John Grisham's 'The Whistler' Chapter 4
Read another exclusive excerpt from the author's new book
John Grisham, the undisputed master of the legal thriller, will release his 29th novel, The Whistler, on Oct. 25. Because we’re such huge fans — and we know you are, too — EW will release one chapter from The Whistler every day this week in advance of its publication.
Get ready to meet investigator Lacy Stoltz, who’s trying to crack the case of a corrupt Florida judge brought to her by a disbarred lawyer operating under a new identity — and be sure to check back later this week for more. Catch up with Chapters 1, 2, and 3 before checking out Chapter 4, below:
Excerpt from The Whistler by John Grisham
When Myers finally made contact, he told Lacy to meet him at the same marina in St. Augustine. Everything was the same—same sweltering heat and humidity, same slip at the end of the dock; Myers even wore the same floral-print shirt. As they sat at the same wooden table under the shade on his boat, he drank the same brand of beer from a bottle and began talking.
His Omar character was in real life a man named Vonn Dubose, the descendant of one of the original gangsters who did indeed begin their mischief in the rear room of a catfish restaurant near Forrest City, Arkansas. His maternal grandfather owned the restaurant, and years later died in a police ambush. His father hanged himself in prison, or at least the official report said they found him hanging. Numerous and various uncles and cousins met similar fates, and the gang had pretty much thinned out until Vonn discovered the allure of cocaine trafficking in south Florida. A few good years there provided the means to resolidify his little syndicate. He was now approaching the age of seventy, lived somewhere along the coast, and did not maintain a legitimate address, bank account, driver’s license, Social Security number, or passport. Once Vonn struck gold with the casino, he whittled his gang down to just a handful of cousins so there would be fewer hands in the till. He operated with complete anonymity and hid behind a wall of offshore companies, all of which were overseen by a certain law firm in Biloxi. By all accounts, and there were not many, he was quite wealthy but lived modestly.
“Have you ever met him?” Lacy asked.
Myers scoffed at the question. “Don’t be silly. No one meets this guy, okay? He lives in the shadows, sort of like me, I guess. You can’t find three people in the Pensacola area who’ll admit to knowing Vonn Dubose. I lived there for forty years and never heard of him until a few years ago. He comes and goes.”
“But he has no passport,” Hugo said.
“Valid passport. If they ever nail him, they’ll find half a dozen fake ones.”
In 1936, the Bureau of Indian Affairs granted a charter to the Tappacola Nation, a small tribe of about four hundred scattered along the Panhandle, with most living in small homes in the swampy outback of Brunswick County. The tribe maintained a headquarters of sorts there, on a three-hundred-acre reservation ceded by the federal government eighty years earlier. By 1990, the mighty Seminole Nation of south Florida was discovering the bright lights of the casino trade, as were tribes across the country. Coincidentally, Vonn and his gang began buying cheap land adjacent to the Tappacola reservation. At some point in the early 1990s—no one would ever know for sure because the conversations had long since been buried—Dubose approached the Tappacola with a deal too good to be true.
“Treasure Key,” Hugo mumbled.
“You got it. The only casino in north Florida, conveniently located just ten miles south of Interstate 10 and ten miles north of the beaches. Full-service casino, open twenty-four/seven, Disney-style amusement fun for the entire family, largest water park in the state, condos for sale, lease, or time-share, take your pick. A veritable mecca for those who want to gamble and those who want to play in the sun, and it’s perfectly situated within two hundred miles of five million people. Don’t know the numbers, because the Indians who run the casinos report to no one, but it’s believed Treasure Key is easily in the half-billion-dollar-a-year range.”
“We were there last summer,” Hugo admitted, as if he’d done something wrong. “One of those last-minute weekend junkets for a buck-fifty. It wasn’t bad.”
“Bad? It’s fabulous. That’s why the place is packed and the Tappacola are printing money.”
“And sharing it with Vonn and his boys?” Hugo asked.
“Among others, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”
Lacy said, “That’s in Brunswick County, which is in the Twenty-Fourth Judicial District. There are two circuit judges in the Twenty-Fourth, one male, one female. Am I getting warm?”
Myers smiled and tapped a closed file in the center of the table. “This is the complaint. I’ll give it to you later. The judge is the Honorable Claudia McDover, on the bench now for seventeen years. We’ll talk about her later. For now, please allow me to give you the backstory. It’s crucial.”
Back to the Tappacola. The tribe was violently split over the issue of casino gambling. The opponents were led by an agitator named Son Razko, who was a Christian and opposed gambling on moral grounds. He organized his followers and they seemed to be in the majority. The proponents of the casino promised riches for all—new homes, lifetime pensions, better schools, free college tuition, health care, the list went on and on. Vonn Dubose was secretly funding the drive to approve the casino, but, as usual, his fingerprints could never be found. In 1993, the issue was put to a vote. Excluding those under eighteen, there were about three hundred eligible voters. All but fourteen made it to the polls, which were being watched by federal marshals, just in case things turned violent. Son Razko and his traditionalists won with 54 percent of the vote. A nasty lawsuit alleged voter fraud and intimidation, but the circuit court judge threw it out. The casino was dead.
Soon thereafter, so was Son.
They found his body in another man’s bedroom, along with the other man’s wife, both shot twice in the head. They were naked and appeared to have been caught in the act. Her husband, a man named Junior Mace, was arrested and charged with both murders. He had been a close ally of Razko’s during the gambling debate. Mace steadfastly maintained his innocence, but nonetheless found himself staring at the death penalty. Because of the notoriety, the newly elected Claudia McDover moved the trial to another county but insisted on maintaining jurisdiction. She presided over the trial and favored the prosecution at every turn.
The casino faced two significant obstacles. One was Son Razko. The second obstacle was its location. Much of the Tappacola land was low-lying swamps and bayous and almost uninhabitable, but there was enough high ground to build a large casino with the necessary acreage around it. Getting there was the problem. The road into the reservation was old, was badly maintained, and would never handle the traffic. With the prospect of tax revenue, good-paying jobs, and bright lights, the leaders of Brunswick County agreed to build a new four-lane road from State Route 288 to the reservation’s border, which was a stone’s throw from the spot where the casino was to be built. But building the road would require the taking of private land by eminent domain, or condemnation, and the majority of the landowners of the proposed right-of-way were opposed to the casino.
The county filed eleven lawsuits at the same time, all seeking condemnation of eleven parcels of land along the proposed route. Judge McDover took charge of the litigation, ran roughshod over the lawyers, placed the cases on what amounted to her “rocket docket,” and within months had the first one teed up for a trial. By then there was little doubt, at least among the lawyers, that she was squarely in the county’s corner and wanted the road built as soon as possible. As the first trial approached, she organized a settlement meeting in her courtroom and required all lawyers to attend. In a marathon session, she hammered out an agreement in which the county would pay each landowner twice the appraised value of his property. Under Florida law, there was little doubt the county could take the land. The issue was compensation. And time. By ramrodding the litigation, Judge McDover saved the casino years of delays.
While the eminent domain cases were proceeding as planned, and with Son Razko out of the way, the gambling proponents petitioned for another referendum. They won the second time by thirty votes. Another lawsuit was filed claiming fraud, and Judge McDover dismissed it. The path was now clear to begin construction of Treasure Key, which opened in 2000.
Junior Mace’s appeals crawled through the system, and though several reviewers were critical of the trial judge and her rulings, no one found serious errors. The conviction survived as the years passed.
“We studied that case in law school,” Hugo said.
“The murder was sixteen years ago, so you were what, twenty years old?” Myers asked.
“Something like that. I don’t remember the murder, nor the trial, but it was mentioned in law school. Criminal procedure, I think. Something about the use of jailhouse snitches in capital murder trials.”
“I don’t suppose you’ve heard of it?” Myers asked Lacy, who replied, “No. I didn’t grow up in Florida.”
Myers said, “I have a thick file on the murder case, complete with the habeas filings. I’ve kept up with it over the years and know as much as anyone, just in case you need a resource.”
“So did Mace catch his wife in bed with Son and take offense?” Lacy asked.
“I doubt it. He claims he was somewhere else but his alibi witness was shaky. His court-appointed lawyer was a rookie with little experience and no match for the prosecutor, who was a real slick operator. Judge McDover allowed him to call two jailhouse snitches who said Mace bragged about the killings in jail.”
“Should we talk to Mace?” Hugo asked.
“That’s where I’d start.”
“But why?” Lacy asked.
“Because Junior Mace may know something and there’s a chance he’ll talk to you. The Tappacola are a tight, closemouthed bunch, very suspicious of outsiders, especially those with authority or wearing uniforms. Plus, they are terrified of Dubose and his gang. They have been easily intimidated. And why not keep quiet? They’re reaping a windfall. They have homes and cars, schools and health care, money for college. Why rock the boat? If the casino is doing a little dirty business with some gangsters, who cares? Speaking up might get you shot.”
“Can we talk about the judge?” Lacy asked.
“Sure. Claudia McDover, age fifty-six, first elected in 1994 and reelected every six years since then. By all accounts, a hardworking judge who’s very serious about her job and her courtroom. She wins her reelections by landslides. Very bright, very driven. Her ex-husband was a big doctor in Pensacola and he was fond of young nurses. Bad divorce in which she, Claudia, got royally screwed by hubby and his gang of lawyers. Wounded and angry, she went to law school to get revenge, but at some point said to hell with the old boy. She settled in the town of Sterling, the seat of Brunswick County, where she joined a little real estate firm. She struggled and soon got bored with the small-town practice, and at some point her path crossed with that of Vonn Dubose. I don’t know that part of the story. I’ve heard a rumor that they might have dated off and on, but, again, this has not and probably cannot be verified. In 1993, after the Tappacola had voted against the casino, Claudia McDover suddenly had an interest in politics and ran for circuit court judge. I knew none of this. At that time I was a busy lawyer in Pensacola and wasn’t sure where Sterling was on the map. I had heard of the Tappacola and read about the casino fight, but I had no interest. From all accounts, her campaign was extremely well funded and well organized and she beat the incumbent by a thousand votes. A month after she took office, Son Razko was murdered, and, as I’ve said, she presided over the trial of Junior Mace. This was 1996, and during this time Vonn Dubose and his confederates and limited partners and offshore companies were buying large tracts of land in Brunswick County near the reservation. A few other speculators had jumped in when it looked like the Tappacola wanted a casino, but after the first vote these guys fled the market. Vonn was more than happy to take the property off their hands. He knew what was coming and soon had the Indian land surrounded. With Son Razko out of the way, and removed in such a dramatic fashion, the proponents won the second election. The rest is history.”
Lacy pecked on her laptop and soon had a large, official photo of Judge Claudia McDover, complete with a black robe and a gavel in hand. She had short dark hair cut in a bob, very stylish, with designer eyeglasses that dominated her face and made it difficult to read her eyes. No smile, not a trace of warmth or humor, all business. Could she really be a party to the wrongful conviction of a man who’d been on death row fifteen years? It was hard to believe.
“Where’s the corruption?” Lacy asked.
“Everywhere. Once the Tappacola started building the casino, Dubose started too. His first development was a golf community called Rabbit Run, which is adjacent to the casino property.”
Hugo said, “We drove by it. I thought it was part of Treasure Key.”
“No, but from the driving range at the golf course you can walk to the casino in five minutes. Part of the conspiracy with the Tappacola is that they stay away from golf. They handle the gambling and amusement stuff; Dubose gets the golf and everything else. He started with eighteen holes at Rabbit Run, all the fairways lined with handsome condos.”
Myers slid a file onto the table and said, “Here’s the complaint, sworn to under oath by Greg Myers. In it I allege that the Honorable Claudia McDover owns at least four condos in the Rabbit Run development, courtesy of a faceless corporation called CFFX and domiciled in Belize.”
“Dubose?” Lacy asked.
“I’m sure but I can’t prove it, yet.”
“What about the property records?” Hugo asked.
Myers tapped the file. “They’re here. They will tell you that CFFX deeded at least twenty units to offshore companies. I have reason to believe Judge McDover has an interest in four, all showing ownership by foreign entities. We are dealing with sophisticated crooks who have excellent lawyers.”
“What’s the value of the condos?” Lacy asked.
“Today, about a million each. Rabbit Run has been very successful, even managed to weather the Great Recession. Thanks to the casino, Dubose has plenty of cash and he likes gated communities with cookie-cutter houses and condos along the fairways. He went from eighteen holes to thirty-six to fifty-four, and has enough land for even more.”
“And why did he give the condos to Judge McDover?”
“Maybe because he’s just a nice guy. It was part of the original deal, I suppose. Claudia McDover sold her soul to the devil to get elected and she’s been getting paid ever since. The construction of the casino and the development of Brunswick County have created a ton of litigation. Zoning disputes, environmental claims, eminent domain, landowner lawsuits, and she has managed to keep herself smack in the middle of it. Those on the side of Dubose always seem to win. His enemies lose. She’s smart as hell and can back up any decision with a thick, well-reasoned legal brief. She is rarely reversed on appeal. In 2001, she and Dubose had a disagreement, not sure what it was about, but it got ugly. It is believed that she wanted more of the skim from the casino cash. Dubose thought she was being adequately compensated. So Judge McDover closed down the casino.”
“How, exactly, did she pull that off ?” Lacy asked.
“Another good story. Once the casino was up and running, and it was printing money from day one, the county realized it would not be getting much in the way of tax revenue. In America, Indians don’t pay taxes on casino profits. The Tappacola didn’t want to share. The county felt jilted, especially after going to all the trouble of building a spanking-new four-lane highway that runs for over seven miles. So the county pulled a fast one and convinced the state legislature to allow it to collect tolls on the new road.”
Hugo laughed and said, “Right, you gotta stop at a tollbooth about a mile from the casino and pay five bucks to keep going.”
“It’s actually worked out fine. The Indians are happy now and the county gets a few bucks. So when Dubose and Judge McDover had their little spat, she got a lawyer buddy to ask for an injunction on the grounds that the tollbooths were crowded and unsafe. There might have been a couple of fender benders but nothing serious. It was completely bogus crap, but she immediately issued an injunction closing the toll road. The casino stayed open because a few folks managed to trickle in from the back roads and such, but it was effectively shut down. This went on for six days as Vonn and Claudia waited for the other to blink. Finally, they got on the same page, the bogus injunction was lifted, and everybody was happy. It was a pivotal moment in the history of the casino and the corruption it has created. Judge McDover let everybody know that she’s in charge.”
Hugo said, “You talk about Dubose as if everyone knows him.”
“No one knows him. I thought I made that clear. He runs an organization, a small one in which the big boys are related and everybody is getting plenty of money. He tells a cousin to charter an LLC out of Bermuda and buy some acreage. Another cousin incorporates in Barbados and trades some condos. Dubose is protected by layers of offshore shell companies. He has no profile, leaves no trail.”
“Who does his legal work?” Lacy asked.
“A small firm in Biloxi, a couple of tax lawyers who are skilled at dirty work. They’ve represented the Dubose gang for years.”
Lacy said, “It sounds as though Judge McDover is not afraid of Dubose.”
“Dubose is too smart to take out a judge, though I’m sure he’s thought about it. He needs her. She needs him. Think about it. You’re an ambitious and crooked real estate developer in Florida, plus you practically own a casino, which is illegal of course, so you need a lot of protection. What could be more valuable than having a well-respected judge in your back pocket?”
“This has RICO stamped all over it,” Hugo said.
“Yes, but we’re not going RICO, are we, Mr. Hatch? RICO is federal; federal is FBI. I don’t care what happens to Dubose. I want to bust Judge McDover so my client can collect a small fortune for blowing the whistle.”
“How small?” Lacy asked.
Myers finished a beer and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “I don’t know. I guess your job is to find out.” Carlita stepped up from the cabin and said, “Lunch is ready.”
Myers stood and said, “Please join me.”
Lacy and Hugo exchanged quick glances. They had been there for two hours, were starving and not sure where they would find lunch, but suddenly uncertain as to whether it was a good idea to eat on the boat. Myers, though, was already stepping below. “Come on, come on,” he said, and they followed him down into the cabin. Three places were set at a glass-top table in the cramped galley. An air conditioner somewhere was hard at work and the air was refreshingly cool. The smell of grilled fish hung heavy. Carlita scurried about, obviously delighted to have someone to cook for. She served a platter of fish tacos, poured sparkling water from a bottle, and asked if anyone wanted wine. No one did, and she disappeared deeper into the cabin.
Myers did not touch his food, but instead resumed his narrative. “This complaint is not the one I want to file. In this one I allege corruption only to the extent of the condos owned by Judge McDover in Rabbit Run. The real money in this little conspiracy is her portion of the monthly skim from the casino. That’s what I’m really after because it’s a gold mine for my client. If I can nail that down, I’ll amend the complaint. If not, there are sufficient allegations to get her removed from the bench, and probably indicted.”
“Do you mention the name of Vonn Dubose in the complaint?” Lacy asked.
“No. I refer to his corporations as ‘criminal entities.’ ”
“That’s original,” Lacy said.
“You got a better idea, Ms. Stoltz?” Myers shot back.
“Can we drop the Mister and Missus stuff ?” Hugo asked. “She’s Lacy. You’re Greg. I’m Hugo.”
“Fair enough.” All three took a bite, and as he chewed rapidly Myers kept talking, with his mouth barely closed. “A question. The statute says you have forty-five days from today to serve a copy of the complaint on Judge McDover. From now until then, you do your investigation, the, uh, what’s it called?”
“Right. Well, that worries me. I’m convinced these people have no idea that anyone is onto their enterprise, their dealings, and when Judge McDover gets a copy of this complaint she’ll be shocked. Her first phone call will be to Dubose, and at that point a lot of crazy stuff could start happening. She’ll lawyer up immediately, deny everything vehemently, and probably start moving assets around. Dubose will panic, circle the wagons, maybe even start looking for someone to intimidate.”
“Okay, how long can you really wait before you lay this on her? How long can you stall? It seems to me it’s crucial to do as much investigating as possible before she knows you’re doing it.”
Lacy and Hugo studied each other. She shrugged and said, “We’re bureaucrats so we know how to stall. However, if she attacks the way you predict, her lawyers will nitpick everything. If we don’t follow the statute to the letter, they’ll push hard to dismiss the complaint.”
Hugo added, “Let’s play it safe and say we’ll have forty-five days to do our assessment.”
“That’s not enough time,” Myers said.
“That’s all we have,” Lacy said.
“What can you tell us about your mysterious client?” Hugo asked. “How does he know what he knows?”
Myers sipped some water and smiled. “Once again, you assume the person is a ‘he.’ ”
“Okay, what do you want to call him, or her?”
“There are only three links in our little chain. Me, the middleman who referred the client to me, and the client himself or herself. The middleman and I refer to the client as the mole. The mole could be male or female, old or young, black or white or brown, doesn’t really matter right now.”
Lacy said, “The mole? That’s not very original.”
“What difference does it make? You got a more descriptive name?”
“I guess it will have to do. How does the mole know so much?”
Myers crammed half a soft taco into his mouth and chewed slowly. The boat rocked in the wake of something larger out there. Finally, he said, “The mole is very close to Judge McDover, and is trusted implicitly by Her Honor. Trusted too much, it appears. That’s all I can say right now.”
After a gap in the conversation, Lacy said, “I have another question. You said these people, meaning Dubose and his gang, are very smart and use good lawyers. Obviously, McDover also needs a good lawyer to clean her share of the dirty money. Who does she hire?”
“Phyllis Turban, a trust and estate lawyer in Mobile.”
“Wow, the girls are getting a black eye in this story,” Lacy said.
“She and McDover were in law school together, both divorced with no children, and very close. So close that they might be more than just friends.”
They swallowed hard and digested this. Lacy said, “So to summarize the case so far, our target, Judge Claudia McDover, takes bribes from thugs, skims casino cash from the Indians, and somehow launders the money with the help of a very close friend who happens to be an estate lawyer.”
Myers smiled and said, “I’d say you’re on the right track. I need a beer. Anybody want a beer? Carlita!”
They left him on the pier, waving good-bye and promising to keep in touch. He had dropped hints about disappearing into even deeper cover, now that the complaint was filed and would soon cause trouble. Lacy and Hugo had detected nothing that would indicate how or why Vonn Dubose and Claudia McDover would suspect Greg Myers, formerly known as Ramsey Mix and a man they had supposedly never met. It was another gap in his story, of which there were far too many.