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.

Robinson did receive a water-filtration system; she thought it looked OK, "But how can you tell?" she asks. "You're taking it on faith that it's purifying."

When she saw similar water-filtration systems for sale at much lower prices, she grew suspicious. Finally a prize arrived.

"Well, the sailboat came in a box to my house. The best I can tell you, I opened the box just enough to see it was made of plastic pipes and that stuff you see in lawn chairs."

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

Soon afterward Robinson saw an article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about the arrest of five people for a telemarketing scam. She contacted her postmaster. Several years later she received restitution checks for the price of the water filter.

As for the water filter, Robinson's not sure if it ever did the job. "I trashed it at some point. I learned my lesson on that one," she says. She learned it so well that even a reporter's queries are suspect: "When you called," she confesses, laughing darkly, "I was going to tell you I'm not going to do anything over the phone."

Postcards like the one Robinson received were mailed out to thousands of people around the country. To collect their "winnings," recipients called a number and were given a sales pitch as enticement to buy a water-filtration system. Neither the prizes nor the systems lived up to the claims the company made.

In 1989 and 1990, the federal court for the Northern District of Texas indicted Spaulding and 18 other suspects on charges that included conspiracy, bank fraud, money laundering, and aiding and abetting based on his involvement in the scheme. Spaulding claims he's entirely innocent, that a $2100 check he wrote that was used as evidence was in fact repayment for another, unrelated debt. He says he took the fall while the real criminals got off easy.

His defense attorney, Mike Heiskell, remembers the case: "It was a nightmare," he says from his Fort Worth, Texas, office. Heiskell, a past president of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers' Association, contended that Spaulding was an unwitting pawn in a get-rich-quick scheme controlled by a few people at the top. The case was a long shot, he admits, in large part because of the judge assigned to it.

The case went to trial in 1991. "It was my first trial in front of Judge John McBryde, and he was new on the bench," Heiskell says. A brand-new appointee of President George Bush, McBryde was at the time something of an unknown quantity. He would soon become notorious for his toughness.

"I think he hinted to the jury about his feelings in the case, [and about] James," Heiskell says. "We were just up against a real heavy-handed judge." After his conviction Spaulding was sentenced in December 1991. (Indeed McBryde would soon face his own problem. In 1995 his quick temper prompted Jerry Buchmeyer, chief judge of the Northern District, to strip him of two cases, one involving another fraudulent telemarketing scheme. The decision was reversed by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal in 1997. However, McBryde's actions in those cases prompted the court's Judicial Council to conduct an investigation, and on the last day of that year, to ban him from hearing cases for a year. He has been engaged in legal battles to clear his name ever since.)

Spaulding's motion for a new trial was overruled. All along he had insisted he was innocent, so when Spaulding was sentenced, it knocked the wind out of him: "I couldn't believe it. I just figured, "This is America, things would work out.'"

They didn't, and Spaulding moved into the Florida Panhandle prison where life was somewhat like a boarding school or a college dorm. In addition to his 63-month Eglin hitch, Spaulding was forced to pay restitution to 13 people, including Carol Robinson.

It was minimum security, soft time, but Spaulding's indignation hardened nonetheless. "The first three years, I didn't sleep more than three hours a night," he remembers. "I was so angry. What brought me out of it was getting in a library, doing some research, and finding out how many other people had been screwed worse than me."

Spaulding thrived under incarceration. He spent hours in the law library, reading up on his case and the cases of other prisoners. He jogged. He talked. He snagged a new, extra-thick mattress off a delivery truck and got a plum work detail cleaning the visiting area. He even taught a class on entrepreneurship to other inmates. The irony of this is still lost on him.

In prison Spaulding met a lot of people he believed to be innocent, Mad Dog included. He became a jailhouse lawyer, and whereas others gouged their clients, Spaulding worked cheap -- often pro bono. And that wasn't all. Like a high-school student who participates in every available activity to pad his college applications, Spaulding joined the prison chapter of Toastmasters, Black Awareness, and Club Latino.

Mad Dog remembers the day he met Spaulding. The two were in line at Checkpoint Charlie, the gate where inmates wait to be processed in and out of work release. Spaulding had his long hair tucked under his cap and a smile on his face.

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