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.

The pelts were glued together, not sewn. When they got hot, the glue would melt. When his customers discovered this design flaw, they responded by returning the remnants of the coats, complaining, or both. Federal prosecutors soon got wind of the scam; under threat of prosecution for violating federal lottery laws, Spaulding signed a voluntary compliance order.

The debacle spelled the end of Spaulding's independent boiler-room business, but it was just the beginning of his trouble with the feds.

The answering machine calls this MANSA's "corporate headquarters"
The answering machine calls this MANSA's "corporate headquarters"

Though it's midmorning on a business day, the nameless Boca Raton office park is eerily silent. Spaulding maneuvers his Camry into an empty spot in front of a one-story, gray concrete building that, as if adhering to some unwritten code, has windows uniformly hung with institution-style vertical blinds.

He opens the door to an office marked with the enigmatic name, "Worthington Trust," entering a reception area without a receptionist. Cardboard boxes litter the floor; the furniture looks rented. Spaulding walks to an office on the right. There, behind a computer monitor with a mesmerizing algorithmic screen saver, sits a man called Mad Dog.

He is a slight man; his white shirt and tie hang from his thin frame. His longish hair is graying; thick, Coke-bottle glasses give him the look of a disheveled professor.

Mad Dog (he asked that his real name not be used) and Spaulding greet each other casually and quickly pick up a conversation they had just hours before. Mad Dog called Spaulding to point out a typo in the opening stanza of a poem he contributed to The MANSA Report. The poem, "Thoughts Hang in My Mind Like Chads," begins, "In a place quite as country snow." It should've read, "quiet as country snow."

Quite a difference, but Mad Dog shrugs it off. The two men bicker and banter about the title of a book Spaulding hopes to write. Spaulding says he's been working on a book about the judicial system for about a year. He doesn't have a publisher, but he wants to publish it under the title, The Theft of Democracy. Mad Dog prefers Stealing Freedom because, he says, it's more poetic.

The men go back and forth about the respective merits of both names. "Do you want to go artsy-fartsy?" Spaulding asks rhetorically. They joke about the book winning a Pulitzer Prize -- or are they joking? He wouldn't get credit for the book's success anyway, since he's planning to use a nom de plume. "Even John Adams used a pen name," he says, adding that he sometimes writes under John Adams spelled backward.

Spaulding relishes the idea of creating a stir like the one prompted by the 1996 roman à clef Primary Colors, with everyone scrambling to determine its author.

"I think it would be delicious," he says, savoring his carefully chosen adjective. "Don't you think it would be delicious?"

The air in the fluorescent-lit office is stale, the hands on the wall clock have stopped. The men ramble on, discussing projects and deadlines vaguely, as if speaking in code. Then Spaulding jingles the coins in his pocket and takes off for the store. When he returns he has two enormous cans of Arizona iced tea, which he pours into plastic cups, but none of the V8 Juice Mad Dog requested. "My credit card was maxed out," Spaulding explains.

He sips his tea and looks at Mad Dog, a man for whom, physically at least, the nickname could only be ironic. Mad Dog is, in fact, placid; Spaulding gets fired up. When asked about the story of his apparently tongue-in-cheek moniker, Mad Dog stiffens, smiles his nervous, toothy grin, and glances at Spaulding.

Their eyes meet in a silent conversation. The air conditioner clicks on, sending a rumble through the ceiling, a distant hum through the walls. Mad Dog's face falls, and Spaulding smiles uneasily.

"Should we tell?" he finally asks.

Mad Dog got his handle at Eglin. By the time he met Spaulding, he'd nearly completed his ten-year sentence for drug-related crimes.

When Carol Robinson received a postcard in her metal mailbox on Route 1 in Hope, Arkansas, that day in 1990, she had no idea that she was about to become inextricably linked to one James "Elmo" Spaulding.

The card, she remembers, was pink, and it said she was a winner. A farmer's wife, Robinson was told she'd been specially chosen to receive at least one of the following: a 1991 Ford Mustang convertible, a SunCat II catamaran sailboat, a $2500 cashier's check, a holiday for two -- choice of Hawaii, Orlando, or Las Vegas -- or a $1000 Series EE U.S. savings bond.

To get these prizes, the card declared, "You must call immediately." Robinson dialed the number listed on the card. "Not even a toll-free number," she notes in rueful retrospect. "This person got all excited and said, "You've been a major grand-prize winner.' She wanted to know why I wasn't more excited."

Though the postcard said no purchase was required to receive "at least one of these premiums," she was persuaded take out a credit card and pay $439 for a water purifier from Ion Technology Systems, with an address on NW 35th Terrace in Fort Lauderdale.

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