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Loathing In Las Vegas

On the airplane, I caught sight of someone reading the latest issue of U.S. News and World Report, with a cover story on "How to Raise a Moral Child." It sounded like typical middlebrow sermonizing, based on the assumption that morality (that is, morality as defined by the editors of the magazine) could be taught in the same way as spelling or darts. It's not that simple, as I could attest. Here I was traveling to Las Vegas with a polygraph expert to interview a man who, I believed, did not have an adult sense of right and wrong. He had bedeviled me for a year, and now I hoped I could finally determine whether he was telling the truth.

In May 1995, I had published an article in The New Republic describing how Texas Senator and presidential candidate Phil Gramm concealed his investment in 1974 in a soft-porn movie called Beauty Queens. About three weeks after the article appeared, I received a letter containing a weather-beaten membership card from July 4, 1974, for Phil Gramm from the Texas Fiery Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. It was signed by "Scott Nelson, Imperial Wizard." On the back of the card was a message to Gramm from Nelson: "Happy Birthday to you next week Phil, Scott. Glad your initiation into the local klavern was OK." Underneath that was Gramm's address in College Station, Texas. The envelope was postmarked Las Vegas, but it bore no return address.

For the hell of it, I decided to do some simple checking. What I found was disconcerting. Gramm's address was exactly what the card described; his birthday was July 8, which was the following week. I discovered through a Nexis search that Nelson had been the head of the Fiery Knights in 1974. He had run for mayor of Houston in 1975, and in 1976 was even slated to run for vice president of the United States on a national Klan ticket. Soon afterwards, Nelson dropped out of the news until December 30, 1993, when The Houston Chronicle reported from the Philippines that he had been kidnapped. A week later, the Associated Press reported, Nelson resurfaced unharmed, claiming that he had been robbed.

I called The Houston Chronicle's librarian to see if she had anything from the 1970s with Nelson's signature on it. She sent me a questionnaire that Nelson had filled out for the 1975 mayoral race. As it came in over the fax, I saw that the signature and handwriting matched that on the card. The card, I realized, could be genuine, and Gramm could have been involved in 1974 in something far worse than investing in soft-porn movies. But questions abounded: If it was Gramm's card, how did it end up in my mailbox at The New Republic? Was Nelson himself still around, and could he have sent the card to me? And what were the conceivable circumstances in which Gramm, a respectable college professor with an Asian American wife, would have joined the most notorious racist organization in America?

I went to College Station to see whether I could find anyone to attest that Gramm had been a member of a local klavern. I never supposed that Gramm had joined the Klan out of agreement with its aims. In writing a profile of him for GQ, I had spent a day with Gramm and had also interviewed his wife, brother and childhood friends. Gramm is not an easy person to read. Like other politicians, his self is buried beneath layers of calculated appearance designed to make him an appealing public figure. But, from what I could gather, Gramm's concealed self contained a blend of rebellious mischievousness and searing ambition. I couldn't discern the kind of hatred and resentment, nor the overriding sense of failure, that drives people to embrace organizations like the Klan.

If Gramm had joined the Klan, it would have been out of cynical calculation, with perhaps a dash of mischievousness thrown in. As a politician, Gramm had sometimes seemed to play the race card. In 1976, he had briefly backed George Wallace for president. It was conceivable, though not likely, that in 1974, while contemplating a run for Congress, he might have thought a secret membership in the Klan would help his chances in East Texas, where Wallace retained significant support and where the Klan was still strong. But I couldn't find any evidence in College Station of the Fiery Knights, let alone of Gramm's membership in a klavern.

I had no better luck in trying to find Nelson himself. He was not listed in any phone directories in Texas or Nevada. I enlisted Sheila Coronel, an investigative reporter in the Philippines, to look for him there. She discovered a train of marriage and divorce. In 1991, Nelson had converted to Islam to marry a Muslim woman but had later divorced her. Then he had married another Filipino woman named Adelaida and was supposed to be living with her in Cebu in the Central Philippines. In October, Coronel finally got to Cebu, but she found Nelson and his wife gone. The owner of their pension told her that they had left for the U.S. "He talks of Nevada and Texas as Scott's likely destination," Coronel wrote. "Unless there's such a place as Nevada, Texas."

I decided to call information again in Texas and Nevada, but to ask this time for Adelaida Nelson. In Las Vegas, the operator couldn't find Adelaida Nelson, but she added apologetically that there was a new listing for an " Adelaida and Scott Nelson." After six months, I had found him. I decided to go there without phoning first. I didn't want him to be able to avoid me. I also didn't want him to be able to deny that he had signed the card. Before I left, I asked Jerry Richards, the former head of the FBI's Document Operations/Research, to look at the card to see whether the handwriting matched the samples I had acquired from the 1970s. Richards couldn't give me legal certainty, but he said, "I have no suspicions that this is a forgery."

I landed in Las Vegas just after New Year's. Nelson's address was not listed, so after pacing my hotel for an hour rehearsing my lines, I called him, and introduced myself. He said he didn't recognize my name but had heard of The New Republic. He agreed to meet me at Binion's Horseshoe, a large downtown casino.

Las Vegas's entertainment district is composed of the strip, lined by glitzy high-priced hotels offering big-name entertainment, and the seedier downtown that specializes in serious gambling. On the strip you see conventioneers and families on vacation: in the downtown, the hardened faces of men and women who have had their hopes dashed on the roulette wheel or blackjack table, but who still dream of parlaying their meager savings, or even Social Security checks, into a fortune. Binion's is their casino. It takes up a city block. It is dark and cool inside and even at noon is crowded like a subway car at rush hour.

Nelson showed up several minutes after noon with Adelaida ("Addie"), his fifth wife, in tow. He was wearing a red nylon windbreaker from Laughlin's Riverside Casino, and she had on a long brown quilted coat, even though it was about 60 degrees. Nelson, 57, was a small, compact man, with a slight swagger in his walk and an almost perpetual grin. His thin brown hair receded back over his head, making him look a little like Lamar Alexander.

We sat in a cafeteria downstairs, and I showed him the card. "I don't remember having this card with me in my possession," he said. But he remembered the card and the circumstances in which he signed it. "I didn't initiate him myself," he said of Gramm. "I was not present when he was initiated. I was told by some members that were in the College Station area and Waco that were members of the Texas Fiery Knights that he had shown interest in joining the group. But he didn't want to be an active member. He wanted to be a closet, underground member. I believe he was a Democrat at that time. I was given his address."

I asked him who initiated Gramm. He gave me the name of the head recruiter in the Fiery Knights, whom I'll call Louis Walton, but whose real name I'm withholding. Walton "was from College Station, but lived in Houston," Nelson said. He had been shot inadvertently during a robbery that took place in a restaurant where he was eating and, according to Nelson, was probably dead. Nelson said he had no idea who sent me the card. "Having known how treacherous women are, I would suspect my first wife," he said.

As Nelson talked about the card and Gramm, he spoke in a monotone and in short sentences, as if he were testifying in court. But when he would talk about his own life or about contemporary politics, he grew much more animated. Nelson told me his father was a Klansman who was initiated in Dallas in 1924 by Hiram Wesley Evans, one of the men responsible for the Klan's revival in the 1920s. Nelson was born in Fort Worth, grew up in Shreveport and moved to Houston, he said, after being discharged from the Navy after six weeks for going awol. He was initiated in the Klan when he was 18, and at 29, in 1972, first joined a klavern in Houston.

Nelson said he wasn't impressed by the members of the United Klans of America. "It had become a coffee and doughnut bunch of guys. There wasn't a lot of interest in action," he said. He and fifteen other men split off to form the Fiery Knights. I asked Nelson his aim. "I would have honestly liked to see a race war at that time. You know you got to have a lot of men and money; you got to have an army."

According to Nelson, the Fiery Knights didn't do much more than its predecessor. The group held a few demonstrations and got into a brawl with Socialist Workers Party members in Houston. "Mainly it turned out to be coffee and doughnuts the same as before," Nelson said. In 1976, he stepped down as Imperial Wizard and in 1977 stopped identifying himself as a member of the Klan. He didn't stop being a racist--in 1977, he went to Washington to join an American Nazi demonstration--but he became disillusioned with the Klan because of its support of Christianity. "The lighting of the cross is supposed to signify that Christianity is the light of the world. I no longer consider myself a Christian," Nelson said. "I am an atheist. I have my own personal thoughts about religion. I think it is a big farce. It's a fairy tale, you know."

In the '80s, Nelson moved to the infamous Kingman, Arizona, and worked across the state line at the casino in Laughlin. He went to the Philippines in 1987, where he lived off his savings and his wives and what he could win from betting on cock fights. In October 1994, he had two heart attacks and decided to return to the United States, where he could get better medical treatment. He ended up in Las Vegas because jobs were plentiful and a car was unnecessary, but he himself didn't work. He was spending his days watching the O.J. Simpson trial and reading about politics at the local library, while Addie worked as a cashier at a casino. He told me he liked Pat Buchanan the best of all the presidential candidates. He also showed me a piece of paper on which he had written down whom he thought the Democrats should nominate. His choice was a ticket of Johnnie Cochran and O.J. Simpson or Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan. I pocketed the list. I wanted to use it as a sample of his printing.

When I got back to my hotel that afternoon, I faxed Nelson's list to Jerry Richards, the ex-FBI man. I wanted him to compare the printing on the list with the printed address on the envelope that had arrived from Las Vegas last June. The writing on the envelope was clearly different--it looked like the rickety, jagged effort of an old man--but I wanted Jerry's judgment about whether Nelson could have contrived it. Jerry called me back several hours later. He couldn't make a definite judgment, but he thought there was a 60 percent chance Nelson had addressed the envelope with his left hand. Recalling his FBI experience, Jerry said, "I would push him. If it was me, I would put the badge on him." I called Nelson and arranged to see him the next morning before I left.

We met at a Day's Inn in downtown Las Vegas. It was warmer, and when Nelson took off his red windbreaker, I noticed his arms were covered with tattoos. He also had a small swastika tattooed on his right earlobe, which in the dark of Binion's I had mistaken for an earring. "I just kind of liked the looks of it. It was controversial," he said. At this second meeting, Nelson wanted to talk about money, blacks and politics. He clearly didn't want to talk about the card, and I had to interrupt him so I could finally tell him what Jerry Richards had said about the penmanship on the envelope.

Nelson was impressed that I had consulted a former FBI man. "I only told you part of the story," he said in his confessional monotone. "I made out two cards. I filled out two identical cards. I gave one to Walton to give to Gramm. But I also mailed one to Gramm." His voice picked up. "Let me be straight. Something like this is very explosive. It could f*** the Republican process up. It would be a bigger thing than Watergate or Whitewater. I couldn't talk before because Addie was there. Walton gave me the damn card back. I found the damn thing in some of the old stuff I had. I mailed the card to you. I printed the envelope with my left hand."

I asked him why he sent me the card. "Well, the reason I mailed it to you to start with was that I don't think too much of Gramm," he said. What didn't he like? I asked. "Everything," Nelson said. "To be honest with you, I got a damn Oriental wife, but so does Gramm. I don't really like that. She is from Taiwan or China originally. The damn guy is not sincere. Everything about him. I never did meet him, I never did talk to him, but shit I just can't stand him."

It didn't make sense, but as would become clearer to me later, Nelson saw in Gramm a reflection of himself: a son of the hardscrabble south who married an Asian woman and who, Nelson believed, secretly shared the same views. But while Nelson lived off his wife in a Las Vegas low-rise, Gramm was a famous presidential candidate. By sending the card, Nelson wanted to bring him down to his level.

When I got back to Washington, I began looking for Walton and, with the help of a Klan-watcher, located him several hours north of Houston. I left the next day for Texas, rented a car and drove to a town I'll call Pecos, a small dusty place with a dingy motel whose room windows were cracked from highway vibrations. Walton himself didn't have a phone, and his address turned out to be a trailer tilted precariously in a roadside ditch. He wasn't in, so I started asking for him on the main street in town. I was directed to the local gun store. Behind the counter was a tall, gray-haired, bearded man with a pronounced limp and a halting manner of speech. It was Walton.

I asked him if we could talk. He showed me to two folding chairs in the back room where the store's owner was talking with a customer. The customer, sporting a razor cut and long sideburns, and wearing only an undershirt, looked like a skinhead.

I quickly established that Walton was the same person Nelson described, and I showed him a photo of Gramm's membership card. "That is a membership card. The name Gramm is familiar," he said. But he didn't remember a klavern in College Station, and he didn't remember ever having seen this card. "Scott is notorious about notoriety. It feeds him," Walton said. "I hate to call Scott a liar, but to the best of my knowledge no one by that name, Phil Gramm, ever received a card." As we conversed, however, Walton nervously eyed the two men across from us. When I asked him how he got involved in the Fiery Knights, he asked me if we could walk outside. Once outside, he suggested we sit in my car. Then Walton told me his story.

In the early '70s, before he was wounded and disabled in the robbery, Walton was working as a private investigator in Houston on a case that involved illegal gun sales. One of the local FBI agents asked him if he could watch two of the suspects. When they joined the Klan, he joined, too, and said he became an FBI informer. He quickly rose through the Klan's ranks and became Nelson's kleagle, or head recruiter. He never shared the Klan's outlook and was constantly trying to hold Nelson and other members back. "They would want to pick up a black and kill him just because he was black," Walton said. "I told them it was stupid. I would single out Angela Davis, because she was in California. I'm glad she didn't show up in Houston."

According to Walton, the Fiery Knights often committed wanton acts of racism. They burned crosses on people's lawns. Two of the Klan members cut the gas hose of a black gas station owner. Nelson and other members used to carry cards bearing threatening messages that they would give to interracial couples. Nelson also printed cards he would hand out and leave in banks promoting his campaign for mayor. Walton later showed me one that displayed a picture of a thick-lipped black with a bone through his nose. It read, "Back to jungle, stinking nigger primate. It's Scott M. Nelson for Mayor." (In 1975, Nelson was fired by Entex, the local power company, when he inadvertently sent one of these cards to a company official.)

Walton said he was reluctant to answer my questions about Gramm because no one in Pecos knew he had worked undercover twenty years ago. He was still regarded as a former Klan member, and some customers at the gun store would ask him for applications to join. He said that while the Klan didn't have any organization in that area, many people shared its basic outlook. I promised I would not reveal his name or where he lived.

We drove off to a local restaurant, and Walton was a little more definite about what he remembered. "I heard that name. I heard about a Gramm, but I don't know which Gramm," he said. When I met him the next day at the same restaurant, he was much more definite. He said that Nelson told him at dinner in 1974 that he had recruited someone named Gramm who taught at Texas A&M. "I remember A&M. I could swear to it," Walton said. But he still insisted he didn't remember "Phil" Gramm and that he never met him or recruited the future senator.

That evening, I called Nelson, who informed me he was celebrating "Martin Luther Coon Day." When I recounted my conversation in Pecos, Nelson insisted that Walton was lying about not having recruited Gramm. "He has known him for twenty years. He is probably one of his supporters," Nelson said. I didn't know who to believe.

Like other journalists, I have rules of evidence I follow. I wouldn't approach the subject of such a story, whom I assume would deny the charge and attempt to discredit me, until I had two credible sources, one of whom was on the record. This was a special case, however, because my on-the-record source was a career racist who, as Walton put it, "lives on publicity" and because my two sources disagreed on important details. But I had an added piece of evidence: the card. If I could prove that Nelson filled it out in 1974 and not in 1995, then I would have sufficient grounds for asking Gramm for an explanation.

I called Nelson and asked him to sign an affidavit attesting that, at Walton's request, he had filled out and mailed a membership card to Gramm. I wanted a current handwriting sample to give Jerry Richards to compare with the campaign samples from the 1970s. After examining them, Jerry said he now thought the signature and writing on the card were definitely Nelson's, but he was disturbed that, in filling out the card on the back, it appeared that the writer had carefully skirted a portion that looked like it had been more recently damaged. "That makes me highly suspicious," Jerry said.

I sent the card to two ink experts, Bob Kuranz, Parker Pen's chief chemist, and Richard Brunelle, the chief chemist for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Kuranz and Brunelle handed down the same verdict: the card was written with Bic ballpoint ink that was not manufactured until August 1979. The card could not have been written in 1974. Brunelle said that dryness tests showed the card was probably written during the last year. The card was a hoax.

After two hour-long anguished phone calls, Nelson finally stopped insisting that the card was genuine but continued to maintain that Gramm had been a member of the Klan. I suspected that he was still lying, but I couldn't explain Walton's memory of "a Gramm." I went back one more time to Pecos to talk to Walton. Walton seemed happy to see me. I didn't share his interest in guns, but, unlike his fellow citizens, I didn't make him uncomfortable by peppering my conversation with what Walton called the "n word." We went back to the local restaurant, and I told him to forget about the card. But Walton insisted that Nelson had told him about someone named Gramm from Texas A&M joining the Klan. "I remember something about a Gramm at A&M. He was a professor there, I think." Yet he convincingly denied that he had been the link between Gramm and Nelson. "I never did anything without Scott, but Scott did a lot of things without me. When I wasn't with Scott, the Klan didn't exist. I was a flunky. Scott is either lying or he is very forgetful."

I called Nelson when I returned to Washington and told him that, without documentary evidence and a credible witness, I couldn't go ahead with the story. I decided to go cover the election campaign.

Over the next several months, Nelson would call every few weeks. He was upset, he told me, when former Klansman David Duke endorsed Buchanan before the Louisiana caucus. He said Duke, who had tried to merge his organization with the Fiery Knights in the early '70s, was really trying to subvert Buchanan. "He is going to make every nigger in Louisiana vote for Gramm," Nelson said. "That was the idea behind it. I don't know why he is trying to kill Buchanan." I reassured him that there were not many black Republicans in Louisiana who were going to vote for Gramm. After the Iowa caucus, when Gramm dropped out, he lost interest in him. "It's all over with Gramm," he said. "There is no use doing a story."

Yet, in my mind, the story remained unresolved, and last month I decided to make a final attempt to resolve it. I called Nelson and asked him if he would be willing to take a lie-detector test. I expected him to refuse, but he quickly assented. At Jerry Richards's recommendation, I recruited Paul Minor, who had been head of the FBI's polygraph testing. I told Minor my greatest fear was that Nelson would somehow lie and pass the test, but he assured me that the tests were "98 percent accurate." We arranged to leave for Las Vegas the next week.

I met Paul Minor at the airport. He was a tall man with gray hair dressed in jeans and cowboy boots and a cap from a saddle club in Virginia. I had now met two different kinds of former FBI agents. Some, like Jerry Richards, were large jovial men who had the mentality of newsmen or detectives. Others, like Paul Minor, were taciturn inquisitors. Indeed, Minor had gotten his start as an army interrogator. On the airplane, he talked to me only when I asked him questions. But what made him poor company on the airplane made him perfect for the job. If anyone would scare the truth out of Nelson, it would be Minor.

That evening, when we got to the hotel, Minor made it clear that he didn't want to see me until the next morning when I was supposed to bring Nelson to his room. I picked up Nelson at nine the next morning in front of the Day's Inn. He looked much different than he had five months before. He had shaved most of his hair off, so that he looked more like Jean Genet than Lamar Alexander. As we drove to the hotel, he jabbered about O.J., Buchanan and the Israeli elections.

I showed him into Minor's room. Minor, dressed now in gray slacks and a white dress shirt, appeared cordial but stern. As I left, I heard Nelson asking him whether O.J. Simpson had ever taken a lie-detector test. I went downstairs and got into my car. Minor had said that the test itself would last three hours: he would begin by interrogating Nelson, then give him the test, and then, if Nelson flunked, try to wring a confession out of him. I didn't think this session would last three hours. Sure enough, at about 10:30, Minor called me and said they were finished. Nelson had failed.

When I entered the hotel room, Nelson was slumped in his chair. He was still grinning, but sheepishly, like a 4-year-old caught stealing change. Minor, who was standing over him, said, "I think we understand each other. I think that it was designed to embarrass the candidate during the campaign. And he feels he can't admit that because it would be embarrassing, because it would put him in some kind of liability. It would be kind of embarrassing to admit, wouldn't it?" he asked Nelson. "That's where we are," Nelson replied.

I probably should have been furious with Nelson--after all, I had wasted the better part of a year on the story--but I felt more relief than anger. In the car, I asked him whether he had worried about what a false story like this could do to Gramm, or to Walton, whom I now believed had been misled, like me, by the card's power of suggestion. "Look at Admiral Boorda, who shot himself," I said. But Nelson had been reduced to monosyllables, grunts and incomprehensible sentences. "Yeah," he replied. "Some people commit suicide."

I asked Nelson whether he put Walton at the center of the story because he thought he was dead. Nelson grunted his assent. I asked him why he didn't tell me the entire story was false after I discovered the card was a hoax. "It was embarrassing," he said. He never expressed any remorse. I asked him whether he thought he could beat the lie-detector test. "Yeah," he said. I dropped him off at the Day's Inn. I was glad to be rid of him.

When I decided to write up the story of my misadventures, I called Gramm's office to see whether the senator wanted to comment. "We'll take a pass," his press aide said. I could hardly blame them.

John B. Judis, a senior editor at The New Republic, has been a contributor since 1982. He received his B.A. in 1963 and his M.A. in 1965 from the University of California at Berkeley. An active member of SDS and the left of the Sixties, he taught philosophy at Berkeley and at the San Francisco Art Institute.

Judis was a founding editor of the Socialist Revolution in 1969, now called Socialist Review. In 1975 he started a new monthly called East Bay Voice. He moved to Washington in 1982 as the Washington correspondent for In These Times. Soon afterwards, he began writing for TNR and for GQ. His articles have also appeared in The American Prospect, The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, The Washington Monthly, American Enterprise, Mother Jones, and Dissent.

His books include The Paradox of American Democracy: Elites, Special Interests, and the Betrayal of Public Trust, William F. Buckley: Patron Saint of the Conservatives, and Grand Illusion: Critics and Champions of the American Century.