The Elmo Files

The saga of would-be liberal crusader and ex-con James "Elmo" Spaulding proves that anyone can get a second chance in America. And a third. And maybe even a fourth.

After graduation he attended Palm Beach Community College, just around the corner from his present home. He studied for a few semesters there, had a part in a play, and at the encouragement of a teacher, flirted with the idea of becoming an actor. "I wish I had taken him up on it," he muses, "I think I would've loved that."

Instead he dropped out to join a friend in opening a bar, Schooners in Delray Beach. However, the bar soon needed to be renovated in order to handle the growing, noisy crowd; his partner's father then bought out both of them. In 1968, at age 23, he got in on the ground floor of a classic pyramid scheme, COSCOT, Cosmetics for the Communities of Tomorrow.

It was Amway meets Mary Kay, and Spaulding was a motivational speaker, whipping young recruits into a multilevel sales frenzy. He was paid on a per-head basis for parroting motivational tracts like Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. A year later Spaulding moved to Atlanta with the hope of working for COSCOT founder Glen Turner there, but Turner ran into legal problems, eventually being fined for violating federal lottery laws. Turner's travails dashed Spaulding's original plan.

Spaulding found himself in the Deep South, deep in the "summer of love." He went to a Woodstock-style concert. He wore his hair in an Afro, but he wasn't much into pot, finding it "too inhibiting." He preferred a shot of Jim Beam instead, sometimes drinking as much as a bottle a day. For dough Spaulding says he and his friends started an Atlanta ad agency, Superior Communications, and put together prize premiums for their main client, Coca-Cola.

Then a key artist at the agency left for a teaching job, the 1970s gas crisis hit, and the city's economy withered. Spaulding returned to Boca Raton and worked in real estate for the next two years. In 1976 his former stepfather, long overwhelmed by debt, spread plastic over the bed in the small house behind his Fort Pierce restaurant and shot himself with a .22-caliber pistol. "He'd been threatening to do it for years," Spaulding says.

Spaulding, his half sisters, and his mother inherited the Crab Inn; Spaulding, by then married with a stepson he'd adopted, moved his family to Fort Pierce to run it. Spaulding renamed the restaurant Montego Bay and continued to serve seafood. Three years later the family revamped the 7000-square-foot building, turning it into a country-and-western bar known as the Sundowner Saloon.

Among the bar's attractions was a used mechanical bull Spaulding had bought for about $3000. The bucking bronc made the Sundowner a nighttime destination for cowboys both urban and rural. Some of the latter were a pretty tough bunch: self-professed rednecks from Belle Glade and Okeechobee. To this day Spaulding, who sports a haircut made famous by Billy Ray Cyrus, is proud of the fact the Sundowner was no dude ranch. "My bouncers were real cowboys," he crows.

But this authenticity came at a price. "They [would] get all liquored up," Spaulding allows. "And frequently cowboys want to take on other cowboys." In 1981 a fatal shooting and a near-fatal stabbing on the premises just five days apart marred his business. Spaulding pulled the plug on the mechanical bull and shuttered the Sundowner for good.

He was not without other options, thanks to the many contacts he had made through the bar. He found a job selling time-share properties for a Fort Pierce company and later took a similar job in Orlando. When that company was sold, he struck out on his own, marketing time-shares under the corporate name SB Leigh. He opened an office on International Drive in Orlando and proceeded to "make and spend a small fortune."

By the mid-'80s his business was booming. Spaulding had a couple of Lincoln Town Cars (or Lincoln Continentals, he can't remember which), and was able to give his wife an allowance of $1000 a week. He says he lived this high life in part because of the era's many tax breaks for businesses. In his heyday, he brags, he was making $500,000 a year, but he adds: "You're not going to write about money, are you? I don't want to get in trouble with the IRS."

In 1988 he began using telemarketing to promote his time-shares and would "drop" as many as 20,000 postcards a day. The mass mailings told the recipient that he or she had just won a prize, subject to an $89 processing fee, and listed an 800 number to call to collect it. The number reached an Orlando room with 38 phone lines manned by Spaulding's employees -- whose numbers once swelled to more than 100, he remembers. They'd sign callers up for a trip that was not so much a prize as a cheap vacation package that required two two-hour tours of condos for sale or rent.

It was a pretty typical boiler-room scheme, and it worked fine -- for a while. When an acquaintance of Spaulding's got hold of some cheap fur coats made in China, Spaulding decided to use them as premiums to sweeten his mass-mailing deal.

The coats were hardly premium quality. Spaulding sent them out to about 5000 customers. "I gave one to my wife, [then] we took a trip to Miami Beach. She laid it down there in the trunk on top of the luggage and when we opened the trunk, the coat had just melted," he remembers with a laugh.

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