—and losing—a superpower.

The Man with the Golden Airline Ticket

On March 10, 2009, a case was filed in the U.S. Circuit Court for the Northern District of Illinois, where I grew up. Rothstein v. American Airlines, Inc. starred my father, Plaintiff Steven Rothstein, and the Defendant, then the world’s third-largest airline. With $23 billion in annual revenue, American Airlines had nothing to lose. For my father, it was a last-ditch effort to save his life.

Here’s how it all took off. In the early 1980s, American rolled out AAirpass, a prepaid membership program that let very frequent flyers purchase discounted tickets by locking in a certain number of annual miles they presumed they might fly in advance. My 30-something-year-old father, having been a frequent flyer for his entire life, purchased one. Then, a few years later, American introduced something straight out of an avid traveler’s fantasy: an unlimited ticket.

One of the many designs that American used for AAirpass. These cards were coveted more than gold. (All photos courtesy the author)

In 1987, amidst a lucrative year as a Bear Stearns stockbroker, my father became one of only a few dozen people on earth to purchase an unlimited, lifetime AAirpass. A quarter of a million dollars gave him access to fly first class anywhere in the world on American for the rest of his life. He flew so much it paid for itself. Often he’d leave in the morning for a business trip, fly back, and I hadn’t even known he’d left. Other times, I remember calling his office to find out what country he was in. He (and our whole family) was featured on NBC’s Today Show in 2003, and then on MSNBC in 2006. For 20 years, he was one of American’s top fliers, accumulating more than 30 million miles, which he acquired every time he flew, even with the AAirpass.

Then, on December 13, 2008, American took the AAirpass away.

For several years, the revenues department at American had been monitoring my father and other AAirpass holders to see how much their golden tickets were costing the airline in lost revenue. After 20 years it seems, they’d decided the pass wasn’t such a good idea. My father was one of several lifetime, unlimited AAirpass holders American claimed had breached their contracts.

out loud banner

Subscribe:

A few months later, my father sued American for breaking their deal, and more importantly, taking away something integral to who he was. They fought out of court for years. The story became front-page news. The LA Times. The New York Post. Fox News. A slew of online outlets. It’s even a perennially popular conversation topic on Reddit.

The obvious story is that my father was a decadent jet-setter who either screwed or got screwed by American; depends on your take. In the coverage, whether he’s mentioned by name or in off-handed attributions to ostentatious wealth, it’s always this: sensational. And I think — as does my whole family, including my dad — that at the very least, it doesn’t quite land.Part 1. Prepare for Takeoff

Legend goes, upon bringing me to O’Hare Airport as a baby, my father said, “This is daddy’s playground.”

Dad has loved to travel for his entire life. His father, Josh, was a navigator in the Army Air Corps during World War II, and ran a company that manufactured paper and artificial flowers, traveling worldwide and telling stories about the places he went.

“When I was 9,” Dad tells me, “we went to Denver. When he left in the morning to go on his business appointments, he said to me: Stay at the pool, charge your lunch to the room, and I’ll see you at dinnertime. Make sure you have your tie on.”

At 16, while his younger brothers were at sleepaway camp in Maine, Dad’s parents took him on a three-and-a-half-week trip: New York–San Francisco–Honolulu–Kamuela–Tokyo–Nagoya–Osaka–Okinawa–Taipei–Hong Kong–Calcutta–Karachi–Tehran–Rome–Florence–Nice–London–New York.

Left: Dad with his mom in Hawaii on his first around the world trip. He was 16, circa 1967. Right: Dad, on the phone, and his colleague at the company’s booth at a wallets and clothing trade show in Los Angeles, circa 1973.

“I began to taste, directly, the fervor of foreign travel,” he tells me. “I felt as at home in Copenhagen or Paris as I did in New York. … I was a child of the world.”

He wrote his college application on a typewriter at a hotel beach in Hawaii and mailed it from a post office in Osaka, Japan. In college he worked for a travel agency helping students book standby flights at low fares ($6 on American from JFK to Providence), which he utilized himself. “I was on my own and could go anywhere at a moment’s notice,” he reminisces. He flew to Europe several times a year and went to live there after graduating in 1972.

That December, he joined the wallet business — a company my grandfather had purchased — doing sales. He had an apartment in Manhattan on East 89th Street, but mostly, he was at the wallet factory in Oklahoma, or traveling, both for work and play. On the weekends, he’d rush to Houston, Dallas, Wichita Falls, Mexico City or Acapulco, then back to work on Monday.

“Steven got on a plane like most people get on a bus,” says my mom, Nancy Rothstein, who was married to my father for 36 years. “The thought of him going to L.A. from Chicago for the day, or Tokyo from Chicago overnight, or London overnight, for one night … was not unheard of.”

Transitioning to finance, Dad moved to Chicago in 1976 for a stint at Smith Barney, and according to him, became the second highest-grossing stockbroker at Bear Stearns in 1979, where he worked for a decade. Later, he focused on investment banking, and also became the largest shareholder of the financial corporation Olympic Cascade, the holding company of a brokerage firm, National Securities. Through it all, he continued flying. Everywhere. Airports and airplanes — they were who Dad was.

When American started the AAdvantage program, Dad and Uncle Shelly (Mom’s uncle and one of Dad’s best friends and business associates) began flying even more than they already did. Then, having the cash after a good year at Bear, the investment in an unlimited pass made sense.

Dad speaking at an event, organized by American Airlines’ public relations team, where he was asked to donate miles for kids with cancer, circa 2000.

In September 1987, five months after my brother, Josh, was born, and three months after we moved from downtown Chicago into the north suburbs, Dad bought his unlimited lifetime AAirpass. The cost was $250,000, which the agreement stated was based on his age. My father was 37 years and four days old when he dated the check.

Two years later, which was one year before my younger sister, Natalie, was born, he added a companion feature to his AAirpass, allowing him to bring another person along on any flight. The cost was $150,000, based on his being 39 years old. This changed the game, not only for him, but our entire family.

Ernie Thurmond, a former American employee who handled Dad’s AAirpass contracts, helped with adding some special stipulations. My parents decided early on to take separate planes so that in the unlikely event of a crash, at least one of them would be alive for their three children. So the agreement amendment stated, “If spouse is the companion, the spouse will be allowed to travel separately from Holder, provided that the spouse travels on the flight immediately prior to or just after the flight taken by Holder.” My parents wouldn’t fly together on the same plane for at least a decade after that.

Officially a customer for life, major U.S. and global hubs became Dad’s office; American became his home. He knew every employee on his journey — from the curb, through security, to the gate, and onto the plane.

In the early 1990s, Dad found his go-to agent at the American Airlines Platinum desk: Lorraine Cross from Raleigh, North Carolina. None of us has ever met her in person. But Lorraine was family. Her Southern lilt, a speakerphone staple at the dinner table. While my father befriended dozens and dozens of American employees throughout his tenure as one of their top fliers, and while we knew plenty by name, and vice versa — from skycaps to Admirals Club employees to people who worked at the ticket counter — no one played a role quite like Lorraine.

Lorraine and Dad became fast pals. Over the next decade-plus, he’d send Lorraine — and others at Platinum — postcards from Maine when he took us to sleepaway camp, menus from restaurants around the world (which I watched him take and put in a monogrammed L.L.Bean tote bag more times than I can count), and magazines from foreign airport lounges. Lorraine loved receiving these; she’s even kept the postcards after all these years.

She says they shared inside jokes — a lot. “Every time I talked to your father, as we would close the conversation — I’m Southern — I would always say, ‘Bye now.’ … That was my closing. He would say, ‘Pay later.’ Caroline, we used to laugh all the time.”

Lorraine and the other Platinum desk employees he spoke with over the phone weren’t his only pals. Recently, Dad described himself as being “like an adopted child.” American — and its employees — were his parents. He knew — by name and phone number — the skycaps at O’Hare, LaGuardia, JFK, Heathrow, LAX; the people at the front desk at the Admirals Club predeparture lounges; flight attendants on hauls he frequently flew (I once got on a flight with him and the flight attendant recognized him from mere days prior); the gate attendants; and the folks who drove the carts from security to the gate, like Aamil.

Aamil — whose name I’ve changed because we are no longer in touch with him and I want to respect his privacy — was a refugee who fled the Bosnian genocide with his family. Dad met Aamil when he was in high school, driving a cart at O’Hare, and took him under his wing — errands and various paid-for-hire tasks. Ultimately, Aamil started coming over for dinner; picked us up at school; became Josh’s “big brother” ears for his dating rendezvous as he entered high school; and was both an employee and a dear, dear friend.

“He was gracious and kind in a way you don’t see in a lot of people,” Lorraine says, recollecting the time Dad helped fly some priests to Italy to see the Vatican, or when Mom called her from the local Gap to use miles to help a sales clerk visit her mother out of state, which she couldn’t otherwise afford.

Dad gifted the miles and upgrades he accumulated throughout his life — both before and during his AAirpass tenure — to dozens and dozens of people over the years. Once he upgraded my cantor and his wife to first class from Amsterdam. He regularly let relatives and people in crisis come along in his extra seat. There was the time he took my brother’s best friend on his first airplane ever to see a football game; the American Airlines employee he saw in India, crying because she might lose her job if she didn’t make it to Toronto; his brother and sister-in-law for their honeymoon; a guy from college and his wife who really wanted to go to Australia; a man in the back office at National Securities, who wanted to visit his dying father (he got there just in time). He helped get other people where they needed to go.

“Your family’s heart is as big as the state of Texas,” Lorraine says. “It’s incredible how many lives they touched and how many lives touched them because they’re very sensitive and attuned to what goes on in the world.”

I’m not saying Dad was a saint. Just that his AAirpass was about more than solipsistic travel. It allowed him to build relationships. Make connections. Form meaningful bonds. And it allowed other people to access the world like he did. That’s what Dad’s AAirpass and ultra-elite flying status yielded for him: lifelong bonds.

On January 13, 1998, American Airlines CEO Robert Crandall wrote my father a letter after they’d seen each other on the Concorde (a transatlantic supersonic aircraft, which traveled twice the speed of sound, and operated from 1976 to 2003; I flew it once).

At the end, Crandall (whom I met as a kid on an inaugural flight) wrote: I am delighted that you’ve enjoyed your AAirpass investment — you can count on us to keep the Company solid, and to honor the deal, far into the future.Part 2. Fasten Your Seatbelts

My friend Phil likes to say my father ran his life like a corporation and raised me in it. His underwear was pressed. UPS and FedEx came nightly to our driveway to drop things off, pick things up. He had packing down to a science — sets of clothes folded and fitted into plastic cases, cosmetics ready to go. We had a whole suitcase closet in the basement, and at some point, he turned the downstairs guest room into a staging area for packing, his clothing and cosmetic sets stacked in laundry baskets.

“They sort of broke the mold when they made him,” says Mom, who — after an earlier career also in finance — is now a sleep expert and sleep consultant.

He stored everything he collected while traveling in the basement — hotel soaps, shampoos, conditioners; his thickened old passports; towels; shirts; hairdryers and combs from around the world — in what we called his “Secret Room,” which had a lock, the key hidden in his office desk. A fun party trick was bringing people inside — his business associates, my siblings and my friends. Sometimes we used the items ourselves. Often, we gave things away. After Hurricane Katrina, Dad and I flew down to New Orleans with boxes of clothes and toiletries. When he went to India (twice as a family, several times he alone for work), he brought things along. Like travel, for Dad, the Secret Room was an extension of souvenir collecting as a kid.

Dad eating on an international flight, circa 1996.

As a kid myself, I often complained about Dad’s excessive traveling. I used words like “abandonment” and “neglect.” In retrospect, that was wildly dramatic. But it’s how I felt.

“No matter where Steven went, there wasn’t a day we didn’t talk,” Mom says. “Some men are home every night at 5:30 from the office, but they’re not really there. Steven Rothstein was there.” She emphasizes there with a deep, grinding grunt. “Whether he was in the house or out of the house, he was very involved. He was very much there. And always in touch. I mean, he used a phone … he was one of the first people with a cell phone.”

She’s right. Most of my life, I focused on how Dad was always on a plane. When I think about it now, when he was home, he was there: sitting with me on my bedroom floor, or at the dinner table, or coming in to kiss me goodnight. He has a presence. Not only a loud voice, but also a boom of self. He arrives. He is both taking off and landing at once.

“He never missed an opportunity to come home to the family,” Lorraine says. “I don’t care where he was going. I don’t care what he was doing. If there was a chance he could come home and stay with his family overnight, he preferred that to any hotel in the world.

“I really valued and appreciated that from him,” she says. “His family meant the most. I would say, ‘That’s a long way to go, are you gonna overnight and come back the next day?’ He’d go, ‘No, I wanna sleep in my own bed. I wanna go home. I wanna be with my family.’”

I laugh, tears in my eyes. I didn’t know this.

“That was crucial to him, to be with his family,” Lorraine says. “He did some crazy stuff to make that happen over the years.”

Dad was an airport celebrity, and when we traveled together, it embarrassed the shit out of me. Like riding a cart from security to the gate (because as a family, we ran late — Dad has a knack for rushed arrivals). I would bow my head so I couldn’t make eye contact with anyone we passed. Or walking into the Admirals Club locations and having the folks at the front desk know us by name, which was really kind, but also like … I was a kid.

Or when in second grade, he took me to Japan for the weekend because he wanted me to experience an inaugural flight (San Jose to Tokyo). We were in the bulkhead, the first row of any flight cabin. As we landed, there were reporters flooding the jet bridge to photograph the first person off the flight. Technically, based on his seat, that was Dad. But as he figured out what was happening, he insisted I go first so I could be the star. I stood there with my 7-year-old smile, bright-colored headband, and long V-neck Limited Too sweater hanging down to my thighs.

I was mortified. But Dad wanted us to experience absolutely everything there was in life.

He wanted to take me to all 50 states by the time I was 11. We put a big U.S. map on the wall behind his home office desk. After each trip, I’d add a pin to the visited state; another for the places I wanted to go. When we’d gone to 30-something states, I asked to stop; I wanted to be able to have new adventures as an adult.

You grew up with a different lens than most people you knew,” Mom says. “I’m not saying … that other people didn’t travel all over the world. But I sort of doubt, for the most part, they had the kind of wanderlust and open-mindedness and fascination that your father had with the world, and still does for that matter.

“I think it’s a beautiful thing,” she says. “I remember saying, at some times … to Steven … are we taking away [their] future experiences by showing you so much so young? But looking back, if it were [me], I’d much rather have had this global exposure as a child than waiting until I was an adult. Wouldn’t you say it framed you?”

“Yes,” I answer.

“Not only framed you,” she adds, “but it helped with your, your tapestry. It was woven into your tapestry. Into the fabric of who you are, and how you look at other people and the world.”

I understood the weight and privilege as a kid. I understood — we all did — that the AAirpass meant my father could travel and do business in unprecedented ways, and it allowed our entire family to travel in ways few people on earth could. We got the privileges, all of them, all of us.

I ask my sister, Natalie, a psychotherapist living in Chicago, her earliest memories of traveling on an airplane: landing in Australia at age 3, walking down the aisle as the plane was still moving, and someone grabbing her to keep her safe. “I think I remember that because it was really dramatic,” she says. “I have a lot of vivid memories from that trip, actually.”

“Were you aware that we were in first class?” I ask.

“I didn’t sit out of first class until I was 12 years old,” she says. “I don’t know if I was aware when I was 3 years old. But I was aware very early.”

Left: Me, Natalie, and Josh with Misty, a teacher from our elementary school, who came with us on the family trip to Australia over winter break, December 1993. Right: Part of a collage made by Mom with a photo of the five of us: Mom, Dad, Josh, Natalie and me in Sydney, Australia, December 1993.

Wont to interrogate privilege — race, class and otherwise — I pry. Did she really get that first class was different than the rest of the plane?

“For a long time, I really wanted to sit in coach,” she says, “because I felt uncomfortable being a kid in first class when it was clearly where all fancy adults were sitting. It was clear I was surrounded by mostly people who had a lot of money, and I was always one of the only kids in first class, and that felt weird and I always wanted to be with other kids in coach.”

“Did you ever talk about it with Josh?” I ask.

“Mm-hmm,” she says. “We wanted to sit in coach together because we felt like we had to be quieter and better behaved in first class and like we weren’t allowed to joke around as much, and also for him, he hated that first class had peanuts. At that point, airlines didn’t serve peanuts in coach the way they sometimes do now.”

That trip to Australia (I was in fifth grade) was our first big international family vacation. The following year, Dad, on a whim, said to Mom — let’s go to Tokyo.

“Japan!” she said. “Over Christmas? Are you kidding?”

But we went.

Mom can still perfectly picture us all at dusk in Tokyo: “Dad has on his camel coat. You and Josh are in all the black-and-white-check stuff. We’re walking through an aisle of stalls … going to yet another monastery or shrine and the flavors that we felt and saw and tasted … it was probably one of the best Christmas vacations we’d ever had because we were the only people in the hotel.” She starts chuckling. “And it was so much fun. It was so unusual to be Americans at Christmas in Tokyo.” This was 1995, and Japan wasn’t the popular tourist destination that it is today.

“It wasn’t like we were jet-setters,” Mom clarifies. “Not that we didn’t go to a top restaurant here and there, but that wasn’t what it was about. It was about seeing the world …. We wanted to connect to the people.” As she recounts these stories, her tone is somewhere between euphoric and frenzied. She punctuates each story with an “oh my God” and transitions immediately into the next.

“When we were in India … we got so friendly with our cab driver that we brought him for dinner to the hotel …. For a while we were in touch …. We would send him pictures and things. That was the kind of richness that this AAirpass, this sense of a family traveling anywhere we wanted to go in the world that American could take us — that’s what we did. People enriched us. Hopefully we enriched others.”

She starts laughing as she recalls a time we visited the Holy Sepulchre in Israel and Dad got in trouble for laying down with his yoga strap, trying to stretch his back in front of the church. “I mean, there was so much color in what we did and where we went and how we did it. The travel was first class, the hotels were first class, but the experiences were very real and authentic.” And then without skipping a beat, she goes up an octave with, “Oh my God … so Josh was dead when we first went to India, right?”

“Josh was dead both times we went to India,” I say.

“Yeah,” she says. “But he was very much with us, I’m sure.”Part 3. Turbulence

On October 6, 2002, Josh — 15 and a half — was hit by a car while walking down the sidewalk. A car had pulled an illegal U-turn. To avoid a collision, another driver accidentally accelerated, swerved up onto the sidewalk and flung Josh into the side of a building. His head hit the building. He was knocked unconscious. My uncle Jeffrey called me from Scarsdale and told me to get on a plane. It was my first month of college; I rushed to the Philadelphia Airport and bought a ticket home. I landed at O’Hare, descended to baggage claim, into more uncles’ arms. Their faces distraught: It doesn’t look good. It would be at least another 15 years before I could descend the American Airlines baggage claim escalator without going into a trauma shock.

Josh died the next morning — our rabbi and the hospital chaplain reciting the end of life Hebrew blessings and prayers; Dad, Natalie, our maternal grandmother, and me standing around the bed; Mom’s own body draped alongside her dying son; Natalie’s hand on his heart for his last beat.

Josh on Dad’s shoulders in Ogunquit, Maine, early 1990s.

Over a thousand people attended his funeral. Lorraine helped get people on flights. I remember a family friend walking through the front door of our home after a flight from Australia, as if she’d taken a bus.

To say Josh’s death broke Dad would be an understatement. Ernie from American says it was sad to watch Dad when they occasionally saw each other over the years. “He’s not the same person anymore that he was before,” Ernie says.

Josh was Dad’s little buddy. His only son. He’d already lost his father in 1989, and he would soon lose the companionship of Uncle Shelly, when Shelly had a stroke.

“People react to tragedy in different ways,” Lorraine says. “He let Josh’s death take the best of him away …. Outwardly, his strength was renowned. But I knew how much it impacted him … I know his children meant more to him than any business deal, than any situation in life that could come up.”

Right after Josh died, Dad leaned on people like Lorraine, and other agents and employees, which I hadn’t known until writing this piece. I had asked Dad what the media tends to overlook when they cover this story.

“When everyone was asleep in the house,” he tells me, “and I had nobody to talk to, and I was lonely about Josh’s death, I would telephone American Airlines reservations and speak to the agents about who knows what for an hour and then at the end, they’d ask me, oh what reservation was I calling about to make, and I would say, ‘Oh yeah I need to go to San Francisco next week.’ I really didn’t need to go to San Francisco. I was just very confused and very lonely and I was calling American Airlines because they were logical people for me to speak to. They knew me. I knew them. I knew their names. I knew their lives.

“I knew which reservation agent’s husband ran a restaurant, and which reservation agent’s wife did this or that. I knew that a husband and wife both worked at the Raleigh-Durham reservations office of American. So by calling the 800 number, I was able to talk to somebody in my loneliness.”

I tell Dad this makes sense, to lean on the community you know in a time of need.

Mom, Dad, Natalie and me after Josh’s death at the Taj Mahal, Agra, India, 2005.

“I traveled all over the world,” he says. “Going from the front of American Airlines to the gate, I might see a dozen people, each of whom would say hello to me, and I would say hello to all of them.” Dad says that about 10 American Airlines employees came to Josh’s funeral. “That’s an extremely unusual relationship for a passenger to have with the airlines.”

I talk to Natalie, who was still at home with a front row seat to his grief while I was away at college. She tells me about the shame Dad felt when people in our community often pitied him after Josh died — and still do to this day — as if he were a broken man. But the airport and American were where he was still treated like a full, whole man.

“His community at American treated him like a normal human, and walking through the airport, they didn’t treat him like he was broken, the way a lot of his other worlds did,” she says. “It was the only sense of normalcy that he still had.”

Six years and two months later, Dad arrived at O’Hare with Aamil, who needed to go to Sarajevo but didn’t have the cash, so Dad offered to fly him to London on his AAirpass and then pay for his London hotel and airfare from there to Sarajevo.

“We went to the airport. I went into the ticket counter. I checked in my luggage for London. I walked to the gate — after going through security — and just as I was walking on the plane, they handed me a letter terminating the AAirpass,” Dad recounts. “Why did they let me go to the gate? Why didn’t they tell me upfront, which would have been the nice thing to do.”

Turns out a letter had been drafted to notify Dad that they were concerned with his behavior and use of the pass. But they decided not to send it. They didn’t want the bad press — what it might mean to terminate a lifetime AAirpass from a frequent flyer. So they terminated it without warning, at the airport — a gut-punch, right into Dad’s proverbial heart.

Dad opening his tote bag next to a London taxi, late 1990s.

Even Lorraine hadn’t been notified. “I walked in one day from work,” she said in a deposition, “and received notification that the AAirpass had been terminated. I was probably more shocked than anyone else.” No warning. No input asked, even though she had been regularly managing his and other top fliers’ bookings.

Dad’s luggage went to London. They wouldn’t help him get it back. He called someone in the baggage department at Heathrow, who assisted. Aamil never made it to Sarajevo. In fact, that was one of the last times they ever spoke. Ultimately, Aamil disappeared from our lives.

Dad doesn’t think Aamil understood the “shock and horror” of what had happened. Dad went home. Told Mom. Got in bed. And slept for the rest of the weekend, and arguably — at least figuratively — for a really long time after that. “I was in disbelief,” he recalls. “I was in shock. And I had no idea how I was going to live my life the way I lived it.”

The AAirpass was Dad’s lifeline. His blood. Mom described his relationship with it as “sacrosanct.” There was a contract. Rules. It was his superpower. He didn’t ever want to do anything wrong.

But American claimed he did.

Dad was one of a few lifetime, unlimited AAirpass holders that American had been monitoring and claimed had breached their contracts. They claimed Dad made “speculative bookings” and a host of other things that they interpreted as objectionable based on a clause in the contract about “fraudulent usage.”

“When I bought the AAirpass, in no uncertain terms, they told me that there was only one rule: I couldn’t give anybody the AAirpass,” Dad says. “And those were the days before they took identification from passengers.” A former colleague had once offered him five grand a week to use the AAirpass. Dad told the guy he was “crazy.”

But now, after years of quiet and secret investigation, apparently Dad and others were costing American too much money. Even though Dad had dealt with the reservations agents on an almost daily basis, it was the revenues department that got involved, interjected, and launched an investigation that brought the whole house down.

On March 10, 2009, Dad sued American for breaking their deal, claiming $7 million in damages. The dollar amount was based on the value of the lifetime unlimited AAirpass the last time it was sold for public consumption — though American had stopped selling them in 1994, a 2004 Neiman Marcus catalogue offered them for 3 million bucks. So it was the Neiman’s figure plus estimated costs for first-class travel for the rest of his life.

A primary issue in the case was whether American properly terminated his AAirpass Agreement based on Section 12, which read:

  1. FRAUDULENT USAGE. If American determines that an AAirpass has been fraudulently used, American reserves the right to revoke the AAirpass and all privileges associated with it. Holder will thereupon forfeit all rights to the AAirpass, without refund, and will return the AAirpass card and this Agreement shall terminate.

They claimed that his fraudulent usage included booking empty seats for his companion feature under “Bag Rothstein” or “Steven Rothstein, Jr.” (which they had for years condoned, and Mom says was not Dad’s idea), as well as “booking speculative reservations” — i.e., flight reservations he was allegedly never planning to actually take.

“I personally don’t think he materially violated any of the use of the AAirpass as it [was written],” says Ernie. “But he used it a lot of times not as they intended for it to work. I think that’s where they got pissed off, not to mention the fact that they had this liability sitting out on the books with all of these unlimited lifetime cardholders. … My guess, and I have no idea whatsoever about this [is] that they just wanted to get rid of it … even if they had to be mean.”

Dad believes there was someone at American who decided, “Oh, if these guys didn’t have these goddamn AAirpasses, it would be great.”

According to Lorraine and the legal documents, a longtime American employee launched the investigation, looking into several other AAirpass holders, including Dad and Jacques Vroom, another lifetime unlimited customer, whose AAirpass termination also resulted in a lawsuit.

(I reached out to American Airlines for comment on this article. Their media relations representative said, “We are pleased to continue to provide AirPass benefits to eligible cardholders when enjoyed in conjunction with the appropriate program conditions.” They said they did not have anything to add beyond what’s already in the court documents.)

Truth is, AAirpass was — even in its earliest, earliest days — a failed program. It didn’t yield the revenue they’d hoped. In 2017, one writer listed the lifetime unlimited AAirpass as number one on the “7 Worst Marketing Disasters in human history.” In fact, when AAirpass started, according to Ernie, American thought they’d make “hundreds of millions of dollars” selling them, but they did not. “It became painful,” Ernie says. He says he tried several times to get them to shut it down; they didn’t want to admit defeat.

As for the case, American anticipated a resolution without a trial; Dad anticipated a trial by jury. Instead, everything happened in legal offices, calls, motions and documents, judges’ chambers and depositions. They spent the summer of 2009 debating — back and forth — over the fraud clause, and whether it was ambiguous or clear.

Then, American counterclaimed, saying Dad broke the contract by improperly using the companion feature. In early 2010, they claimed, “Rothstein had a history of making speculative, fictitious, impossible and/or illogical reservations on behalf of companions.” They claimed these “companions” were people with whom he “had no intention of traveling.”

The senior analyst who launched the investigation reviewed and analyzed Dad’s flight records, and claimed “that between December 2003 and April 2004, Steven Rothstein made companion reservations using ‘Steven Rothstein, Jr.’ using for his AAirpass companion feature for at least 41 flight segments.” But again, they had condoned his booking companion seats under fictitious names for years. In April 2004, an American employee had approached Dad and asked him to stop, as security measures around flying had clearly started to shift after September 11. So he stopped.

But they continued investigating him, looking for a way to push him out.

Another document shows that American contends that 14 incidents from August 2006 to November 2008 were considered “fraudulent” under their alleged terms — but Dad was never notified that they were considered fraudulent at the time they were made.

In her deposition, Lorraine said she hadn’t received any written directions from American Airlines regarding what was and was not “acceptable practice for making reservations for the Executive Platinum customers.”

Lorraine said, both in her deposition and our interview, that she didn’t suspect misuse of his AAirpass; they were the ones handling all of his bookings. Yet, they — Lorraine, and anyone else in reservations — weren’t contacted at all once revenues began the investigations.

Mom chuckles when she recalls sitting in the federal judge’s chambers with the attorneys in 2010 as American noted his making “fraudulent reservations.”

“Steven never made a single reservation on his own on a computer,” she says. “Every single reservation he ever made was made with an American Airlines paid employee.” Dad didn’t use a computer. He was the first person I knew to have a cell phone, and then the first person I knew to get a BlackBerry (and remains one of the last to have one). To write letters, he’d use an electric typewriter or audio-record memos on his Dictaphone and mail mini cassette tapes to his secretary to type and then fax or mail accordingly. But a computer — never. Still doesn’t.

“As anybody can see in the documentation — with the letter from [American Airlines CEO] Crandell, or anything else — he didn’t do anything alone,” Mom says. “They all condoned it.”

Ernie says Dad found creative ways to use his AAirpass, even though Ernie knows of other cardholders who absolutely violated the terms of use — letting others use it, getting paid. “He would be at the airport waiting to board an airplane by himself,” Ernie says, “and he would meet somebody at like the Admirals Club and get into a conversation with them and they’re on the same flight he is and he said, ‘Well, why don’t we continue this conversation on the airplane? Let me go check and see if they’ve got any open seats in first class,’ and he would invite that person to join him.”

“It was not prohibited by the language of the contract,” Ernie says. “But it was not intended to be used like that. … I don’t think Steve did anything that was directly or intentionally trying to do something that was … against the rules. Certainly it took some interpretation on American’s part to go after him.”

Seven third-party witnesses connected to Dad — family members, friends and business associates — were interviewed during discovery. They were questioned by American around the “speculative bookings” that were deemed retroactively fraudulent.

Sometimes Dad would spontaneously book a flight for him and a companion — say, taking my aunt to visit my cousin in Denver — planning to twist his loved one’s arm to travel at the drop of a hat. But that’s the challenge. Rarely could anyone else do that, even if they gave their word. Only Dad knew how to drop everything and fly. That was his superpower. He had wings. The family member, or colleague, or friend he hoped to take along couldn’t always go.

Dad’s lawyer asked one of my uncles: “Do you have any reason to believe that Steven Rothstein made reservations in your name without actually intending to bring you along as his companion?”

“Never,” he said.

Maybe it seems normal to me because that’s how I was socialized, in the vortex realm world of a father who treated an airplane like a bus. As a journalist, now, I can read the court documents and understand where — from American’s standpoint — this behavior was kind of absurd. Yet American Airlines agents condoned it for decades. And understanding that the legal terms of the contract and agreement stipulated that fraud meant giving someone else your pass to use, Dad’s quirky and hectic and allegedly “speculative” behavior seems reasonable within how he worked.

There was discovery and depositions throughout 2010; there were seemingly endless motions and American kept extending discovery; then a summary judgment in American’s favor on June 30, 2011. They had won.

American dismissed “with prejudice” their remaining counterclaims; then the case went into a holding pattern after American’s parent company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy that fall; a joint stipulation of dismissal was filed on September 21, 2012, the day before Dad turned 62.

But that wasn’t the end end. As mentioned, the judge issued a summary judgment. Then, the Court of Appeals affirmed. Dad had lost. The appeal stayed until American exited bankruptcy in December 2013. And the final chunks of paperwork were filed in early 2014. But it never really quieted.

Timeline. (Infographic by Yunuen Bonaparte)

Part 4. Grounded, For Life

I didn’t know the full details of the trial until writing this piece. That my mother, two uncles and an aunt all went in for depositions, or that hundreds of legal hours and thousands of dollars and documents unfolded. I didn’t quite get the magnitude until taking off my daughter hat and trading it in for my journalistic reporter lens.

This spring, after gaining access to the court documents, and reading over 80 documents in full, I call Dad as I leave my writing space at 11:30 p.m. and walk to the subway station at Union Square in Manhattan. I say this is clear: What American did to interpret fraud was out of line. But I say, “Dad, some of the bookings they cited for what they called speculative as evidence in the case were … well … shady.”

I had read in the court documents that, according to the senior analyst at American Airlines who investigated Dad and other AAirpass holders, of the 3,009 flight segments Dad booked for himself from May 2005 to December 2008, he either canceled or was considered a “no-show” for 84 percent of those reservations. During the same time period, he booked 2,648 flight segments for travel companions, and 2,269 were either canceled or a no-show.

I tell him I need to maintain my journalistic balance and integrity. I ask him point blank: “What’s the deal?”

As I get on the subway, he writes me an email detailing how when he purchased the companion feature “it was 100 percent contemplated that [he] would buy a seat for nobody to keep it empty.” They gave him examples of empty seats for legal documents, an extra carry-on, or even musical instruments.

“The example given to me was that Yo-Yo Ma, with whom I flew more than twice and whom I met in several hotel lobbies, flew with his [cello] in the next seat. Under those terms I bought the extra seat.” He thought it would be Mom, my siblings, me, Uncle Shelly, a business associate, or someone he “met at the airport. Anyone I wanted. Anyone. Documents.”

He goes on, “After they told me not to buy an empty seat they knew that I was in a huge depression in the actual MEDICAL SENSE. IT WAS A SERIOUS DEPRESSION. I was incoherent, crying several times daily, drinking liquor which I never did before and if I got in a seat I didn’t want to explain why I was crying to anyone.” So he wanted it empty. He wanted to be alone, just as had always been his booking practice on many airlines, even well before the AAirpass days. He liked his space. He liked access to bringing extra carry-on bags. He liked some privacy. The airplane was his home. It’s where he lived. It’s where he got to do work, or catch up on sleep, or regenerate. Then, once Josh died, it’s where he grieved. He was at home.

People buy extra and empty seats all the time. Technically, that’s what he’d done with the companion feature. A permanent extra seat for life — whether another human was in it or not.

“So in my incoherent state,” he writes, “I would book a seat for Dan or Laurie just imagining that they might come. I was making reservations and didn’t know whether I was even going. Here is why. I was up and [alone] in my home office and bored. So I would call the 800 number for the AAirpass desk and talk to the agent about the news or the weather or about Paris or little London. Then, after an hour of nothing they had to hang up. So I would make a reservation and ask them to fax it to me. Then the next day I would take the fax and cancel the reservation. I needed someone to talk to at midnight. The 800 number was open.”

In one sense, I understand how these could be interpreted as “speculative bookings.” Dad does admit he booked seats he wasn’t sure that he, or his companions, would ultimately use. But that’s not an uncommon practice, and he never understood it to be against the rules. His understanding was that fraudulent behavior was limited to giving the AAirpass to someone else — which he never did.

“I never booked my own reservation on a computer,” he reminds me. “I never knew how to do this. So every single one of the reservations they didn’t like was booked and or changed by an American employee. Again. I didn’t know how to use a computer. I still have never ever ever booked any reservation online. I always use the phone. So their own agents never stopped me from anything. And I didn’t understand what American was asking me to do or not to do because my mind was torn apart from depression. Real depression.”

The April 7, 2018, article in The Hustle by Zachary Crockett quoted my father saying, “I wish I’d never bought the thing.”

Earlier this year, I speak to Dad, 10 and a half hours ahead in India, where he’s traveling for work. On his iPad, he FaceTimes me from his hotel room. (The iPad is a new installment in his life; he still isn’t computer savvy, and he still calls agents for his travel reservations.) He sits on a couch, a desk and bright lights trailing in the background, a shining lamp to his right, my screen’s left.

Dad asleep in seat 1A, the left hand front seat, early 2000s.

I ask if he’s accepted the loss — the AAirpass.

“Probably, yeah,” he says. “Enough’s enough. I can’t worry about it all day long.”

Twenty-six minutes and thirty seconds later, after he’s relived December 13, 2008, so I could recount it above, something shifts.

“Why did they have to be mean?” he says. And later, he interrupts himself mid-story, “What American did was nasty.”

It’s like there isn’t space for anything else in his mouth or head.

“It took away my mobility. It took away my hobby. I thought that I could go to Sweden for the weekend in July and pick up flowers when I was 70.”

“And now?” I ask.

“I can’t do that, can I?”

“But how do you feel about it all now?”

“I’m angry,” he says. “Still. I’m less angry. But I’m still angry.”

“They stole my personality,” he continues. “They stole my love. They stole the very thing that caused me to give them a half a million dollars in the first place. And a half a million dollars is probably like 5 million dollars today. And they did it maliciously. If there had been a problem, the proper thing to do would have been to telephone me and tell me they’d like me to change the way I used the AAirpass.”

I remind him that when we started talking, now 59 minutes ago, he said he’s accepted it all.

“I guess as I think about,” he says, “I’m angry. So maybe someplace in between. Or maybe my mind goes back and forth.”

Grief and death don’t discriminate. Loss — human life, financial wealth, material goods — doesn’t discriminate either. It’s gut-wrenching no matter what. Of course, racial and class privilege, body ability, access to health care and support, and other privileges obviously play a massive role. But the inside spectacle of pain is traumatic across the board.

“Your dad was so depressed as it was,” Mom says. “He was totally unglued after Josh died, and then he loses the one thing that gives him some freedom to run away from his grief.”

The AAirpass “also wasn’t just a loss for him,” I say to Mom. “It was a loss for our family because it gave us access to experiences that were part of who we had become as a unit, and we’d already lost Josh, and so to have lost the AAirpass meant we could no longer travel.”

“… like we did,” she adds. “Because economically after Josh died, it was also a problem. Dad wasn’t able to work at the same pace, speed and everything else that he had. So it was a huge loss, and it was shitty timing because it gave our family an opportunity to still travel, to find the joy in travel. … It took away a big part of our lives, and we already had a big part of our lives taken away. … So, it was a family trauma.”

Me, left, and Natalie on an international flight in First Class, late 1990s.

We’ve done a remarkable job — at least in my opinion — of finding some way back to being a family unit after Josh died and my parents got divorced (which, having separated in the years after Josh died — was formalized in 2014), and Natalie and I have built an unbreakable bond to manage the vacancy lingering between our age gap.

I ask Natalie if she has any resentment or anger about the AAirpass.

“At first … I did have resentment toward the airline,” she says. “It was a time of a lot of loss in my life that my dad was having a hard time [with] and he wasn’t as available to me as a father, so flying was like one of the only things that were normal in our life anymore, and so when that was taken away, it was a really big loss for me and it was painful. I’d say it took me a few years to get used to that change.”

Dad still hasn’t gotten used to it. The AAirpass was, “His pass to freedom,” Mom says. “The trauma of taking that away, it grounded him, literally.”

“He seems to be, I don’t know, is he running from things?” Ernie adds. “I didn’t think of him as a settled person.” Ernie notes the places my dad has lived — or tried to live — since my parents sold the house and got divorced. Berlin. Hong Kong. India. New York. Chicago. Australia. France.

“It’s like if he stops moving,” Ernie says, “then he’s not him anymore.”

We inherit things from our kin. As much as I salivate over locking myself in a silent cave to write, I feel a wildly profound sense of purpose when I’m traveling. As an internationally touring poet, performer and educator, when I am on tour, I am alive. I know how to operate an airport or bus terminal or Amtrak station or a rental car. Natalie does too. People have come to me about their hatred or fear of flying. It’s like a spa, I tell them. A certain amount of time in the sky that belongs only to you. Regardless of your seat.

Of course, I recognize that because I was socialized to fly in first class, my feelings about travel are biased. Even though I fly economy now, even though my eyes can tell the difference, somehow my body does not. I am in the air. I am free above the world. I don’t need fancy seats or legroom. I’m just grateful to get a break from earth.

My best friend, Chloe, recently asked me what my favorite airline is, given all the travel I do. I said, even though they so deeply impacted my family’s life: American. I feel nostalgia. Loyalty. It’s like having a crush on that kid who chases you around the playground, or never letting go of your first true love.

Mom still has skycaps’ numbers in her phone. She, Natalie and I all still fly American, even though it hurts (and I have exactly 384,475 American miles at the time of publishing this piece, so if that dwindles unexpectedly, we’ll all know why).

When I talked to Lorraine, she told me she wanted to go to Fargo, North Dakota.

Left: Dad with the Bellman at the Mauna Kea Hotel on the Big Island in Hawaii. Right: Dad in Hong Kong where he shopped before a business meeting and was running late, early 1990s.

I scream: “Lorraine! I’ve never been to North Dakota! Fargo is on my bucket list!” I’ve made it to 47 states by now; Oregon and Alaska are still on the list, as well.

“Oh my god, Caroline, I’ve got a feeling we may end up going to Fargo, North Dakota,” she says, “laughing our butts off and having a ball.”

I am yelping at this point. Literally hitting my leg and chair audibly. Suddenly, I feel like Dad must have felt talking to her — laughing, joking, dreaming up trips. Some people inherit money. Or trauma. A host of other things. I’ve inherited plenty, but perhaps — more than anything — it’s the wanderlust and desire to meet people and go places around the world.

After we continue scheming about Fargo, she sends her love to my mother and sister, and says she’d love Dad’s number; she’d love to catch up. I thank her and wish her a beautiful day.

“You as well, Caroline,” she says. “I still love ya, so you take care, sweetheart.”

“Love you as well,” I say. “And what was it that you would say to my dad?”

“Bye now.”

“And then ‘pay back’?”

“He would say, ‘Pay later.’”

I ask if we can try again.

“Caroline, bye now.”

“Pay later, Lorraine.”

The Astonishing Rise of “Blair the Flair”

He’s been a Beverly Hills rich kid, a teen on the run with his drug-kingpin dad, and a homeless father scraping to get by. Next stop for Blair Cobbs: world champion boxer.

The Astonishing Rise of “Blair the Flair”

Chapter 1: The Fugitive Father

The night of December 18, 2004, began as an ordinary evening for Blair Cobbs’s father, Eugene. At 33, the elder Cobbs was already a seasoned veteran of the drug trafficking trade. He was flying solo to his hometown of Philadelphia, having taken off from Compton Airport near Los Angeles. After a quick fuel-up in Missouri, it was somewhere over West Virginia that things began to go bad for the self-taught pilot. He was flying above a snowy, wooded landscape when mechanical problems compelled him to scramble for the nearest landing strip. He was forced to attempt an emergency touchdown at the Wheeling Ohio County Airport. It was going to be a tricky landing, as the tower was closed and lighting was limited. 

Eugene descended late, missed the runway, and skidded on the ramp, before regaining altitude and hurtling into a ravine in the woods surrounding the airport. Miraculously, he exited the aircraft basically uninjured, save a minor head wound. But he had little time to linger. It’s unknown whether he turned to consider the plane’s $24 million haul of cocaine, but what he did do was flee through the woods, leaving it all behind. 

When he came to a road near the airport entrance, he flagged down the first driver he saw. He waved a wad of $100 bills and asked for a ride. The driver said that Eugene, who asked where exactly he was, had a gash on his head.

Airport officials would not discover the wreckage until early the next morning, when a worker on a routine field check noticed that a section of the eight-foot perimeter fence near runway 21 was damaged. The plane was then spotted, and proper authorities and responders were dispatched. Airport manager Thomas Tominack’s initial reaction was that the pilot was lucky to have survived, as portions of the aircraft, including a detached wing, were strewn throughout the vicinity. “The survival rate at that particular crash scene would have been very, very, low,” Tominack says. “It was a bad crash.” He notes that the plane didn’t even land at the airport, but rather bounced off the ramp before hitting the top of the fence and landing in a ravine amid a patch of what locals call “tanglefoot.”

out loud banner

Subscribe:

The second thought responders had was that there sure was a hell of a lot of cocaine on board. “I know one thing,” Sheriff Bernie Kazienko told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “it was the most dope I’d ever seen.” Indeed, it was the largest drug seizure ever in West Virginia at the time, with 525 pounds inside the airplane. According to the Northern District of West Virginia’s District Attorney’s Office, investigators “uncovered numerous packages of cocaine wrapped in various forms, including duct tape, saran wrap, vacuum sealed bags, and even as Christmas presents.” Photographs were taken of the tall stacks of cocaine. Longtime West Virginia lawman Richard Ferguson recounts that “it was like after somebody killed a large bear or something,” with everyone wanting their turn to pose with the evidence. 

Eugene’s first order of business after the crash was to get the hell out of West Virginia. He checked in to a Holiday Inn Express outside of Weirton under the name of Marquis Munroe. He stayed for one night before making his way out of town. 

Meanwhile, investigators began piecing things together at the crash site. With no pilot present, they moved on to the plane itself. Records showed that the Aerostar had been purchased in Alabama for $290,000 in cash. The invoice was signed without a personal signature, only the name of a company, Pacific Designers Inc., out of Beverly Hills. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) had been keeping tabs on the plane, and by the time of the crash they were familiar with the identity of the pilot, according to United States Marshal Terry Moore. 

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had also been keeping an eye on Eugene, who was described as a notoriously bad pilot known to frequent small, quiet airports where he could fuel up and depart quickly. According to the Post-Gazette, the FAA had put his plane on a watch list, having cited him on four occasions since 2001, offenses including reckless flying, disregarding air traffic control signals, and lying about his medical status. The FAA had ordered him to retake his flying exam. Eugene had refused, and his pilot’s license had been revoked. He continued to fly, however, using his plane to deliver drugs all over the country. Prior to the crash, federal agents in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Chicago had all been looking into his cocaine distribution business.

Newspaper clip from The Intelligencer in Wheeling, West Virginia, reporting on Eugene Cobbs’ plane crash. (Image courtesy The Intelligencer/theintelligencer.net)

“On December 20, 2004, the DEA was able to obtain a warrant for Mr. Cobbs’s arrest,” says Moore. Subsequently, “There were many attempts to locate him throughout the U.S. He had ties to Philadelphia and California, so pretty much the span of the United States. And nobody was able to find him at the time … Mr. Cobbs was a fugitive from justice.”

Eugene Cobbs went on the lam. Back in California, his son, Blair, was about to have his world changed forever.

Chapter 2: The Rich Kid in Beverly Hills

At the time of the crash, Blair Cobbs was 15. He remembers vividly the day he learned that something was wrong. He had been living easy with his father and stepmother, along with a younger sister, in a grand, white Victorian mansion in the Hollywood Hills. (Documents would later reveal that Eugene Cobbs had a cover business under the name of Builders Plus Management, Inc. Blair’s stepmother owned a beauty salon.) Blair attended the Beverly Hills school that served as the inspiration for the high school in one of his favorite movies at the time, Clueless.

“I was pretty well off,” Blair tells me over coffee at the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas. “You know, when you’re doing good it just sort of seems normal, especially when you’re a kid. It’s like, ‘You don’t have an airplane? I have an airplane. We all got a Bentley. No? Well you’re going to get one, surely.’”

Blair’s life hadn’t always been so luxurious. His mother died when he was 11, and his grandmother, whom he was close with, died the same year. He and his stepmother never really bonded. She had a son Blair’s age from a previous relationship, and Blair never felt accepted. As a young teenager, Cobbs, who is mixed race, was picked on relentlessly. In middle school, he was perceived as the white kid in a predominately black school, with red hair to boot. “Even though I’m mixed, I don’t really have a race as far as my features,” he says. “I was called cracker. … Those were a really bad few years.”

But by 2004, after a change of schools, those days were behind him. “Everything was cool sailing for like a year in Beverly Hills.”

Then one day he came home to a DEA raid. His stepmother was crying, and all he knew was that something really bad had happened. She didn’t have a lot of details. Maybe his dad was alive, maybe not. Cobbs couldn’t get a straight answer. “That’s when it really hit me,” he says. “You can feel it before it happens, that you lost it all.” 

In the ensuing months, Cobbs struggled in his father’s absence. He didn’t know about the crash, but he began to piece things together. “It kinda crept up on me that it must have been something illegal when I started noticing [unusual] things,” such as his phone being “obviously” tapped, full of echoes and strange noises every time he picked it up, and an unmarked white van parked in front of his house, around the clock, with men wearing headphones seated inside. The strange feeling of being under surveillance actually stirred some hope inside the young teen. “Maybe my dad’s not dead.”

Chapter 3: A Teenager On The Run

Six months after the crash, it was summer in Beverly Hills, and his dad was still gone. Then Blair experienced another day in which everything changed. His stepmother instructed him to pack everything he could fit into one duffel bag. His sister did the same. They were given a couple of “horrible fake IDs” and ushered into a car. His stepmom drove south toward Mexico. When they got to the border, the children were dropped off by their stepmom, given minimal instructions, just a list of checkpoints about where to go — and with that, the kids walked into a foreign country alone. First a taxi, then a bus, deep into Mexico. That’s when Cobbs bottomed out: fear, dread and utter uncertainty. Would they live or die? Only the task of taking care of his younger sister drove him. “Just as long as my sister’s OK, that was propelling me to keep moving forward, because she was there with me.” 

Somewhere near Tepatitlán de Morelos, in the state of Jalisco, a full 1,623 miles into their journey, they finally saw their father. They could breath easier, but only a little bit. 

From Tepatitlán, the Cobbs family moved on to Guadalajara. There, using a fake name, Blair enrolled in a high school with an intense Spanish program, to try to get him up to speed on a language he did not speak. 

They lived with their father and his girlfriend, and though Eugene wasn’t around much, Blair’s sister was now safe, and with that knowledge Blair struck out on his own, wandering the city, getting to know the streets. “The whole city was all about circles; one highway circles the whole city, called Periférico. You can get almost anywhere through the Periférico.” He felt like a drifter. And though he was getting to know the city, he felt like he didn’t know himself. The fact that they were all using aliases triggered a deep sense of loss in Blair, a loss of self. “You start forgetting yourself completely,” he says.

No identity, no roots. Blair felt as if he didn’t belong to any group, that he had no culture to claim. “I’m not black, I’m not white, I’m not Mexican.” He was out of place yet again. The Americano in Mexico. Sticking out like a sore thumb. 

Eugene Cobbs had shaken U.S. law enforcement, but his problems had not eased. Looking back, Blair says he understands why his father tried to shield them from the reality of the situation, but, still, the kids knew it wasn’t good. “Things always happened,” Blair remembers. “It was a very hazardous place. … You’d get held up at gunpoint, or people would break into your crib with AKs,” he says with the nonchalance others might use to describe a noisy neighbor. If it wasn’t a gang, it was the cops, he says, and if not them then simply citizens, random people looking to get a piece: “Because you look like you have some money, because you look like you don’t belong there.” Each day he lived with a prevailing fear that the bad guys were closing in. It felt like they were just waiting “until someone knocks us off.” 

Blair doubted he would ever get out of Mexico. 

Then he met a friend. On a lonely Mexican basketball court, he ran into 15-year-old Rodney Pinz, who was from the States and spoke English. The two started hanging out, but the fugitive’s son remained guarded. “Even if I couldn’t tell him who I really was, it was cool to have at least one friend,” Cobbs says. “That friend probably saved my life.”

Pinz remembers a presence of fear engulfing Cobbs’s home. “He definitely seemed down,” Pinz says. “So I invited him into my world. I had him meet friends, meet girls, good stuff, teenage stuff. He would come to my house. My family made him food.”

A shared affinity for boxing led the pair across town, “to the ghetto,” Pinz says. “Like the ghetto ghetto” — where they found a gym known as El Lobo (the Wolf). 

Chapter 4: A Boxer in Mexico Named Romero

Blair Cobbs had long revered the sport of boxing. But while he was eager to learn, he was short on skill. He had no idea how to block or defend. He took a shitload of punches. He remembers his first sessions at El Lobo: “I beat the first guy I ever sparred, and then I got beat up real bad by the next guy. I didn’t know the rounds lasted more than 30 seconds. I got tired.”

Gym where Blair Cobbs started training in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico. This is the same gym that Mexican boxer Canelo Álvarez learned to box, and it is known for its rigorous training style.

Black eyes were a constant companion as a result of his new hobby. It mattered not.

“I never stopped coming.” 

One Saturday, after about a week at the gym, Cobbs had an opportunity to box a real bout. “You think I should fight?” Pinz remembers him asking. “I was like, ‘Man we just got here.’ But he fought and he won!”

An old trainer at the gym started tutoring him, working to bend him into fighting shape. Cobbs began working out at the gym from sunrise to sundown, sparring and learning combinations. The trainer put him through 10- to 12-round full-body sparring sessions. Cobbs was still just a kid, but he was already fighting professionals. 

At nightfall, he would grab an agua fresca or something to eat at a taco stand and then return. Besides sparring, he’d swim and run. “I never stopped working,” he says. In reality, he simply had nowhere else to go, and nothing else he cared about. “So I would just train until I couldn’t train anymore. And then I’d show up again.” 

Since he’d left California, Cobbs’s hair had grown into a high, red-tinted Afro. When they asked him his name at the gym, “I used my middle name, Romero,” he says. “And a very conventional last name. At the time I really liked Roy Jones, so I just called myself Romero Jones.”

Each weekend, the local gym held “smokers” — unregulated amateur boxing exhibitions. Fighters showed up looking to make an impression. Cobbs was an outsider, and the spectators were usually not on his side. But he learned how to work the crowd. How to win their favor. 

Blair kept boxing throughout his teenage years, while the darkness within him grew. He enjoyed the sport but hated life on the run. Outside of the gym, he struggled. But inside the ring, this mentality made him dangerous. He didn’t care what happened to him. “You can knock me down, knock me out,” he says. It didn’t matter: “You’ll have to kill me in that ring.” 

When he was 18, Cobbs had grown to around 130 or 140 pounds. He was tough to beat at that weight. So for one fight he was matched up against a guy in a heavier class, a Mexican fighter who weighed about 180 pounds. After winning nearly every recent match, now Blair was about to get his ass kicked, and to make matters worse, his dad was in the crowd to see it, one of the few times he attended. In the first round, Cobbs got hit hard, the punches too heavy to block. It was a small ring, and there was nowhere to run. He was getting destroyed. The bell rang for the second round. Things were just about to turn from bad to worse, and then Cobbs remembers thinking, “What would Mayweather do?”

At the time, Cobbs was watching all of the professional fights he could, and Floyd Mayweather Jr., the brash superstar with the flashy trunks and the nickname “Pretty Boy,” stood out. It was the effortlessness in Mayweather’s movements that really impressed the young boxer, the way he beat his opponent, the way he broke him down. “Pop, boop, pop, pop, boop. This motherfucker is making this shit look so easy,” Cobbs remembers. 

During the second round of his big fight, Cobbs recalled how Mayweather liked to use a shoulder roll to pick off shots and then get close, get inside and land short shots. By midway through the second round, he was doing it himself — shoulder roll, block, defend — and the tide was turning. That’s when his opponent reared back for a big right hand, a right hand “that had death written all over it.” If it landed it would have meant the end for Cobbs. But he saw it coming and pulled back and delivered his counterpunch, striking his opponent’s exposed chin, and boom, his adversary hit the canvas. The crowd started chanting, “Romero! Romero!” 

“I think that was the pivotal point where I was like, ‘This is what I want to do,’ and I just never stopped,” Cobbs says. “That moment lasted forever. I never stopped no matter how bad it got in my life.”

Indeed, things would get worse for young Blair before they got better. 

Chapter 5: Down and Out

Blair and his sister returned to the States the same way they entered: on the sly. After spending roughly three years on the run, their father sent them to Edgewater, New Jersey, back to living with their stepmom. After an arduous bureaucratic process, they also regained their actual identities. 

The kids got out of Mexico just in time. Their father was kidnapped for ransom in late 2008. When the price was met and Eugene was released by his captors, he was almost immediately arrested. 

Blair Cobbs tells the story of his boxing exploits in a fever, but when it comes time to discuss his father, his cadence slows, and the discomfort he feels about those experiences is clear. 

Eugene Cobbs was taken into police custody at Valle Real, “a gated, exclusive community outside of Guadalajara,” according to Federal Marshal Terry Moore. After four years on the lam, Eugene was extradited to Houston and then transferred to Wheeling, West Virginia, where he pled guilty and was sentenced to more than 12 years — 151 months — for conspiracy to distribute cocaine and operating as an airman without a license. After his arrest, he was discovered to have at least five aliases, with matching IDs. 

Blair tried to push the news from his mind. He tried to keep boxing. From his stepmother’s house in New Jersey, he bounced around to different gyms in New York City. 

But it wasn’t long before the redheaded stepchild felt like he’d worn out his welcome in New Jersey. So he returned to the place of his birth, Philadelphia. While his sister stayed behind with their stepmom, Blair moved into the half-abandoned house on a corner lot that his grandmother had once lived in.

When asked about what he did for work in Philly, he answers, “Oh my God,” before contemplating and reeling off a résumé of dead-end jobs, the first one at Abercrombie & Fitch, which at $7.25 for a few hours a week turned out to be little more than enough to pay for the TransPass he needed to get there. 

Despite his vast life experience, none of what he had learned would help him deal with being alone in Philadelphia. He didn’t have much, but he was constantly getting robbed. “They would rob me going to work, or going to get a job. Because at that particular time getting a job was almost a full-time job, you know, going out applying at this place or that, I would be out all day if I needed to, for possibly one opportunity.”

His house didn’t contain much to begin with, but it was soon looted of nearly all of its possessions. Then the electricity was turned off. Followed by the heat and gas. Wintertime. Putting on every piece of clothing he owned just to survive the night. “I’ve been in plenty of those situations,” he pauses, thinking. “I was in one situation, where I was broke … I ran through everything I could find [of value]. I was panicking. Because I was really hungry. A couple days went by, and I hadn’t eaten. You know, I’m working and everything, but I haven’t eaten. I don’t have any food money. When I find a little gold ring. Possibly my grandfather’s engagement ring or something. It saved my life.” 

Cobbs, center, and Danny Garcia, right, during Garcia’s training camp in Philly.

He took the little gold ring to a Cash For Gold joint at a nearby shopping center. He only secured around $30. “But it was the most important 30 bucks in my life. It kept me alive,” he shakes his head, the memory sparking a wry smile. “And, uh, yeah, so that was pretty tough.”

He worked at Chili’s as, he says, “probably the worst waiter in the history of waiters.” And then there was Sky Chefs, preparing flight meals near the airport. “I ended up getting put in the frozen food section. I was in the refrigerator,” he says incredulously. “Freezing my ass off. And they would be pushing you, making you work hard as fuck. And you had to get there at 6 o’clock. I didn’t have a car. I would get up at like 2:30 in the morning to try and catch the first bus I could possibly get.” But in the end it never mattered, because after a series of connections, buses and trains to get there, he still arrived late nearly every day. He made it three weeks and one paycheck, and he was out. After that, he finally found the one job that would hold him until he turned pro, at a coffee shop. There, a bit of stability allowed him to get back to training. 

He trained at James Shuler Memorial Boxing Gym, the former stomping grounds of Bernard Hopkins and “Terrible” Tim Witherspoon, in West Philadelphia. On June 28, 2013, at age 24, he made his professional debut, flooring Martique Holland in the first round in Ruffin, North Carolina. 

He quickly got off to a 4-0 record. But then the fights stopped coming. He got a lesson in the politics of boxing. The most important thing to know about the fight game is that “you can’t do it by yourself,” he says. “The biggest problem with boxing in America is that you need funding to get to the elite level. You can be very good and it almost doesn’t matter because you need funding. You need support. A lot of backing.” He could best all of the killers in Philly and it wouldn’t be enough if he didn’t have the right team behind him and a promoter to get him on the right cards and the right fights. 

Cobbs during the Golden Gloves tournament at Madison Square Garden, after he came back from Mexico.

Around the time of his first professional fight, his father was also making a change. On April 10, 2013, Eugene Cobbs decided that prison life no longer suited him. He’d been serving time at Fort Dix in New Jersey before being transferred to a minimum-security facility, FCI Morgantown, in West Virginia, after earning marks for good behavior. 

It was the morning hours, before 10 a.m., and Eugene Cobbs had been assigned cleaning duty in the parking lot. But at 4 p.m., when the prison guards did their count, they discovered that prisoner Cobbs was unaccounted for.

“He walked away from FCI Morgantown,” Marshal Moore says. “Due to the security of the facility, it’s fairly easy to walk away from. It’s not an over-the-wall escape or anything like that; there was no hidden tunnel. He was cleaning a parking lot and just walked away.” A fence surrounded the facility, but it was only three feet high. Eugene’s prison garb was discovered nearby. Moore was tasked with tracking him down. 

By the time of Eugene’s second manhunt, Moore, who had entered the Marshal Service immediately following graduation from Fairmont State University in West Virginia, had expeditiously ascended the ladder to supervisory deputy. He was 29 years old, and despite a right arm marked in ink, he looked every bit of 16, with short blond hair and a baby face. He openly shares a penchant for vacations to Disney World. His ambition and enthusiasm for the job are evident, and they extended to the pursuit of Eugene Cobbs.

Moore says that at the time he’d seen his share of escapes. Nine out of 10 times, the guy would scramble, nervously, maybe call a girlfriend to rendezvous at the nearest hotel, or meet up with his drug dealer. “We get them relatively quickly,” and they usually don’t make it far, he says. But when Moore answered the phone this time and heard the name Eugene Cobbs, he stood on alert. He remembered the first chase. “I knew it would be a good hunt,” Moore says. “I was like, this is going to be something.” Not easy for sure, Moore knew, recounting that Eugene had previously eluded justice for four years. 

Moore explains that after escaping, Eugene walked to a nearby garage, Dinsmore Tire & Auto, where he called a cab. The driver took him to a Kroger grocery store in nearby Sabraton, West Virginia, where he waited while the escapee went inside and received a Western Union money order. The cabbie then drove Eugene an hour and a half to Pittsburgh and dropped him at a Greyhound station. 

“We had aired Mr. Cobbs’s picture on the news to see if anybody had seen him. And I got a call from a local cab company who advised that they had picked up Mr. Cobbs on April 10,” Moore recounts. “We immediately obtained warrants for Mr. Cobbs.”

A second international manhunt was now taking place for Blair’s father: “The Coke-Plane Fugitive,” as one newspaper dubbed him. Moore says Eugene Cobbs was a clever and experienced criminal, who “knew how to avoid detection.” Moore believed that he would follow a similar game plan as he had the last time. “After he made it onto that bus,” Moore says he knew: “He’s making his move. He’s going to Mexico.”

Moore started interviewing family members and acquaintances, and nobody knew a thing. “So we’re kind of stale on his trail at that time, and that’s when I really start to dig into the escape investigation.” Moore went to the tire shop, watched a surveillance video of the fugitive getting into the cab, then another of him entering the Western Union. Through subpoena requests, the investigative team got information from Western Union that indicated that Blair’s stepmother was the one who had wired Eugene the money. She was eventually arrested for assisting in the escape.

But the account of how Moore eventually got his man is much less cinematic. The marshal was seated at his desk, the phone rang, and he was given an anonymous tip. Simple as that. “In this case,” Moore says, “the tip was the golden ticket” that allowed him and coordinating authorities to ascertain Eugene’s exact location. On June 23, 2014, Mexican law enforcement arrested Eugene Cobbs in Tepatitlán. He did not put up a fight, although he did present false identification documents. But Moore saw the photos from the arrest scene and was given a description of the suspect’s tattoos. “I knew at that point, 100 percent, it was Cobbs,” he says. “It was a good grab.” 

Eugene was extradited from Mexico that very day and escorted to Los Angeles, where he was taken into custody by deputy marshals, then transported, once more, to West Virginia. 

Moore describes Eugene as a “gentle” guy, who never showed a penchant for violence; each time he was arrested, he surrendered peacefully. “He never tried to be that hardened criminal that gives you problems.” (Eugene Cobbs declined requests to be interviewed for this article.)

Back in Philadelphia, by the time Blair found out his dad had escaped, Eugene was soon back in custody. “It was very short-lived,” Blair says. 

On August 11, 2014, Eugene Cobbs pled guilty to the escape and was sentenced to 14 months, to be served consecutive to his prior sentence. 

Meanwhile, Blair’s boxing career was stuck in neutral, and he remained at his 4-0 mark, with no fights on the horizon. He wasn’t going anywhere if a promoter didn’t sign him. It stung even worse that nearly all of his rivals and competitors were getting inked to deals, while he had to “bleed for everything,” he says. Here he was, in his peak fighting years, 23 years old, and he couldn’t even get a fight. 

It was at that point that he decided to take a gamble on a flight to Las Vegas to try to get noticed, to try to get backing. It was a risky proposition. He had a steady job and a girlfriend, Melissa. And to top it off, he and Melissa had recently welcomed a son of their own into the world. He made the trip anyway.

Once in Vegas he was able to get a few sparring sessions in front of some prominent eyes. But in the end, his manager at the time made a mess of things, Cobbs says. 

The trip was an abject failure. 

To make matters worse, when he got back to Philly, he’d lost his job at the coffee shop. He soon lost his apartment. “Now I’m homeless,” he says. “And I don’t even care, not about boxing, like I’m finished with life.” 

His girlfriend and son stayed with one of her acquaintances, but Blair, unable to support himself, let alone a family, bounced around. 

Sometimes he slept in his car. 

Other times it was abandoned buildings. 

Chapter 6: Blair "The Flair"

Things in Philly remained bleak. So futile that Blair remembers jokingly thinking, “I wish I could sell drugs,” he laughs, “but I couldn’t sell drugs. I didn’t have any fucking friends.”

It took him nearly a year to get back on his feet, both mentally and spiritually. To get up and take another shot. 

“I’m in this continuous state of being reborn. Constantly moving from one place to the next. But dying too. Going through the worst experience I could possibly go through and surviving that to move on, to another level. But did I really survive or did a piece of me just die in order to live on?” he ponders. “That’s a question I ask myself. There was a lot going on from a mental perspective.” 

Cobbs after defending his NABF Welterweight title at the Fantasy Springs Casino in Indio, California, 2019.

Finally, Cobbs caught a break. He hooked up with Kenny Mason, a trainer who had worked with recent middleweight world champion Julian Williams. Cobbs began to find a rhythm with Mason. Mason also gave him a place to crash. Sort of. “I was living in Kenny’s closet,” he says. (It was literally a walk-in closet.) But it was in that closet that Cobbs found God. “I went through an experience of growth,” he says. “Learning how to think, how to manifest my dreams into reality.” He prayed and meditated. He put up a vision board. It wasn’t a great situation, but he says it’s what he needed. And it wasn’t all bad, if not for the dog he shared the closet with. “The dog wanted to evict me.”

He found a church, Casa de Gloria. And he got back to the gym. It was there, at Joe Hand’s Gym, that he met Bernard Hopkins, a boxing legend and one of the most successful fighters in history. Hopkins offered him some desperately needed encouragement, and Cobbs picked up his training even more. He started training other boxers as well, to earn some dough. 

He decided to give Vegas another shot. He couldn’t stay in Philly any longer. “Let’s just go,” he told his girlfriend. Through it all, he says Melissa stuck with him. “I think it’s just that we didn’t have anybody else,” he marvels. “We didn’t have anything else but each other.”

“We took those couple bucks I had from training and just took off,” Cobbs remembers. “We only stopped for gas, too afraid [the car would break down] — we gassed it while the car was still running, because I’ll be damned if we didn’t make it.”

There was no alternative. Cobbs saw only two options if he remained in the city: Death or jail. 

“As we left Philadelphia you could feel the weight being lifted. As the miles started passing, the freer we started to feel. We were as happy as hell. It didn’t matter what happened in Vegas. It was better than being there.”

The car was packed: father, mother, son. Everything they had.

“Straight to Vegas. Two days.”

Cobbs with Oscar de la Hoya after his victory over Carlos Ortiz Cervantes at the MGM Grand Casino in Las Vegas.

Once in Vegas, Cobbs and his family were still homeless. They lived out of their car north of Vegas at a pit stop frequented by truckers. Sometimes they pitched a pop-up tent. It didn’t matter. He calls it one of the most peaceful times of his life. “We were happy there,” he says. “No responsibilities or obligations. It was just us living, day to day. And being appreciative of each moment that passed. Because each moment was a better moment.”

After all that he’d been through, somehow Cobbs now looked at the world with optimism. In Mexico he had felt low and therefore he was low. He’d hit rock bottom in Philadelphia. Now his new attitude led him out of the hole. He could feel the universe conspiring for his success. 

He hooked up with a distant relative who put him and his family up for a few weeks. He and Melissa got jobs, his at the Cromwell Hotel. Soon enough, they had a place of their own. And after his cousin put in a word with an ex-boxer, the former super-bantamweight titlist Bones Adams, Cobbs had himself a trainer. Adams had a gym behind his house in Las Vegas, right down the street from Cobbs’s new place. Just like the rhythm in the ring — pop, pop, pop — all of the things he needed in his life started to click into place. Next, he hooked up with a manager, Greg Hannley. Hannley staked him, with around two grand a month, so that Cobbs could train full time. 

Media workout at the Nevada Hall of Fame in Las Vegas, for Cobbs’ upcoming fight in Anaheim, 2020.

Adams says that right from the start he saw the potential. “Phenomenal skills, strong, fast, and athletic as can be. He does things most people can’t.” Adams does admit, however, that at the time, “He was very wild … out of control, crazy [in the ring].” 

His first fight in three years was on May 18, 2017, in Tijuana, where he scored a second-round technical knockout. He was finally 5-0. Pop, pop, pop. By year’s end, he’d be 7-0. In 2018 he was named the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame prospect of the year. 

In 2019 he was signed by Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions and won the North American Boxing Federation welterweight title (an achievement, but not the heralded World Boxing Council or World Boxing Association titles he and other boxers are mainly chasing). Golden Boy Promotions touts his three 2019 fights as “the most prominent fights of the year in boxing.” Ringtv.com (“The Bible of Boxing”) said of his November 2019 win over Carlos Ortiz: “The Blair Cobbs show continues to be a thrill a minute,” while noting that his lively post-fight interview “was just as entertaining as his fight.” 

In the summer of 2019, Blair’s father was released early from Fort Dix. Eugene is now living with Blair and his family in Vegas, and just like his son, the father is looking for a fresh start. 

Blair, the rich kid from Beverly Hills, the American in Mexico, the poor kid in Philly, they’re all part of him now. But he has evolved. He’s even earned himself a new moniker: He’s now Blair “The Flair” Cobbs, a nickname given to him by an onlooker during one of his sparring sessions. But Blair has taken the handle and run with it.

What does “The Flair” mean? “It encapsulates everything that everyone would ever want to be,” Cobbs says. “People want to be a rock star. People want to have charisma. They want to be great, greater than they are. They want to believe, to have the passion and drive that they can do anything. … Someone who’s genuinely one of a kind. That’s what ‘The Flair’ is.”

Cobbs after the press confefrence for his fight against Samuel Kotey Neequaye in Anaheim, February 14, 2020. Walking next to him is sports reporter Elie Seckbach.

Fight insiders still describe Blair Cobbs, a southpaw, as a wild man in the ring, and spectators love the passion he brings. He’s brash and has a swagger — and to top it off, when he enters the ring he even lets out a “Woo!” in the style of legendary pro wrestling star Ric Flair. 

But he’s also quick to point out: “[It’s] ‘The Flair’ who has that confidence. Blair Cobbs doesn’t.”

“That’s a real person within me,” he says. “Living through all kinds of crazy shit, I kept dying and reinventing myself. I kind of just developed these multiple character personalities and [The Flair] just comes out whenever the cameras are on me.” 

Some people will say that, at 30, he’s too old to be a prospect. But Cobbs will tell you the time off just means he’s fresh. That he hasn’t taken the punches, and that his boxing age is young. 

He still likes to put on a show, but Adams, who recently stepped aside as Cobbs’s head trainer, says he’s done a good job of cleaning up the recklessness in the ring. And his biggest asset is the most important: “He doesn’t want to lose,” Adams says. “He has the will to win.”

On Valentine’s Day, 2020, at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California, “The Flair” scored a split decision victory over Samuel Kotey, who had sported an impressive 23-2 record going into the bout. He hopes it’s the stepping-stone he needs for a title shot later this year.

Blair Cobbs remains undefeated. And he believes that his best chapter is yet to be written.

Cobbs and his team walking to his locker room before his fight at the Anaheim Honda Center on February 14, 2020.

Lifelong Quests! Lawsuits! Feuds! A Super-Serious Story About Cereal.

The world’s most obsessive breakfast-food fans demonstrate just how far humans will go for the sweet taste of nostalgia.

Lifelong Quests! Lawsuits! Feuds! A Super-Serious Story About Cereal.

Whenever Gabe Fonseca invites someone over to his Los Angeles apartment for the first time, he worries what they’ll think of his cereal box collection. He has over 200 on display in one small room, affixed by magnets to sheet metal on the wall. “It’s admittedly weird,” says Fonseca, a 39-year-old TV writer who has worked on shows like Jessica Jones and Private Practice. He cringes imagining negative reactions to the collection: “They’re gonna be like, ‘This dude is weird.’” But despite Fonseca’s anxiety, most visitors dive right into the nostalgia. “People go in and they [say], ‘Oh, you collect cereal boxes?’ And then they’ll be like, ‘Oh, I remember that one,’ or ‘Do you have that one?’”

Fonseca’s collection spans the past four decades of cereal, showcasing the creativity of graphic design and cereal engineering, while telling a history of American popular culture. Many are named for hit TV shows, music or films of the day. There’s a box of Urkel-Os next to Strawberry Shortcake. A New Kids on the Block cereal box floats atop Donkey Kong Junior cereal and Jurassic Park Crunch: The Lost World. The classics are here too: Froot Loops, Lucky Charms, Cap’n Crunch and more.

Gabe Fonseca arranges some of the 200 cereal boxes, which are affixed by magnets to sheet metal and on display in his Los Angeles apartment.

Fonseca began collecting cereal boxes about 10 years ago, amassing hundreds of them, which were soon piling up inside his home. “My wife was like, ‘This is ridiculous. You need to open these and flatten them and store them somewhere else,’” he recalls. She also suggested that he start a YouTube channel, as a way to preserve and document boxes for posterity before throwing them out.

So in 2014, Fonseca launched Cereal Time TV. In videos posted every Saturday morning (a nod to the iconic TV time slot when kids watched cartoons while eating sugary cereals), Fonseca talks and reviews cereal. He covers classics and new ones, as well as diving deep into the breakfast food’s history. An episode about Hostess Donettes cereal, for example, covered donut-shaped cereals of the past (Fonseca prefers powdered Donutz cereal from the late 1980s). With 250-plus episodes, Cereal Time TV has amassed more than 8 million views.

Fonseca’s Cereal Time TV episode on Hostess Donettes and Honey Bun cereal, 2018.

Fonseca is a part of a (mostly male) online community that obsesses over cereal. They dissect the taste of the newest Cap’n Crunch variety with the precision of Ruth Reichl rating a gourmet meal, and analyze the box of a classic movie-tie-in cereal with the enthusiasm of a highbrow art critic.

out loud banner

Subscribe:

Dan Goubert, 23, another cereal enthusiast, says his fixation began when he was young, but it has always been about more than just the cereal. One day when Goubert was about 7 years old, he bounded down his family’s basement stairs, looking for a computer game to play. Among the games in his parents’ collection, he discovered the curiously named Chex Quest, which came free in Chex boxes in the late 1990s. A kid-friendly twist on the classic first-person shooter Doom, the game’s main character wore armor made of Chex cereal. His arms and legs poked out of the rice squares, and he defeated his enemies by teleporting them back to their home planets (instead of killing them).

“It’s just a really good example of how cereal can grow into something more,” says Goubert. “I was always infatuated with it, and I still am.”

Although Goubert wasn’t born until the late 1990s, he credits “the coolness of ’90s retro commercials” with fueling the creation of his blog Cerealously.net, where he reviews cereals and Pop-Tarts, as well as reports on the latest cereal news. More recently Goubert has started co-hosting The Empty Bowl, a “meditative podcast on cereal.” Goubert says the ritual of eating a bowl of cereal — “the scientific balance [of] the milk in the cereal consistency, and the clanking of the spoon on the bowl” — can be an exercise in thinking deeply, even for non-cereal-obsessives. The Empty Bowl has a devoted following, including Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who praised the podcast on Twitter, while the Cerealously blog has garnered mentions in Forbes and amassed more than 17,000 followers on Instagram.

Like Goubert, Thomas Hicks, a 30-year-old actor and model, says he embraced a love of cereal at a young age and has been obsessed with it his whole life. He says he used to stash boxes of Froot Loops and Cap’n Crunch’s Crunch Berries in his closet to keep his siblings from eating them. He recalls waking up in the middle of the night, too excited about his morning bowl of cereal to sleep. Hicks’s YouTube channel, Cereal Snob, has over 3,000 subscribers, and the most popular video has more than 85,000 views. His approach is different than Goubert’s — he doesn’t focus on packaging, branding or underlying philosophical implications – he critiques the cereal itself. And while Fonseca basically likes every cereal he reviews, Hicks is more critical. He believes that the perfect cereal has yet to be created.

Thomas Hicks showing off his Froot Loops socks in front of the cereal aisle at the local supermarket in Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy Thomas Hicks)

Even as he lists his favorites, Hicks can’t help noting their flaws. Crunch Berries falls short because “it hurts you … it’s the shape of the pieces, and they’re coarser around the edges.” Golden Grahams and Fruity Pebbles “get soggy too fast.” And Lucky Charms “wouldn’t be edible without marshmallows.”

“I just think really highly [of cereals]. And most of them don’t stack up,” says Hicks. While his reviews can be harsh, Hicks claims they come from a place of love. “When I see a new cereal, I want it to be better than the ones I’ve had before,” he says. “It doesn’t always happen.”

Despite their different approaches, all three men exude an infectious joy for their favorite breakfast food — and they have formed connections over this shared bond. When Goubert gets the scoop on a new cereal, he’ll text Fonseca, who will text Hicks. Fonseca hopes one day he’ll be able to cast Hicks in a TV series (and yes, he does try to craft cereal scenes in the shows he currently writes for).

“There didn’t feel like there was ever any, any competition,” between the three of them, Fonseca says. “We all kind of have the same love of cereal.”

But the world of cereal connoisseurs hasn’t always been so congenial.

Throughout cereal’s long life, there have been two constants: change and conflict. Invented in 1863 by James Caleb Jackson, an enterprising doctor, cereal was originally a health food. Jackson’s wheat flour–based Granula was a far cry from today’s sugar-laden favorites. It was bland, boring and so difficult to chew that you had to soak it in milk overnight to make it edible.

It took another doctor to turn cereal into an iconic mass-produced food: John Harvey Kellogg. Kellogg’s first cereal was a Granula knockoff — it even had the same name. Jackson sued, and Kellogg changed his to “Granola.” But it wasn’t until Kellogg and his younger brother Will developed an easily digestible, bland breakfast food called Corn Flakes that they really put cereal on the map. Dr. Kellogg championed bland foods, at least in part because he thought a simple diet could help prevent masturbation. So when Will added sugar to Corn Flakes and began selling his sweeter version to the public in 1906, it kicked off a decades-long feud filled with lawsuits, accusations of stolen recipes, and public acrimony that divided the Kellogg family.

An advertisement for Kellogg’s Toasted Corn Flakes featuring “The Sweetheart of the Corn,” circa 1910. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Still, supersweet cereals didn’t become especially popular until Post debuted its sugar-coated puffed rice cereal, aptly named Sugar Crisp, in 1949. The ensuing sugar cereal craze of the 1950s saw the introduction of Sugar Krinkles and Sugar Smiles, as well as now-iconic cereals like Sugar Corn Pops, Sugar Frosted Flakes and Sugar Smacks (all have since dropped “sugar” from their names).

The introduction of television into the American home brought commercials with animated cereal mascots. The Trix Rabbit debuted in 1959, followed soon after by Cap’n Crunch with its naval-captain mascot Horatio M. Crunch, and Lucky Charms with the ginger-haired Lucky the Leprechaun. Toys and prizes inside cereal boxes, such as baking soda–powered atomic submarines and Star Trek badges, also became more prevalent around this time (although Will Kellogg is credited with inventing the concept back in 1909).

A couple of decades later, when baby boomers felt the pull of nostalgia and birthed the collectors-market boom for comic books and toys from their childhoods, some craved the ephemera of classic cereals, and the rarity of 1950s and ’60s boxes made them valuable collectors items.

According to Dan Goodsell, founder of Welcome (an online chronicle of the history of cereal) and co-author of the book Krazy Kids’ Food!, the heyday of the cereal-collecting market was in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

Goodsell says his own cereal lust began young. He’d tag along with his mom to get groceries, so that he could select that week’s buy. “I always had a sort of collector nature, even as a kid going to the grocery store. I always looked at it as an adventure,” he says. “I have a very intense collector nature in my DNA.”

As an adult, Goodsell began searching for cereal boxes from his childhood, the ones he remembered from Saturday morning commercials in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He considers original cereal collectors like himself to be “next-level collectors,” a different breed than those that were riffling through bins at flea markets for Incredible Hulk comics or trading with other collectors for a Man from U.N.C.L.E. gun still in the box. Instead, he was on the hunt for the absurdly hard to find.

“A lot of stuff that you’re looking for, you will only get one shot during your lifetime to buy,” Goodsell says. “If you want a Fruity Freakies box” — a childhood favorite of his introduced in 1975 — “there’s three of them out there probably … so if you want to get one of those, you’re gonna have to pry it out of the hands of one of those three people, and good luck with that.”

This was the pre-internet era, when enthusiasts would eagerly anticipate the arrival of Toy Shop, the toy collector’s bible. The biweekly magazine was one of the few ways to get information on the pricing and availability of everything from Barbies to Hot Wheels, and it also ran sales listings and wanted ads. There were ads for subscription newsletters and zines too — the analog version of eBay crossed with a blog. It wasn’t long before Toy Shop began listing all of the available vintage cereal boxes on the market.

Aside from Goodsell, there are two other big names from that first generation of serious cereal collectors: Duane Dimock and Scott Bruce. And there was no love lost between Dimock and Bruce. “Scott and Duane never got along with each other,” says Goodsell. “[They] feuded in the day.”

Vintage cereal boxes, part of Fonseca’s collection.

Dimock, now 62, claims that he was the first person to collect cereal boxes as a category. “There were a few people collecting cereal boxes,” he explains, “but … they were collecting Batman cereal to complete their Batman collection.”

He started collecting in 1987, going to swap meets in the L.A. area to buy cereal boxes, mostly ones from the 1960s like Quisp and Quake. It wasn’t long before he’d amassed hundreds of boxes and was known as the collector. Today, Dimock’s most prized possessions include some of the earliest U.S. cereal boxes, including an early Kellogg’s cereal and Jackson’s Granula from 1869.

“Duane probably was the absolute original guy,” says Goodsell. Bruce (who declined to comment for this article), meanwhile, had been a driving force behind the lunch box collectors market. He’d started a zine called Hot Boxing, which helped build interest in vintage Barbie and Yogi Bear lunch boxes — and, depending on who you talk to, drove up the prices. In January of 1990, he wanted to do the same for old boxes of Sugar Pops and Frosted Flakes. That’s when he sent a letter to Dimock, asking for his opinion on the best boxes to feature in his new zine, Flake. He signed the letter “Mr. Cereal Box.”

Dimock was incensed. He says Bruce had called him a few months earlier, asking about the state of the cereal box market and discussing their shared interest in collecting. “All during the conversation, he never mentioned he was going to do a fanzine,” Dimock says. “He just wanted to buy because he liked cereal boxes.” Dimock was outraged that now Bruce was trying to turn his passion into a business opportunity, and in the process would likely drive up prices.

Dimock never replied to Bruce’s letter. Instead, he started plotting. “I suggested to a cereal collector friend, [that] we make fun of this guy and expose what he clearly was trying to hide,” says Dimock. So, he got to work on Snot Boxing, a parody of Scott’s lunch box zine, and sketched out the cover for a parody of Flake, which he called FAKE.

Cover of the zine “Fake,” a parody of “Flake,” sketched by Duane Dimock. (Photo courtesy Duane Dimock)

Flake premiered in February, and just a few months later Dimock’s ad for Snot Boxing ran in Toy Shop. “Steve Bob’s Snot Boxing Fanzine,” it read, with this description: “a parody (or real) look at a lunch box fanzine.” There was also a line teasing the release of FAKE. 

Not long afterward, Dimock received a letter from Bruce, written on Kellogg’s Corn Flakes stationery. “After all parody is the sincerest form of flattery,” it read. “Send me a copy of both ‘Snot Boxing’ (I love it) and ‘FAKE.’” The letter ended with “P.S. You’re a sub-genius.”

The feud was on.

Dimock did send a copy of Snot Boxing to Bruce, and soon after, he got a phone call from a lawyer named Beverly Kogut — who he later learned was Scott Bruce’s wife. She claimed that the zine constituted “unlawful defamation” and demanded he cease publishing it and send an apology to everyone who had subscribed. She threatened him with a lawsuit and said that he would have his “lunchbox collection taken away.” Duane says he laughed. “You mean my cereal box collection?” he replied.

Kogut followed up with a letter threatening litigation and warning Dimock not to bring any of his parody zines to an upcoming collectibles show in Dallas. She included a draft of an apology for Dimock to send to his subscribers, for “any injury to the good reputations and good names of Scott Bruce, his wife, and any of Scott Bruce’s publications.”

Around this time, another of Dimock’s ads for FAKE appeared in Toy Shop. By coincidence, it was just below an ad for Bruce’s Flake. Kogut faxed a letter to Toy Shop demanding that they “screen all ads in the lunch box and cereal sections … for statements or pictures which defame or advertise publications which defame Mr. Bruce, his wife, or his lunch box and cereal box businesses.”

In July of 1990, Dimock went to the collectibles show in Dallas. He’d paid for a table and arrived with not only copies and covers of his Bruce-mocking zines but also a flyer with a caricature of Scott Bruce on it. The cartoon Bruce, identified as “Steve ‘Pailhead’ Bob™,” had red beady eyes, spiky hair and a “kick me” sign affixed to his shirt.

As he handed out his flyers, Dimock wondered how Bruce would react. Would he yell at him? Hit him? He soon found out. As Dimock walked back to his table, he saw Bruce there examining his stuff. “I come up to his side and said, ‘Scott … my pal,’” Dimock recalls. “I was impressed, he did the smartest thing he could had done; he meekly walked away … saying nothing.”

It’s unclear if Bruce actually had a hand in pumping up the prices of vintage cereal boxes by publishing Flake. Some sought-after boxes were still hovering in the usual price range (about $200) after Bruce came on the scene, but others had started to sell for much more. In one issue of Flake, Bruce claimed that a 1983 box of Sugar Smacks had sold for $5,000.

Bruce and his wife never did sue Dimock, who never actually published the first issue of FAKE, despite having made a satirical cover with Bruce’s face on a box of “Steve Bob’s Self-Butter Crunch.” Bruce continued to publish Flake for at least three more years. Both he and Dimock continued to collect cereal boxes. Dimock refused to sell any of his boxes to Bruce, and almost 30 years later, there’s still animosity in Dimock’s voice when he talks about Bruce.

The intensity of the Dimock-Bruce feud may seem odd to outsiders, but it begins to make sense when you consider how much of this subculture is built around nostalgia. Cereal can be a connection to the past. Eating a bowl of a decades-old classic, like Lucky Charms or Cinnamon Toast Crunch, can be a Proustian experience, with one bite of a sugary square mixed with milk bringing back a rush of happy childhood emotions.

“Taste and smell are really strong memory inducers,” Fonseca says. “When eating a bowl of Fruity Pebbles or eating a bowl of Cap’n Crunch, you can really be transported back to that time when you’re a kid … a simpler time when … we didn’t have any responsibilities.” And while most people are satisfied with the euphoria of simply tasting a cereal from their childhood, others want more. “There are the crazy people like me,” explains Goodsell, “who get so buried in nostalgia, they want to own stuff and have it in their house.” Or publish fanzines, create websites and blogs, make YouTube videos and podcasts … even lash out at someone they see as trying to muscle in on and profit from their passion.

Some of Fonseca’s cereal box collection, flattened to conserve space.

Nostalgic obsession can take on many forms. For Fonseca, the most extreme form of his obsession was the hunt for a lost cereal: Buñuelitos. Initially released by General Mills in U.S. Spanish-language markets, it was a honey and cinnamon flavored corn puff cereal. Fonseca loved it, but he hadn’t been able to find a box for more than two decades. Buñuelitos became his white whale.

Then, a few years ago, he was visiting a friend in Minnesota. It was the closest he’d ever been to the suburban Minneapolis headquarters of General Mills. The company follows Fonseca’s YouTube channel, Cereal Time TV, and sends him boxes from time to time, so he reached out and was invited to the corporate archives. Fonseca was like a kid in a candy store. “Oh, my God, this is amazing,” he enthused, as archivists showed him cereal memorabilia they thought he would like. There were dozens of old boxes, classic cereal prizes, and even original animation cells from a few commercials.

Before Fonseca left, they gave him something to take home: a small snack pack of his beloved Buñuelitos.

But cereal companies aren’t just using nostalgia to build bridges with online cereal influencers. It’s become big business. Like TV and film studios, the cereal world constantly revives and reboots hits from the 1980s and ’90s, from Garbage Pail Kids Cereal (with marshmallow “barf bites”) to the recent relaunches of Oreo O’s and Pop-Tarts cereal.

That pull of the past can also create problems, especially when it bumps up against the push toward the future. Cereal is always changing, like when General Mills removed the high-fructose corn syrup and artificial colors from Trix in 2016. Red 40, Blue 1 and Yellow 6 were replaced by colors derived from purple carrots, radishes and turmeric. Fonseca thought it was a bad move. “They looked really pale and bland,” he says. “I think that was a little off-putting to people who expect Trix to be these brightly colored … shapes and pieces.”

Fonseca, left, and Hicks at Gizmo’s Cereal Bar in Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy Thomas Hicks)

Goubert agreed. “Eating muted, artificial color-free Trix makes my inner flame of childhood glow a little dimmer,” he wrote on Cerealously.

Trix fans revolted, with some saying it was now basically “a salad.”

Hicks wasn’t surprised by the reaction. “I fully support people who are against artificial flavors, but I don’t think you should do it with cereal,” he explains. “Lots of my fans … want to have the cereal they ate as kids.”

In the end, General Mills kept the new, healthier Trix, but also released a “classic” version to appease those clamoring for them to bring back the artificial flavor and coloring.

Nostalgia drives people’s cereal love, as they aim to return to the “moments of happiness” and innocence of their childhood. What drew most enthusiasts to cereal in the first place was the novelty: the many variations of Cheerios, from Honey Nut to Apple Cinnamon; the inventive cereal shapes, from waffles to four-leaf clovers, cinnamon buns to SpongeBob. The surprise within the box: Which Jungle Book figurine or baking soda–powered submarine would they find?

Fonseca, Goubert and Hicks are in favor of innovation and experimentation, found in cereals like Post’s Sour Patch Kids or Honey Bunches of Oats: Maple Bacon Donuts flavor. Actually, they think the cereal companies haven’t gone far enough. Goubert wants them to explore more nuances within the taste palate. “There’s all kinds of layers to donut cereals,” he says. “There could be a sour-cream donut cereal, or a jelly-filled donut cereal.” Fonseca thinks the “miniature breakfast food” genre, which has seen its share of toasts, waffles and donuts, is tragically lacking a mini-pancake-shaped cereal. Hicks would like to see a beignet cereal, as well as attempts to harness savory flavors, like a cheesy mashed potato or pot roast cereal — though he admits those “would take cereal scientists a lot of work.”

Fonseca recording and editing one of his videos for his YouTube channel.

Despite their wish lists, today’s cereal connoisseurs are noticeably positive. There are no heated disagreements or feuds. “Maybe it’s from the marketing we grew up with back in the day,” Goubert jokes. “All these mascots and the fun commercials.” In fact, the biggest conflict within the group is Fonseca and Goubert’s long-running debate about whether Krave is a good cereal. Fonseca considers it a knockoff of the mid-’90s cereal Hidden Treasures, which he describes lovingly as “golden pillows that were filled with fruity … frosting.” It has, to his mind, set a benchmark that no other pillowed cereal — including Krave — has lived up to.

“It might be like a cilantro-style thing,” Goubert says, “where some people are just born with a genetic disposition to think [Krave] tastes like dog food.” His own love of Krave, as he writes on Cerealously, comes from “the unique blend of multigrain and graham flavor in every biscuit: it’s like someone melted Teddy Grahams, graham crackers, Nilla Wafers, and Life Cereal into a single bowl, molded the golden paste into a rounded rectangle, and lovingly slathered a chocolate sliver inside.”

While their blogs and web videos follow in the footsteps of their predecessors’ newsletters and zines, today’s cereal obsessives seem both genial and self-aware.

Fonseca in front of his cereal box collection wall at his apartment in Los Angeles.

And their hobby has even gone academic. Dimock now gives lectures on the history of cereal. One product he talks about is Korn-Kinks, from 1890. It was one of the first cereals with a mascot: Kornelia Kinks, a racist caricature of an African-American girl. He cites it as evidence of the way cereal from each era is reflective of the larger American culture at that time, for better or (often) for worse. And in contrast to that particularly ugly example, cereal boxes can show the country’s progress too. A few decades after Korn-Kinks, in 1936, a sprinting Jesse Owens became the first black athlete to have his image emblazoned across the Wheaties box, and today the beaming face of tennis superstar Serena Williams adorns the iconic orange box.

But despite this focus on serious historical issues, even Dimock seems to have mellowed a bit. A few weeks after being interviewed for this story, he sent the writer an email. “Isn’t it funny, how insignificant most everything really is,” he wrote. “I will be interested in you seeing things I can’t see. Good or bad.”

It seems this community of collectors has grown and changed over time … just like cereal.

The Million-Dollar Scammer and His Many Mormon Marks

How an audacious con man with fake ties to the pinnacles of the church ran an epic scheme and swindled those who trusted him most.

The Million-Dollar Scammer and His Many Mormon Marks

As a kid growing up in northern Utah, Chet Olsen would often take his older brother’s shotgun shells, empty out the pellets, and spread them across a flat surface. He would then guide the pellets around, pretending that each one was a sheep he had to tend to. Olsen, now 62, has a salt-and-pepper mustache that accents his serious demeanor, and his boots display telltale signs of a lifetime of hard, hands-on work. After graduating high school and taking a string of construction jobs, Olsen jumped at the opportunity to launch his own business. It was nothing glamorous — his company, R&C Supply, manufactured chemical fertilizer — but it was his own. Olsen eventually expanded his customer base to include hundreds of farmers and cattle ranchers across Utah County, which allowed him to fulfill his childhood dream of purchasing a herd of sheep.

People tend to know their neighbors in the part of Utah County where Olsen lives, a region south of the cities of Orem and Provo, where clusters of modest homes are grouped together between acres of open farmland. So Olsen frequently saw Al McKee, an unassuming-looking middle-aged entrepreneur who had moved, with his family, to Utah County in the late 1990s from a town outside of Salt Lake City. McKee wore his gray facial hair in a goatee and would often boast, in passing, about his business connections. He owned and operated a company, the Ophir Minerals and Aggregate Group, that mined industrial materials like silica and calcium carbonate. Like approximately 85 percent of Utah County’s population, Olsen and McKee were both members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). Their families were in the same ward — a term used to represent a local church congregation of Mormons, which is presided over by a bishop.

Chet Olsen herds his sheep on a vast field on the Tintic Mining District. Photos by author.

In 2000, McKee heard that Olsen was beginning to raise a herd of sheep, and he made him a proposition. He brought Olsen to a seven-mile stretch of land on the edges of the county. Dotted with cedar trees, the area, known as the Tintic Mining District, had bustled with industry in its 19th-century heyday. McKee told Olsen that he had bought the land and envisioned multiple mines yielding tremendous profits, like it had when settlers first staked claims in the area. The work McKee planned to do would primarily be underground, leaving an opportunity for Olsen to use the land above for his herd. After a contract was written and signed, Olsen began clearing some of the cedar trees to make the area easier to navigate. He rebuilt fences and reseeded grass so that the sheep would have plenty to eat come spring.

A deeper friendship between Olsen and McKee began to blossom as a result of the deal. Meanwhile, their wives bonded through their participation in a Mormon mentorship program that offered guidance to young women. The couples’ shared love of music took them on vacations to Las Vegas, where they saw Rod Stewart perform, and to St. Louis for a Paul McCartney concert.

Almost 15 years later, McKee offered to sell Olsen some farming equipment at a substantial discount — a lucrative opportunity, given that Olsen could use the equipment for both his fertilizer company and his sheep-herding business. Convinced that the investment was worth the risk, Olsen took out a loan for $755,740 and began to make plans to propel his two businesses toward further prosperity.

out loud banner

Subscribe:

“Then someone I thought was my friend came and took it all away,” Olsen says.

Olsen never received any of the equipment McKee had promised him. Instead, McKee kept the money for himself. As Olsen and his wife would later learn, the bogus equipment sale was one of many fraudulent deals McKee had been pitching to investors all over Utah County. Before the schemes were finally exposed, his plot had ensnared a national corporation and a prominent Utah County politician. In the meantime, McKee netted and spent close to $1.2 million.

Olsen gets ready to feed his sheep.

Sadly, the story of Al McKee and his schemes is not an anomaly in Utah. According to the FBI, the state is a hotbed for white-collar crime, with billions of dollars lost annually by individuals who fall victim to con men. Utah’s large Mormon population is particularly vulnerable to what’s known among prosecutors as “affinity fraud.” Perpetrators of these schemes use affinity — a shared identity formed through membership in the same close-knit group — as a way to gain the trust of their victims. That deep trust is then used to persuade victims to invest money into legitimate-sounding business ventures. Although LDS Church officials declined interview requests on the topic for this article, prominent members have been privately warning fellow Mormons of the practice for decades.

In a 1986 article for the official LDS magazine, Ensign, a prominent Mormon named Dallin Oaks called perpetrators of affinity fraud “scheming promoters with glib tongues and ingratiating manners.” Oaks, who had a leadership role in the church and also served as a Utah Supreme Court justice, went on in the article to write that “though their method of thievery may be immune from correction in this life, sophisticated thieves in white shirts and ties will ultimately be seen and punished for what they are.”

Prosecutors throughout Utah have made combating affinity fraud a priority as well. But even when perpetrators are successfully convicted of their crimes, victims rarely receive even a fraction of their investments back. The payments Olsen has received from a court-ordered restitution don’t even cover the monthly interest accumulating on the $755,740 loan. He and his family are struggling to make ends meet.

“It gets tough at times,” Olsen says. “You’ve got to try to save your credit and you’ve got to try to save your soul.” Gary Anderson’s life changed forever when McKee entered his world in 2009. Born and raised a Mormon in California’s Central Valley, Anderson has always taken great joy in helping others, particularly those otherwise overlooked by society. Anderson, now 72, took his mission trip to Germany after high school, where the friends he met and served with were all planning to attend Brigham Young University in Provo. They encouraged Anderson to do the same, and after writing to the famous Mormon university, he was granted admission and a scholarship. He met his future wife, Molly, while attending the school. It was partially because of Molly’s Utah County roots that, after attending law school in his home state of California, Anderson moved back to Utah and took a job as a prosecutor. He eventually transitioned to defense work, solidifying a long-held belief that working as a trial lawyer was a good way to make a living while also helping a lot of people. In his mid-30s, Anderson served as a Utah County commissioner; then he went back to practicing law, until people in the community encouraged him to run for public office again nearly two decades later. He won the election and retook office as a Utah County commissioner in 2006.

In June of 2009, Anderson was at the Marriott Hotel in Provo for a meeting of the Economic Development Corporation of Utah. The nonprofit organization serves as a bridge between the public and private sectors to promote economic growth. Along with the county’s two other commissioners, Anderson listened to a presentation given by Al McKee. Every mineral known to man has been found in abundance in Utah, McKee told the group. All of these minerals, he added, would make Utah County in particular attractive to Fortune 500 companies like 3M and Ford.

The presentation did not go over well.

“We thought he was a blowhard,” Anderson says. “We thought he was full of boloney because he is. He’s just one of those guys.”

Despite this initial impression, Anderson would soon end up working closely with McKee. Utah County had embarked on a project to resurface and rehabilitate Interstate 15, a freeway that runs through the entirety of the county. Ames Construction, a national company with a long history of work in Utah, won the project bid and tapped McKee’s company, Ophir, to provide Ames with road base — a mixture of clay and gravel commonly used in road construction because of its ability to handle heavy loads. When McKee ran into some logistical issues, Anderson, in his role as county commissioner, was called upon to help sort things out.

A view from the side of the road in Elberta, just east of the Tintic Mining District.

The eventual success of the interstate project gave Anderson a newfound sense of respect for McKee, and his initial skepticism about the man soon faded entirely. McKee introduced him to people who said that they worked with 3M and mentioned that McKee had saved the company billions. McKee frequently lectured at local universities on the promising future of the mineral industry in Utah County. In many of these presentations, McKee would note that his knowledge of the minerals in the region came from studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

On multiple occasions, McKee worked closely with the county government on economic development, and the commission even named Ophir as the Utah County Business of the Year in 2011.

“We thought he was wonderful,” Anderson says. “Everybody trusted Al.”

When Anderson was up for reelection in 2010, he won handily with 81 percent of the vote. According to campaign donation disclosures, McKee gave a total of $6,500 to Anderson’s campaign through two individual gifts and one donation from Ophir.

In what Anderson estimates was 2013, McKee informed him that he had cancer of the esophagus and was dying. Anderson heard secondhand stories about McKee traveling internationally to receive cancer treatments that were not yet approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Mutual acquaintances told him that McKee was preparing to hand over control of the Ophir Minerals and Aggregate Group to his son. With the exception of a brief phone call in the run-up to Anderson’s reelection campaign, Anderson says he didn’t hear much from the terminally ill entrepreneur for more than a year. Just east of the Tintic Mining District, at the junction of two state highways, is Elberta, Utah, population 275. It was once the sight of a major railroad, but for years only tumbleweed has run across the overgrown tracks.

Plans to renovate the area had developed and stalled multiple times. But, in 2013, while Anderson thought McKee was focused solely on his cancer treatment, the entrepreneur reached out to Ames Construction, the company he had worked with on the Interstate 15 project, with a promising offer in hand. He said he was working alongside leaders of the LDS Church, who wanted to construct a six-building industrial park to serve as the focal point of a newly refurbished railroad, both of which would attract new businesses to the area. If Ames Construction agreed to work with McKee on the development project, the company stood to make millions.

A rocky road in Elberta.

McKee provided Ames Construction with copies of letters, addressed to McKee, that were written on letterhead used by the Suburban Land Reserve, a land management corporation owned by the LDS Church. He also provided Ames with letters purportedly written and signed by Bishop Gary Stevenson, at the time the Presiding Bishop responsible for overseeing all of the worldly business conducted by the LDS Church. The letters showed support for McKee’s role in the industrial project and stated that the church was prepared to invest more than $200 million in the endeavor.

Leadership at Ames agreed to work with McKee on the industrial park, and the company began spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to prepare for construction. In addition to allocating funds for equipment and engineering work, Ames Construction also paid McKee for expenses that the entrepreneur was supposedly incurring while preparing the site.

Meanwhile, Anderson lost his bid at another term as county commissioner in 2014, falling to an opponent from the Tea Party who ran on a platform further to the right than Anderson’s, promising that lessening the county’s bond obligations would bring about economic prosperity. Fortunately, Anderson’s time in office and credentials as an attorney made finding new employment easy: He worked in the public defender’s office, served as the city attorney for the town of Eureka, and did legal consulting. The multiple job titles, coupled with the revenue from his wife’s thriving business selling imported vanilla, yielded some of the best financial times of the Andersons’ lives.

Then, in April of 2015, McKee called, out of the blue. He told Anderson that his business had become a mess while he’d been recovering from cancer, but he now had plans for a promising future. According to Anderson, McKee told him about contracts he had with 3M for calcium carbonate and for the work he was doing to revitalize the Tintic Mining District. McKee needed assistance with getting his business in order, and he offered Anderson a six-figure salary if he would help. Anderson agreed to look at how Ophir was doing before committing.

The two men took trips up to the mining district, where McKee showed Anderson some of the test holes they’d dug and the ore that was being analyzed. McKee provided Anderson with contracts from companies wanting to purchase calcium carbonate, which he said were worth $15 million.

“Let me help you,” Anderson told McKee before officially joining Ophir as a legal consultant.

Early 2015 was also when McKee proposed the big equipment deal to Chet Olsen. McKee said that, through a friendship he had developed while going to school with Jon Huntsman Jr., the former Utah governor, he could buy repossessed government equipment at a discount through a company called Associated Land Brokers. When Olsen saw the detailed lists of equipment, each piece seemed to be something that would benefit both his expanding fertilizer business and the growing sheep herd. The list included large spreaders that are used to spray chemical fertilizer onto soil, trailers Olsen could use to haul his sheep, as well as hay bailers, tractors and more. Olsen says that he gave the deal a lot of thought before he began the process of obtaining a $755,740 loan from Western AgCredit, which provides financial services for agricultural purchases.

Around the same time, Anderson says, McKee asked him if he knew anyone who would be interested in investing in a silica mine he was trying to get up and running in the Tintic Mining District.

Eventually, Anderson told McKee that he would invest some of his own money in the project. Over a period of three months, Anderson invested $170,000 — about half of the total value of his retirement account — into Ophir. Knowing that his daughter Sarah and her husband, Nate Schultz, were having financial problems after losing a considerable amount of money during the recession, Anderson also approached them with the investment opportunity.

It was a huge commitment after losing so much, but the couple said that they were trying to develop a positive outlook when it came to their finances. Friends warned them that they shouldn’t invest anything they weren’t prepared to lose, and they had that in mind when a $20,000 investment deal was drawn up and signed with McKee.

“My dad, who is super protective of me as his little girl, would have never put us in a position that would cause us financial hurt, knowing what we’ve been through,” Sarah Schultz says, before acknowledging that her father did not truly know McKee at the time — or about the disaster that awaited them. While that disaster had yet to unfold, some of McKee’s business partners were starting to grow impatient. Ames Construction had invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the development project, yet there weren’t any signs that ground would be broken in the immediate future. Meanwhile, Olsen had been providing McKee with funds from the loan he had taken out to purchase the discounted farm equipment, but he hadn’t received anything in return.

When McKee was unable to provide any proof that a return on their investments would materialize, Olsen and Ames Construction began putting pressure on the entrepreneur to make good on his promises. Anderson noticed the increased scrutiny, and he says he pushed McKee to let him help with legal matters. However, McKee would always offer a reason why he should be the one to handle things.

The supposedly terminal cancer that McKee had previously overcome was also back with a vengeance. Anderson says that there were multiple times when a planned business trip to California was canceled at the last minute because McKee said he was in the hospital receiving treatment. On other occasions, McKee said he was unable to deliver paperwork Anderson had requested because he was having tests done. The $10,000 checks that Anderson was receiving as a monthly salary began bouncing, but Anderson says that McKee was quick to provide cash or a certified check instead.

Olsen had similar experiences with McKee as he continued to put pressure on his friend about the equipment he had paid for. It got to a point where every time Olsen called he would hear McKee’s faint voice on the other end of the line saying that he could hardly talk because of the illness. Olsen’s wife, Karen, would often bring prepared meals to McKee’s house to lift the burden on his family.

“That’s what we do out here when someone is sick and dying of cancer,” Karen says.

As McKee’s condition seemed to worsen, Anderson began taking more of a hands-on role in the business. He met with Olsen in person multiple times, attempting to serve as a buffer between Olsen and McKee, whose friendship had become strained. When the pressure continued to build, Anderson says that McKee’s wife, Cynthia, pulled him aside and said that the demands on McKee were killing him. Something needed to be done to calm the worried parties.

Although, to this day, he can’t put his finger on what led him to do what he did next, Anderson agreed to help McKee. Under McKee’s guidance, he started making phone calls to Olsen using burner phones that Anderson claims were given to him by the entrepreneur. One night, Anderson called Olsen’s cell phone posing as David Thompson, the supposed president of Affiliated Land Brokers, and left him a voicemail. When Olsen heard the voice, it sounded familiar to him, and he saved the message.

Olsen still has the voicemail. Anderson begins by identifying himself as David Thompson and, after apologizing for calling so late, details all of his unsuccessful attempts at contacting McKee. Then he describes various permits that needed to be purchased so that the equipment deal could proceed.

“We had to pay those commerce permits, we had to pay ’em. We couldn’t let $2 million worth of equipment go for 11 grand, so I used his credit card,” Anderson states.

Before cordially ending the call, Anderson stumbles through a joke about McKee potentially suing his “David Thompson” persona and then stresses that he had to use McKee’s credit card so that they could keep the equipment.

Anderson also agreed to use the same burner phones to make calls to an Ames Construction executive — this time pretending to be Bishop Stevenson. Speaking as Stevenson, Anderson attempted to ease the executive’s worries. There were never any demands to Ames for money, Anderson maintains, just reassurances that the bishop was still planning on getting to the industrial park project.

In the time that has passed since making those phone calls, Anderson says he’s spoken to his bishop, his family and psychologists in an effort to figure out why he did something he knew he shouldn’t have.

“To this day, I cannot think of what tipped me over the line,” Anderson says. “But I was trying to take pressure off of Al. He was sick, he was my friend. I was worried about him.”

Meanwhile, Olsen was still suspicious about the voicemail from the man alleging to be in charge of getting him his equipment. He had met Gary Anderson enough times to develop a strong hunch that the former commissioner was the real voice behind the call. To confirm his suspicions, Olsen called a friend who was a detective with the Utah County Sheriff’s Office. As soon as the detective, who had worked closely with Anderson in the past, heard the voicemail, he identified the voice as belonging to Gary Anderson.

At the same time, legal representatives from Ames Construction were going directly to LDS Church officials with the letters that were supposedly from Bishop Stevenson. They were able to confirm through LDS legal counsel that the letters were, in fact, forgeries and that the high-ranking church official had never actually had contact with McKee. Realizing that they’d been had, the church’s legal team contacted investigators at the Utah County Attorney’s Office. Anderson’s wife, Molly, woke him up earlier than usual on the morning of December 22, 2015. He wasn’t due at work for another hour and a half, but Molly was insisting that he wake up immediately.

When he came upstairs from his basement bedroom, the scene reminded Anderson of something out of a television show. There was a team of several officers surrounding his home. Once they were inside the house, they informed Anderson that they had obtained a warrant for his phone because they believed that incriminating text messages between Anderson and McKee were on the device. They read him his Miranda rights and, although Anderson says he would have gotten it for them himself, then proceeded to search the home until they found his cell phone.

During the search, Anderson says that he admitted making the fraudulent phone calls.

“We don’t like the sound of that,” Anderson recalls one of the officers stating after he confessed.

“I know,” Anderson says he replied. “It was stupid.”

On February 26, 2016, both Anderson and McKee were charged with multiple felonies — including three counts of second-degree communications fraud.

Due to the potential for a conflict of interest in the case, the Utah County Attorney’s Office requested that the state attorney general’s office prosecute Anderson and McKee. The case was taken by the office’s Mortgage and Financial Fraud Unit, which regularly prosecutes white-collar crime cases in which large amounts of money have been taken from multiple victims. Assistant Attorney General Jake Taylor, who is in charge of the unit and was involved in prosecuting Anderson, says that in most of the cases that his office prosecutes, a violation of trust has occurred. The victims, he adds, typically give money to someone else because they know their family or because they attend the same ward.

Taylor says that the key pieces of evidence in the case against McKee and Anderson were the phone records that investigators obtained after they seized the duo’s cell phones. Those records demonstrated, he adds, that McKee and Anderson were conspiring through text messages to defraud Olsen. In addition to the messages, both Olsen and the executive from Ames Construction had recorded phone calls and voicemails in which Anderson was impersonating someone else.

“If you’re a juror, how do you ignore that?” Taylor asks. “He’s someone that you think could be trusted and here he is making phone calls pretending to be someone he’s not.”

Olsen didn’t realize the scope of his former friend’s crimes until he attended a preliminary hearing for McKee and Anderson on June 2, 2016, where he heard about the other schemes that McKee had been involved in. He also listened intently as a forensic accountant detailed exactly where all of his money had been going.

There were trips to Africa and England, the financing of mission trips for members of their ward, and vacations with extended family to Disneyland during which McKee had paid the entire bill. By the time the accountant was finished, Olsen had heard a detailed account of how his $755,740 had been spent paying for his former friend’s lavish lifestyle.

Most of McKee’s other claims don’t check out either. A spokesperson for MIT said that the school’s registrar’s office had no record of McKee ever being a student there. Olsen would later learn that McKee had never actually purchased the Tintic Mining District, but instead had merely taken out a five-year lease on the property. Neither Olsen nor Anderson believe that McKee ever had cancer, and Anderson now believes that the 3M contracts McKee showed him were forgeries as well.

Anderson’s trust in McKee didn’t vanish until he heard testimony during the preliminary hearing. Up until that moment, the former county commissioner had maintained his belief that McKee’s business dealings were legitimate — even if some of his methods had crossed the line. But when Anderson saw the fake email accounts, forged letters and impersonations that McKee himself had done, he could no longer defend him.

“It was a calculated, complicated, diabolical deal,” Anderson says.

Both McKee and Anderson would end up taking plea bargains that stipulated that, in exchange for having three of the felony charges dropped, they would plead guilty to one count of communications fraud. McKee was sentenced to 15 years in prison and ordered to pay more than $1.5 million in restitution to the parties that were defrauded by his crimes. He is currently being jailed at the Tooele County Detention Center and could be as old as 71 when he is released. He did not respond to requests for an interview.

Al McKee’s profile on Utah’s White Collar Crime Registry website. (Image courtesy Utah’s White Collar Crime Registry)

If not for the phone calls, Anderson’s defense attorney, Nathan Crane, believes that the former commissioner would have just been another victim of McKee’s schemes. What Anderson did was stupid, Crane says, but he maintains that Anderson did it because he believed that McKee had legitimate projects going and that he was just stalling for time while McKee was battling an illness.

Anderson had already paid $25,000 to Olsen before his sentencing, which under the terms of his plea deal allowed the former county commissioner to avoid jail time. In total, he was ordered to pay $162,606 in restitution. During his sentencing hearing, Judge Vernice Trease, of Utah’s Third Judicial District, ordered Anderson to make restitution payments of $1,000 a month and questioned how much Anderson would be able to pay without a job.

“Anderson needs to find a job. Or two jobs. Or three jobs,” Trease said in the courtroom. “Someone is out of a lot of money, and Anderson — especially given his background — knows better.”

Some of Anderson’s children who were at the sentencing hearing, including Sarah Schultz, offered to make up the difference should Anderson be unable to afford his monthly payment.

“Up to that point, I just wanted to die. I just wanted to die. I just wanted to be gone. I just wanted to be gone from existence,” Anderson says. “Then my family brought me back.”

Gary Anderson’s profile on Utah’s White Collar Crime Registry website. (Image courtesy Utah’s White Collar Crime Registry)

The plea deal Anderson accepted was unique, and it stems from a desire to get financial restitution for the victims. If both men were in prison, Crane says, there would be no restitution payments at all. Under the terms of the plea agreement, Anderson was also required to resign from the Utah State Bar and surrender his law license.

Both Anderson and McKee now appear on Utah’s White Collar Crime Offender Registry. In February of 2016, Utah became the first state in the nation to have such a registry, which displays perpetrators’ photos alongside details of their state-level felony convictions. When the registry launched, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said that he hoped it would encourage perpetrators in the state to complete their court-ordered restitution payments. If a convicted fraudster pays his court-ordered restitution, he is removed from the registry.

For Anderson, being placed on the registry does not impact him nearly as much as the repercussions he has faced at church. Although he’s still able to attend services at his ward and is still considered a member of the LDS Church, the fact that he has a felony on his record means he is “disfellowshipped” and unable to participate in church activities like leading prayer during services. If Anderson is able to complete his court-ordered restitution payments, the church will fully reinstate him.

Anderson often thinks about where his legacy stands in the wake of the incident. He says that he feels like he’s no longer the commissioner who brought jobs into the county, or the defense attorney who would often work for free when clients couldn’t afford representation. Instead, he says, he’s the crook — the guy who stole a bunch of money.

“Life is not over,” Anderson says. “But boy it’s changed.”

Chet Olsen’s hands, covered with worn-out work gloves, vibrate as he drives a pastel orange water truck toward his herd of sheep. The only sound on this misty January morning in 2018 is the rumbling of the diesel engine as the truck makes its way along rough dirt roads that divide large fields filled with the remnants of last season’s alfalfa harvest. As 14 large troughs come into view in the foreground, Olsen spots thousands of dark specks in the distance. He sits casually in the truck, on a seat with torn-up blue upholstery that leaves the padding underneath almost completely visible, watching in the side-view mirror as each trough fills up with water.

Olsen with his water truck, pumping water for his sheep.

Olsen’s thoughts are often consumed by the $755,740 loss he suffered at McKee’s hands, and there are reminders of McKee all around him. A short distance east is the site of the industrial development and railroad that McKee was supposedly selected to help build. To the west are the remnants of railroad tracks that McKee claimed to own and, in another one of his fraudulent schemes, was selling to local recycling companies. Just beyond those torn-up tracks is the Tintic Mining District, where McKee brought investors and pitched them on his plans to resurrect it.

In the years since his former friend and Anderson were sentenced, Olsen has often wondered whether he is to blame for his loss. It’s hard to trust people now, he says, and his family is in serious debt. Gary Anderson’s restitution payments don’t even cover the interest on the $755,740 loan that Olsen took out for the equipment. Olsen, along with his wife, Karen, frequently think about how they are going to make ends meet.

“It’s a good thing we did put some away so that the roof over our head is paid for,” Olsen says. “But still, our lifestyle and the things we planned for the future [are] not there.”

Eventually Olsen gets out of the water truck and makes his way over to where the sheep are gathered. Slowly and steadily, he walks the perimeter, leading the skittish sheep toward the water troughs. When the herd arrives, Olsen gets back into the truck and prepares to refill the troughs as they are drained.

There is little chance that Olsen will ever be fully repaid for what McKee stole. “Meanwhile he’s sitting down there getting three meals a day that you and I are paying for,” Olsen says. “He’s got it made. He needs to be out dragging a chain around somewhere, picking up garbage off the freeway or something.”

Once the troughs are refilled and Olsen is through inspecting the sheep, he navigates the water truck back down the dirt road. Past the troughs, crows pick at the body of a dead lamb. Although Olsen can’t say for sure how the lamb died, he notes that some of the main predators in the area are coyotes, which are often depicted in Native American mythology as tricksters that use clever and cunning to deceive others.

Sometimes, in those legends, the coyotes take the shape of men.

Olsen’s sheep graze in a field in the Tintic Mining District.

Judges Gone Wild

Bribery! Impeachment! Drug smuggling! Gambling! Justices getting drunk in the chambers! The Florida Supreme Court scandals of the 1970s make today’s political circus look tame by comparison.

Judges Gone Wild

In mid-November 1986, two women came into a funeral home in Jacksonville, Florida, to claim the body of Thomas Mills, who had succumbed to an aggressive case of cancer. The funeral director, quiet and circumspect as his profession necessitates, presided over a confusing situation. It turned out that “Thomas Mills” was a pseudonym. The women at the funeral home were the man’s current wife and ex-wife; each had married him under his given name: David Lucius McCain.

He had adopted his assumed name for two reasons. McCain was known as one of the most corrupt State Supreme Court justices in Florida’s history and was eager to outrun his reputation. But he was also literally on the run from federal and state authorities, who had been after him for years for his involvement in an off-the-rails drug smuggling scheme.

McCain’s fall from grace came at a time in American history heavy with the pong of political corruption, the same era as President Nixon’s resignation for his role in the Watergate affair. The widespread disillusionment with politicians was particularly pronounced in McCain’s home state. Numerous state officials faced charges in the mid-1970s, but the ethical erosion was most acute in Florida’s highest court. Not only did McCain come under threat of impeachment but five of the seven other justices were also in serious trouble — all at the same time. Drinking in the chambers was rampant, and things got so bad that one justice was required to take a test to prove his own sanity.

The theatrical level of corruption was eye-opening even by today’s “Florida man” standards. Productivity slowed, high-level officials were put on blast, and voters and legislators from both sides of the aisle were eager to make an example of judges gone wild. McCain found himself caught up in this whirlwind, a ringleader whose deceit engendered scandal and distrust, creating a circus-like atmosphere that feels more than a bit reminiscent of today’s national political scene.

out loud banner

Subscribe:

“There had been an odor emanating from the Florida Supreme Court for years,” recalls longtime Florida newspaperman Martin Dyckman, who played a significant role in bringing the corruption to light.

Many observers felt that the problems stemmed from the way justices were installed in office. At the time, Florida Supreme Court justices were elected by voters and campaigned as Democrats or Republicans, which left the theoretically impartial judiciary potentially in the pocket of the donors backing their campaigns. Legislators had been trying to change this system since at least the 1940s, but it wasn’t until the leak of a questionable memo that reform was prodded into being.

In August 1973, The Tampa Tribune ran a story describing a memorandum from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement that discussed how several State Supreme Court justices had accepted bribes regarding their rulings on horse and dog racing. The memorandum was not attributed to any specific person or verified by any on-the-record sources, but Dyckman’s editor at the St. Petersburg Times asked him to dig deeper into the rumors of misconduct on the court. More tips and sources led to increasingly revelatory newspaper articles, and the state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) began looking into the justices who were said to be up to no good.

The JQC is made up of 15 members who investigate the alleged improprieties of Florida’s judges, from local justices all the way up to the State Supreme Court. The members — six judges from all levels of Florida’s court system, plus four Florida Bar members and five nonlawyer civilians — can recommend everything from censure to removal from the bench, which would be enacted by the State Supreme Court. When it came to disciplining a member of the State Supreme Court itself, following a JQC investigation, the Florida House of Representatives could open impeachment proceedings, with a trial taking place before the Florida Senate.

After the newspaper articles broke open the myriad bribery allegations lobbed at the Florida Supreme Court justices, the JQC was suddenly very busy indeed.

First in the JQC’s crosshairs was Chief Justice Vassar B. Carlton, who had been filmed at a high-roller dice table in Las Vegas. The trip had allegedly been arranged and paid for by the operators of a dog-racing track whose case was possibly going to be heard by his court, suggesting that Carlton was open to influence. The investigation was supposed to be secret, but when Carlton, who had been elected as a Democrat, got wind of what was going on, he resigned.

The JQC was also looking at Justice James C. Adkins. A jowly middle-aged man with thick-rimmed black glasses, Adkins was “called, at various times, a redneck, drunk, and legal genius,” according to the Miami Herald. Justice Adkins, also elected as a Democrat, proudly displayed a plastic marijuana plant in his office, a thank-you from pot smokers for his opinion that the government had no business regulating private smoking practices. Legality of substances aside, Adkins had a serious problem with alcohol that led to the downfall of his marriage at the time, his fifth overall, and also led to the JQC ordering him to stop drinking or be removed from the bench. Adkins had to sign an undated letter of resignation that would be given to the governor in the event that he drank again.

Then things really began to heat up.

The JQC turned to Justice McCain, who was 43 at the time, and his colleagues, fellow justices Hal P. Dekle, 56, and Joseph Boyd, 57. All were implicated in different forms of influence peddling, from showing favoritism to certain law firms to the outright taking of bribes. McCain, a Republican, was the most obvious target for an investigation, as he had raised ethical eyebrows long before his appointment to the State Supreme Court.

David McCain (right) is sworn in as a justice of the Supreme Court by Justices Richard Ervin (left) and Alto Adams (middle). (Photos courtesy State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)

Born in Sebastian, Florida, in 1931, McCain was a friendly man with a quick wit and obvious intelligence. His classmates recalled him as the type of person who was clearly going somewhere, and after numerous high school and college accolades, the first step in his sure-to-be-impressive career was admittance to the Florida Bar in 1955. McCain, an athletic, handsome man who wore his hair parted and swept back in the style of the day, was known for his intense dedication to his profession, staying late in the office and always bringing home a bulging satchel full of legal briefs.

McCain had friends in high places and was fast-tracked to a judgeship on the Fourth District Court of Appeals by Claude R. Kirk Jr., the governor at the time. There, McCain’s injudiciousness was already a semi-open secret. He was said to have sought favorable rulings for defendants crucial to his reelection, and to have taken money from union officials and the lawyer of notorious gangster Meyer Lansky. He was also said to have solicited campaign contributions from defendants whose cases he presided over, including the heiresses to John Deere and Firestone tires — the former had shot her husband and the latter was in the midst of suing a newspaper for publicizing the details of her divorce. McCain seemed to be flaunting his peccadillos when he paid a nearly $10,000 mortgage with $10 and $20 bills, which he said was a cash gift from his father-in-law.

Investiture of David McCain to the Supreme Court, accompanied by his wife Helen
Champion McCain (right) and Justice Alto Adams (left), 1970.

Nevertheless, when it was time to replace a Florida Supreme Court justice who died suddenly in 1970, Governor Kirk recalled McCain’s hard work on his reelection campaign and appointed him to fill the position. The Florida Bar association warned that McCain wasn’t qualified due to his “legal improprieties” and “suspected criminal activities,” but McCain completed the interim term and was reelected by voters in 1972. A reporter for the Orlando Sentinel wrote, somewhat enigmatically, that McCain “was not a man who would arm wrestle you for a beer, but he could finesse the eight ball in the corner pocket for a double scotch on the rocks every time.”

But it wasn’t long before the issues from earlier in McCain’s career again bubbled to the surface, compounding allegations of corruption and lower court decision-fixing while on the State Supreme Court. He too had ongoing problems with alcohol — he was said to be drunk in the chambers with regularity, sometimes as early as 9 a.m. — and the JQC opened its investigation in early 1975. The breadth of the charges meant impeachment loomed large.

At the same time that the JQC was launching an investigation into McCain, his colleagues Justice Dekle and Justice Boyd, both old-school Southern Democrats, found themselves caught up in a dicey situation stemming from their questionable interactions with a lawyer named Edwin Mason.

Justice Boyd was a colorful character who grew up a “penniless hillbilly student who slept in haunted houses [and] fought bulldogs,” according to his Florida Bar obituary. He found success as a real estate lawyer and was elected to the Florida Supreme Court in 1968 despite little practical experience on the bench. “That is just not true — I was a judge in the Miss Opa-Locka beauty contest,” Boyd later told the Miami Herald, referring to a small city north of Miami.

Investiture of Joseph Boyd to the Supreme Court, accompanied by his wife Ann Boyd (left), and Justice Campbell Thornal (right), 1969.

Boyd was golfing buddies with Mason, who at the time was involved in a large lawsuit on behalf of a utility company, which was being heard by the State Supreme Court. On the phone with Mason one day, Boyd disclosed that he and his fellow judges were likely to rule in favor of the utility company, a major decision that would have added the costs of new income tax regulations onto customers’ monthly bills. Mason offered to draft an opinion based on this ruling, ostensibly to save Boyd some time, since the court was going to rule that way anyway. Mason’s people drafted the memo, which he dropped off with Justice Boyd after going to his house to get some vegetables from the justice’s garden, according to Dyckman’s book A Most Disorderly Court: Scandal and Reform in the Florida Judiciary.

A little while later, realizing the position he’d put himself in, Boyd tore the memo into “seventeen equal parts,” flushed them down the toilet, and went on vacation to Europe, wrote Dyckman. But the problem didn’t go entirely down the tubes, as Mason had also given a copy of the memo to Justice Dekle. McCain had been looped in on a communiqué about the memo as well, making things look even fishier. The judges’ own staff turned them in for improper behavior and leaked the information to the press.

McCain was incensed that the court’s secrecy had been breached. As former Florida Supreme Court colleague B.K. Roberts later told the court, “All of McCain’s Irish temper came out and he exploded and he explained [that] he wasn’t going to have anybody burglarizing his office.” The clerks’ eyes went wide when McCain threatened terrible violence to anyone found to be a leak. No clerk was ever harmed, and thanks in part to Dyckman’s reporting on these shenanigans, the JQC opened investigations into Dekle and Boyd.

A group portrait of the Supreme Court Justices in Tallahassee, Florida, 1975. Standing (L-R): Hal P. Dekle, Joseph Boyd, David McCain, Ben Overton. Seated: B.K. Roberts, James Adkins, Richard Ervin.

The JQC needed to determine whether the acquisition of the Mason memo was corruption or an honest mistake, but they also had to consider what would happen if the court had to replace several of its justices all at the same time. They felt compelled to act quickly, in part because the headlines about corrupt officials had become so frequent, and because they were extending to Florida’s other branches of government as well. Among several cabinet officials facing allegations at the time were Floyd Christian, Florida’s education commissioner, who resigned before he could be impeached on charges of bribery, perjury and conspiracy, and insurance commissioner Thomas O’Malley, who resigned before he was tried by the State Senate for accepting unlawful compensation.

An example had to be made. The hammer dropped on justices Dekle and Boyd first.

Dekle seemed genuinely put out by the suggestion that he had deliberately done something wrong. He argued that his “lack of bad faith and moral turpitude in the matter should excuse him from removal from the bench,” and that justices were “bombarded” with memos and briefs and articles on an hourly basis. It is “entirely possible extraneous and improper materials can reach a judge’s desk without him being acutely conscious of them,” he said.

Boyd also denied any wrongdoing, and the JQC used remarkably sympathetic language in their assessment of him, noting the various family and professional crises he was going through at the time and even stating that Mason had taken advantage of Boyd, who was a “friendly affable fellow.”

Nevertheless, in February 1975, the JQC found that the judges were guilty of “obtuseness and raw ineptitude in the matter which cannot be condoned or go uncondemned.” Accordingly, the JQC recommended that both justices be stripped of their titles and kicked off the court.

A State Supreme Court panel was convened to hear an appeal of the decision, with circuit judges sitting in for Dekle and Boyd. The panel decided that the two men shouldn’t lose their judgeships, because no “corrupt motive” was present. The reaction to this decision was explosive, as the panel members were seen as being yet more good old boys protecting their own.

Legislators even ignored the panel’s recommendation that the judges be kicked off the court, and Democratic Florida House Speaker Donald Tucker furiously opened impeachment proceedings against Boyd and Dekle in April 1975.

Dekle maintained his innocence, but he also realized that impeachment proceedings would likely bring to light the results of an earlier, secret JQC investigation into his lobbying of a lower court judge, which had found him guilty but hadn’t amounted to any tangible punishment because the JQC couldn’t agree on what would be appropriate. And so, citing health and financial concerns brought on by the ordeal, he resigned at the end of April 1975, bringing an end to the motion to impeach but also to his career on the bench.

A newspaper clip announcing Justice Dekle’s resignation, 1975. (Image by The Evening Independent via Google News Archive)

The Florida House of Representatives seemed to agree with the JQC’s assessment of Boyd and opted not to impeach him. Boyd, who had a meltdown under questioning, apparently came from a political environment where dubious political dealings were so rampant that he genuinely may not have realized that ex parte communication with a lawyer was wrong. “He wasn’t a bad guy; he was just hopelessly miscast as a Supreme Court justice,” Dyckman says.

Instead, the JQC came up with a way to oust Boyd without the trouble of impeachment. Boyd was to be given a public reprimand and could stay on as justice, with one caveat — he had to take a psychiatric test proving he was sane. Given Boyd’s behavior so far, the court apparently assumed that he would be found mentally unfit for the bench, or at the very least, not competent enough to serve. He could then be handily removed, as the JQC also had the power to retire justices based on age and doubtful competency. But Boyd surprised the commission and passed the test with flying colors; the doctor even noted in his report that Boyd was a highly moral man. He stayed on as judge, and even turned the potentially embarrassing experience into a positive. He campaigned on the fact that he was “the only judge in Florida certified sane” when he ran for reelection, and voters kept him on the bench by a wide margin.

Meanwhile, activity on the court had slowed to a crawl. Almost a thousand cases waiting to be heard by the court had been significantly delayed, including numerous death sentence appeals. The United States Supreme Court had recently reinstated the death penalty, and Florida had fast-tracked its death penalty statutes into being, resulting in a confusing and incomplete set of laws governing the ultimate punishment. Attorneys on both sides of the issue scrambled to set things right, leaving the fate of hundreds of men’s lives in the air as the court dealt with its internal concerns.

To make things worse, the Florida Supreme Court voted 4-3 to delay a grand jury investigation into a State Treasury official until after the election season. The decision was met with widespread ridicule and disbelief, because a ruling on the matter had the potential to shield judges from investigation into anything they did prior to 1973. The court withdrew its decision, but the move prompted voters to pass a constitutional amendment stating that anything a judge ever did, even before he became a judge, could be used to demonstrate his unfitness and remove him from the bench.

Fed up with the mess, the JQC had no problem taking McCain to task for the deficiencies of the court, which in turn led to the Florida House of Representatives opening impeachment proceedings. “We had more than enough evidence to show the man to be a thorough rascal,” a member of the Florida House’s impeachment committee said as it moved against McCain. McCain boycotted the preliminary sessions of his impeachment hearings and ultimately resigned the day before full proceedings were scheduled to begin. He was stripped of his title and prohibited from practicing law anywhere in the state.

Portrait of Justice David McCain, Tallahassee, Florida, 1970.

Though McCain had forestalled investigation by resigning, his problems only compounded from there. He was arrested for drunk driving in 1977, then, in 1978, convicted of aggravated assault for using a gun to threaten a group of teenagers for being too loud outside of his apartment. Moreover, the Florida Bar pushed for a lifetime ban, a harsher punishment than what the JQC had recommended.

McCain worked as a law clerk as he tried to fight the disbarment, and he secured letters of recommendation from attorneys with whom he had previously worked. But his past weighed too heavily to be ignored. “The roster of attorneys [was] cleansed of a miscreant,” the court said in 1978 as it disbarred McCain for life. He was the first former judge in Florida’s history to be prohibited from practicing law. Many felt it was a loss for the state, as, according to McCain’s mentor and former Florida Supreme Court Justice Alto Adams, McCain was “one of the best qualified men, legally, to ever go on the court.”

McCain appealed his disbarment to the Florida Supreme Court itself, where his erstwhile colleague Joe Boyd was one of the people tasked with hearing the appeal. Some of the charges against McCain were dropped due to a lack of evidence, but the court upheld others as “so gross in nature [that] it bears upon his current fitness to practice law.” His livelihood stripped away, McCain tried to figure out what to do next. Unsurprisingly, he had some colorful ideas.

On September 25, 1982, authorities from numerous jurisdictions descended upon McCain’s quiet home in Fort Pierce, a small middle-class city in southeastern Florida. McCain was led away in slacks and an untucked guayabera shirt by a cadre of armed police. He and seven co-conspirators had been arrested for trying to smuggle no less than 15 tons of marijuana into the United States, and McCain was facing extradition to a rural Louisiana parish where the plan had allegedly originated.

According to the indictment, McCain and 70-year-old Charles Robertson, a professional gambler, had outfitted a shrimp boat and hired a captain to bring weed back from Colombia. The boat would then sail to Florida and Louisiana, where the cargo was off-loaded under the cover of night. McCain, who used the alias “Joe Rico” in the plot, was facing up to 24 years behind bars for orchestrating and funding the scheme. His lawyer, another former Florida judge who had resigned after allegedly soliciting sex from the wife of a man he’d sentenced to prison, helped McCain plead not guilty and post the $200,000 bond.

“This is very aggravating, what we’re going through right now, to say the least,” McCain told the Miami Herald at the time. “Very perplexing, very disturbing.”

More details emerged about the ill-fated operation as McCain’s alleged co-conspirators appeared in court.

McCain and Robertson allegedly masterminded the plan, which they’d begun plotting sometime in 1980. The first smuggling attempt, in spring 1981, had failed when the U.S. Coast Guard suddenly appeared and arrested the crew of one of the boats taking on the contraband. The group made a successful purchase in Colombia a few months later, but they were waylaid by an eight-man squadron of Colombian soldiers (or at least men disguised as such). McCain’s men and cargo were held hostage and told they would all be killed unless they paid $500,000. One of the men managed to get his father to raise $150,000, which was enough to get them set free, though their cargo was confiscated and the boat was later captured in an unrelated sting.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents in Colombia learned of the plan, which was traced back to McCain through wiretaps and confessions. He was rearrested a month after the initial arrest and charged with federal crimes. McCain chain-smoked and paced relentlessly throughout his house between hearings. His family couldn’t make heads or tails of how he’d gotten into this predicament.

“He was good at changing diapers. He could put together a carpool. He knew how to start up a law firm. He could write legal opinions. But a smuggling operation? I will never be able to figure that out,” McCain’s stepdaughter told the Orlando Sentinel.

McCain’s extradition to Louisiana was granted, and he expressed deep concern about how a former judge would fare in prison. On January 20, 1983, when it came time to fly to Louisiana and face the music, he simply never showed up to meet his lawyers for the ride to the airport. A nationwide manhunt ensued.

Since McCain spoke Spanish, there was speculation that he might have gone to Central America or that he was in Miami under the protection of a Cuban lawyer. Others were worried he’d been abducted by someone he’d crossed while he was a judge. One friend asserted that he’d met with McCain a few times while McCain was working under an alias as a clerk for a law firm in South Carolina. The friend said he was sure McCain had something worked out with the feds, as he seemed unconcerned about walking around in the open. But none of these leads went anywhere, and McCain seemed to have totally disappeared.

Then, in mid-November 1986, police received an anonymous tip that the former justice had turned up.

“The good news is they found David McCain,” one agent told another. “The bad news is he’s dead.”

Fast-forward to the body of the man known as Thomas Mills in the Jacksonville funeral home. Fingerprint analysis confirmed that Mills was in fact McCain, though this revelation was surprising only to law enforcement. McCain’s son had been helping him live quietly in an apartment in Jacksonville under the assumed name. When his heavy smoking habit caught up with him, he developed cancer that spread aggressively, and his daughters took turns caring for him and taking him to the doctor, where they paid only in cash. McCain was reportedly planning to turn himself in (and mount his comeback as a lawyer) when he died at age 55. The date was November 11, 1986, and a letter discussing his surrender and inquiring about leniency was said to have arrived at a U.S. attorney’s office in Miami just days later.

McCain was buried in a small cemetery in Sebastian, his hometown, not long after. His grave is indicated by only a small plaque, as if to offer a semblance of anonymity after a life of infamy. It has never been revealed where he was hiding before he returned to Jacksonville, and, perhaps figuring that the family had been through enough, the authorities decided not to press charges against them for harboring a fugitive.

McCain was the last Florida Supreme Court justice elected by the people, as the scandals of the 1970s brought about a sweeping change to the way Florida judges take office.

Voters amended the state constitution in 1976 to adopt a “merit retention” system for State Supreme Court justices. Instead of voting a judge into office (with all the unneutral trappings of a campaign), a judicial nominating commission would provide a list of qualified judges to the governor, who would select a judge from the list. Voters would then decide whether to keep a judge in office for further terms. Today, 26 nominating commissions have been established as needed to oversee appointments to the Florida Supreme Court, as well as the district, circuit and appeals courts (though trial judges are still elected). As it happened, the first full impeachment of a sitting judge finally happened not long after the creation of the nominating commission. A circuit court judge was removed from office in 1978 for selling marijuana seized by the local sheriff’s department.

The public was optimistic about the justices who cycled in as the others resigned, an incoming class that included Florida’s first African-American State Supreme Court justice, Joseph Hatchett. As Neil Skene wrote in The Supreme Court of Florida: A Journey Toward Justice, the justices “often disagreed with each other on cases or policy,” but they “shared a powerful commitment to personal and judicial integrity” and were a welcome replacement to “populists and so-called good ol’ boys who were beholden to utilities, agribusiness, and corporate interests and who secured their political standing with pork-barrel spending and appeals to racial prejudice.”

Most of the other justices were able to recover from the scandal. Justice Hal Dekle went on to have a respectable career as a professor at Oral Roberts University, and Justice Joe Boyd continued to serve on the Florida Supreme Court until 1987 (including a two-year stint as chief justice, from 1984 to 1986). After retiring, he opened a law practice with his son. Boyd died in 2007, at age 90, with his son and grandson continuing to work in the family firm. Carlton, the gambler who had been seen at a dice table in Vegas, returned to private practice and died at age 92 in 2005. Justice Adkins actually did stop drinking and stayed on the court until 1986, when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70. “They used to call me an old drunk,” he once said. “But I’ve come back to win a lot of awards.” McCain’s name, however, became shorthand for political corruption, and to this day it’s a buzzword used to evoke the “bad old days” of the Florida Supreme Court.

The scandals of the 1970s were characterized by a marked interest in rooting out corruption by both political parties. When Dyckman polled Florida legislators, only three representatives said they weren’t going to vote to impeach McCain. That the Watergate affair came into full bloom during this time didn’t do the reputations of the Florida judges any favors.

“In Florida, there were significant members of both parties who were outraged that a lawyer with connections could have inside influence with a Supreme Court justice,” Dyckman says. “They were outraged that an education commissioner would take kickbacks from a supplier who was an old friend of his. They were outraged that the state treasurer and insurance commissioner would have a kickback scheme.”

But the reformed system eventually became as fraught as the one that preceded it. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned limits on campaign spending in Buckley v. Valeo in 1976 by arguing that campaign contributions were free speech. Florida followed suit, loosening its own contribution limits and imposing term limits on legislators. While the two-term limit was intended to keep politicians from amassing too much power, Dyckman says, in effect it empowered lobbyists, who weren’t bound by any limits and found ready colleagues in the legislators eager to get things done before their two terms were up.

Today, lawyers and legal firms routinely contribute more cash to Florida judges’ nonpartisan reelection campaigns than the voting public does, and wealthy donors are able to wield a startling amount of influence, such as when the Koch brothers funded a massive campaign to oust Florida judges allegedly sympathetic to Obamacare in 2012.

In 2001, the Florida legislature granted the governor the power to nominate five of the nine civilian members of the State Supreme Court’s judicial nominating commission and choose the other four from a list prepared by the Florida Bar. “The governor could reject names endlessly until he found someone he liked,” Dyckman says. In other words, a single person, elected in a highly political race and whose decisions are final, has almost complete control over who sits on the bench.

And it’s not like judges were necessarily scared straight anyway — the JQC receives over 700 complaints a year, and over 175 JQC investigations have led to charges against judges since the scandals of the 1970s. Judges have been charged with offenses including tardiness, excessive arrogance, driving under the influence, having an improper relationship with a bailiff, sentencing without an attorney present, brandishing a loaded gun in court, proclaiming religious beliefs in court, soliciting lawyers for free lunches, and using the judicial office to promote a personal business. Punishments have ranged from public reprimands to thousands of dollars in fines to removal from the bench. (And this is only in Florida. Other State Supreme Courts have their share of drama as well, including five justices being impeached simultaneously in West Virginia in 2018.)

Old-school scandals may have boasted suitcases full of cash, while today’s scandals are complicated by the obsessive insistence on deep state conspiracies and “fake news,” but both are only window-dressing to the banal certainty that power will corrupt. Whether it’s State Supreme Court justices or the U.S. President, 40 years ago or today, we’re consistently reminded that the people we choose to make our most important decisions are just as flawed as the rest of us — and sometimes much more so.

The First and Final King of Bloodless Bullfighting

He pioneered a version of this ancient sport in which animals aren’t hurt, drawing legions of fans to a sleepy Texas border town. His last wish: someone to carry on his legacy.

The First and Final King of Bloodless Bullfighting

Under the scorching Texas sun, surrounded by hundreds of onlookers, on the first day of the 80th year of his life, Fred Renk stares down the horns of an angry bull one last time.

In his right hand, he holds a red bullfighting cape. In his left, he cradles a smoldering Marlboro cigarette between two fingers. In front of him, a bull begins its angry charge. It’s not the biggest one Renk’s ever faced, but that doesn’t matter now. At his age, any wrong move could send Renk to his grave.

Renk’s Santa Maria Bullring in La Gloria, Texas.

It’s July 2, 2016, at the Santa Maria Bullring in La Gloria, Texas — a sleepy border town so small (estimated population: 70) you could drive by it if the sun got in your eyes. Once a year, though, the town swells as hundreds arrive to watch Renk’s “bloodless bullfights.”

Unlike their traditional counterparts, “bloodless bullfights” have the matador dodging and weaving around charging toros (bulls) in order to remove a flower attached to the animal’s back with Velcro. It’s a “symbolic kill,” according to Renk, meant to celebrate life rather than death.

But Renk isn’t the one who’s usually in the ring. In fact, Renk hasn’t fought a bull in quite some time, having retired decades earlier. Though time has eroded many memories, there are those that stand strong. Like the images of his son David as a young boy pretending to be a matador while wielding a dinner napkin like a cape. Or the indelible muscle memory that kicks in when a toro bravo charges his cape.

out loud banner

Subscribe:

Or the old adages he heard when he was first learning how to wield the cape. “La sangre valiente fluye primero,” he says. “The brave blood flows first.”

Today, the bull’s blood won’t be spilled.

But Renk’s might.

Renk watched his first bullfight when he was 17, as an exchange student in Mexico. At the time, he was in seminary school training to become a priest.

Born in Iowa, he moved a lot during his childhood — more so after his father left the family when he was young. Eventually, Renk wound up in the seminary.

“My life really began in seminary,” he says, a cigarette dancing in his lips like a conductor’s baton. “That’s when I realized that, in this world, you’ve got to help people. When that sort of idea gets in your head early, you live your life for other people too.”

One day, he and another young seminarian heard about a bullfight in town. The pair followed the siren song of a good time to the town’s bullfighting arena, where they found a raucous party flowing with wine, loud music and tacos. It was the kind of event to make two priests-in-training forget about their vows.

They took their seats in the stands, and soon the doors of the arena burst open. In walked the matador, wearing his traje de luces, or “suit of lights,” shimmering like a chandelier in the sun. Draped over his shoulder was an ornate, embroidered cape. After bowing to the crowd, the matador took his place behind a wooden barrier near the stands.

“Everyone seemed to be expecting something,” Renk recalls. “You could feel it in the air — like static.”

The doors opened again, and a Mexican fighting bull the size of a sedan cannonballed into the arena. The matador emerged from behind the barrier, his face set and focused like a sphinx.

“When the bull came in, he dropped to his knees, spread his cape on the sand, and yelled to challenge the bull,” Renk recalls. “And that bull came running right at him!”

It was all Renk could do not to tear his eyes away. Right before the bull could drive a horn into the man, the matador lifted the corner of his cape and swung it over his shoulder. As he did, the bull flew over his shoulder too, its horn almost grazing the matador’s face.

Fred Renk featured in an advertisment for a bullfight in Reynosa, a town bordering McAllen, Texas, 1965.

Later, as Renk and his friends made their way back to the seminary, his head glowed with the images of the matador and the bull. Though he didn’t know it then, Renk had caught the worm.

“They call it gusano,” Renk says. “Bullfighting, bulls, everything about it. It’s a worm that grows in your stomach and eats away at you until you give it what it wants: More.”

Renk left the seminary that year. After a stint in the Marine Corps, Renk found himself working as a salesman, traveling up and down the border of Texas and Mexico selling sewing machines for Singer.

All the while, he could feel the worm wriggle in his stomach, letting him know where he really wanted to be: in an arena, with a cape in his hands, a bull charging toward him.

Over the next two years, Renk traveled to different bullrings along the border the way pilgrims visit holy sites. Juárez, Tijuana, Nuevo Laredo. He began to train in bullfighting at each location, honing and perfecting his skills.

Renk fought his first fight at the Macarena Bullring in Acuña, Mexico, in 1961. He nearly missed it after sleeping too late, but he arrived as the parade into the arena began. All around him, trumpets blasted, accompanied by the steady beat of drums. The smell of cooked meats filled the air, just as they had when he saw his first bullfight as a seminarian. As he walked, Renk struggled to put the cape onto his trajes de luces.

The bullring was filled with thousands of cheering people. It seemed as though everyone in Mexico had come to see him.

“I shook the whole time I was getting dressed,” Renk says. “It felt like my guts were shaking.”

Soon, a trumpet blasted, the doors of the arena flew open, and a massive bull came out like a battering ram. Renk thought of that old bullfighting adage he’d learned while training:

La sangre valiente fluye primero. The brave blood flows first.

As the bull ran around the ring — charging at the stands and fruitlessly trying to burn off the adrenaline coursing through its body — Renk stepped out from behind the barrier and into the arena.

The hot sand beneath his bullfighting slippers warmed his feet. All around him, the air carried a potent mix of fear, anticipation — and tacos.

With a flick of his wrist, Renk caught the bull’s attention with his cape. The toro zeroed in on him, and the crowd silenced, waiting to see how this American would do.

The bull pushed off of the sand and began its charge as Renk walked toward it. Then he stopped and held the cape out to his side. He kept his eyes on the beast as it ran toward him.

As it came within goring distance, Renk moved his cape out just a hair, and the bull followed. Lowering its head, it moved with the cape before passing Renk by just a few inches. The crowd erupted with cheers. Renk had survived his first successful pass with a bull.

Renk kept at it, traveling from town to town to fight in local bullrings and arenas.

Eventually, he built a home in El Paso, which allowed him to easily travel across the border to Juárez to fight. He established himself as a bullfighter, meeting matadors, bull ranchers and organizers.

That’s also when he met the woman who would become his wife.

“I was at a fight in Juárez, and I looked up in the stands. I saw this pretty blonde sitting with a friend,” Renk recalls. “So I went up to her and invited her to go to lunch with me at noon the next day.”

Her name was Barbara, and it turned out she also lived in El Paso. Within a month, the pair was married. And as much as Renk had fallen in love with Barbara, it seemed he fell even harder for her 2-year-old son, David.

“The first time I met him, he just grabbed me for a hug,” Renk recalls. “And that was it, man.”

Renk took David to bullfights, ranches and even bars, where they met world-famous matadors and bullfighting aficionados. At each fight, the young boy focused on the action with the intensity of a chess master studying the board.

“We were at a bar after a fight, and there’d be matadors sitting and drinking,” Renk recalls. “Meanwhile, David is out on the floor holding a napkin like a cape and pretending to make passes with a bull!”

Though David wanted desperately to become a matador, he had been born with a genetic disorder known as Marfan syndrome. One symptom was a clubfoot that caused him to struggle to walk for the first six years of his life.

Renk and David practicing bullfighting, 1986.

Renk perhaps took to David because he saw himself in the boy. Like David’s father, Renk’s father had also left his family when his son was young. Or perhaps it was because David, like Renk, had grit and determination to make something of himself in spite of the odds.

When David was 8, a doctor who noticed him at a bullfight offered to perform corrective surgery on his foot for free. After the surgery, David laid in bed or used a wheelchair for six months. After that, he began to train as a bullfighter in earnest.

“The gusano was born in him early,” Renk says about his son. “And so he started training early.”

Over the next few years, Renk watched David transform from a young boy playing with a napkin on a barroom floor to a bullfighter in training. He fought his first sanctioned bullfight at age 14, much to his mother’s chagrin.

“I wish David wouldn’t do this,” Barbara told a reporter in a 1978 interview with People.

“I’m very proud of what David is doing,” Renk retorted in the same article.

But both parents ultimately supported his passion, purchasing his outfits, capes and even bullfighting swords. At each fight, they watched from the stands the way other parents would at a child’s football or hockey game, nervous for their child.

David began to make a name for himself in the bullfighting world, gaining the nickname “El Texano.” He became a bullfighting wunderkind. Newspapers and magazines from the world over covered his talent in the arena. He even appeared in an issue of Sports Illustrated in 1981 after gaining full matador status — an honor so rare that there have been more people on the moon than Americans who have become matadors.

Meanwhile, Barbara had given birth to another son, John “Binker” Renk. This spurred the elder Renk to fully retire from bullfighting. After all, he was a family man now. He had responsibilities.

However, that didn’t mean he was going to stop being close to the bulls. In fact, Renk concocted a scheme to bring bullfighting closer to home.

To kill a bull, a matador must stab its heart with a sword, thrusting the point through a spot on the bull’s back, deep into its body. If the matador’s aim is true, the sword kills the bull immediately.

However, in traditional bullfighting, the bull doesn’t always have to die.

If the bull proves itself to be exceptionally brave during the fight, it can win over the crowd. When the crowd is won over, they’ll shout at the judge to spare the bull. If the judge concedes, the bull is taken out of the arena and has its wounds treated. Then, it’s sent to live the rest of its life as a stud in the fields of a ranch.

Matador Karla Santoyo fighting a bloodless bullfight at the Santa Maria Bullring, 2012.

It’s rare — but when it happens, it’s wondrous. A throng of thousands shouting for a bull to be spared, to continue living in the face of death.

Renk wanted to bring a sense of that back home to the United States. His vision was simple: He would host mostly traditional bullfights, with a judge and all the fanfare. However, the bull would live. A flower would be attached to the spot on the bull’s back where the matador would usually stab it, and in Renk’s new version of a bullfight, the matador would have to grab the flower from the bull’s back as it charged at him.

It would be a bloodless bullfight.

“In Mexico, they call bullfighting the ballet of death,” Renk says. “Bloodless bullfighting is the ballet of life.”

And so Renk organized and hosted the first bloodless bullfight in 1986 at the Houston Astrodome, to great success. Then the family took the show on the road, traveling to New York City, Chicago and back to El Paso. For the next few years, they traveled and put on these bloodless bullfights. At each show, thousands showed up to watch the spectacle.

Renk’s wife Barbara measures him for his his trajes de luces.

Then, in 1989, Barbara died due to complications from diabetes. And as David grew older, it became clear that he was past his prime. After a fight in which he was trampled and nearly killed by a bull, he decided to retire too.

Renk, looking for something to occupy himself and his boys, bought a ranch in La Gloria, Texas, where he could raise cows and bulls. Taking a cue from Field of Dreams, he decided to do something he knew would keep his sons busy, while still giving David an opportunity to be close to bullfighting. He built his own bullring.

In 2000, Renk opened the Santa Maria Bullring on his ranch and began to host bloodless bullfights each spring, inviting famous matadors from Central and South America to perform. Renk judged the fights, and his son Binker helped organize the shows and corral the bulls.

For a few years, things were looking up. Renk and David even opened a bullfighting school, where aspiring bullfighters could come learn from “El Texano.” Though students couldn’t hurt the bulls, they still learned how to wield a cape and make passes with an actual charging toro.

But in 2006, Binker got hurt while working with the bulls.

“He was bringing them into the corrals, and one bull bumped his horn against his chest,” Renk recalls. “We took him in to have him X-rayed, and they didn’t find anything. Six months later, he was gone.”

According to Renk, the bull’s horn damaged Binker’s heart in such a way that it didn’t appear on the X-ray.

“He was just 36 years old, man,” Renk says. “The bull got his heart.”

David making a pass with a bull.

In 2018, David began to fall ill too. Due to the Marfan syndrome, David’s own heart grew weaker and weaker. Eventually, he ended up in hospice care, once again having to use a wheelchair or stay in bed, as he had all those years ago.

“He used to say, ‘Champions train, endure pain, and never complain,’ and he never did complain when he was younger. Even when he got trampled or gored by a bull,” Renk says. “But the day before he died, I came into his room and asked him how he felt. He said, ‘You want to know the truth? I feel like shit.’”

The next day, Renk got a phone call to come down to the facility where David lived. When he arrived, first responders were already on the scene. Before he could even get inside, someone he knew at the facility stopped him.

“David’s gone, Fred,” they said. “I’m so sorry.”

David died of congestive heart failure in September 2018, at the age of 55. The young boy Renk had taken in as his own and helped raise into a successful bullfighter, his business partner and co-organizer of the bloodless bullfights, was now gone.

Since then, Renk has had to manage the bloodless bullfights by himself — and though he still loves the bulls, he’s ready to move on too.

The Santa Maria Bullring is an impressive coliseum-esque structure in the middle of the Texas brushland. To get to it, though, one needs to walk through the ranch.

Now 83, Renk lives on the ranch with his wife, Lisa, whom he met after Barbara died. They married in 1991. On a typical morning, when he doesn’t have to host a bloodless bullfight, Renk wakes up at 6 a.m. and gets started with work at around 8 a.m. — tending to the cows, fixing broken equipment, and feeding the catfish he keeps stocked in the green ponds on his land.

When he finishes at around noon, he goes to his refrigerator, grabs a cold Tecate, and settles down at a table inside of a makeshift bar he built outside of his bullring.

“I have one more season [of bloodless bullfighting] left in me,” Renk says, as the can of cold beer sweats on the table in front of him. “But once that’s done, so am I.” He and Lisa plan to sell the bullring to someone willing to steward the tradition of bloodless bullfighting next to their ranch. Once that happens, they say they want to start enjoying bloodless bullfights instead of hosting them.

Renk’s framed photo of his last bloodless bullfight at the Santa Maria Bullring, 2016.

As Renk sits and relaxes, trading sips of his beer for drags from his cigarette, his eyes wander the walls of the bar. Adorning them, as well as the inside of his house, are posters of David’s fights, pictures of the family, and portraits of famous matadors who have performed here. There are trajes de luces and even a bull’s head mounted on the walls — all relics of a time that’s passed.

“I did this all for David,” Renk says. “And somebody told me once he did it all for me.” He pauses for a moment. “I don’t know if I believe that though.”

Nanging on a wall outside of the arena, there’s one picture that Renk seems especially proud of: It’s a large 11-by-14 photograph of himself on his 80th birthday.

“Fred’s last ‘Olé!’” reads a caption beneath the photo.

In it, he holds a cigarette in one hand and a red muleta in the other, as a bull charges at him. When Renk looks at the photo, a smile reaches his face and his eyes brighten.

And for a moment, he is the ghost of the man he once was — the man who wanted to bring the bullfights to America and celebrate life instead of death. The one who loved, lost, and lost again, but still managed to pick himself up to take his destiny by the horns.