By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
®MDRV¯ leave ecrb until Rubin confirms all changes.
@body:The page-one headline in the Arizona Republic was a doozie: "Two held in kidnap-maiming plot. Ring threatened to cut off boy's arms. More arrests likely."
The February 21, 1992, story described how FBI agents had arrested two men supposedly linked to a vicious, $250,000 extortion scheme involving the son of a Paradise Valley businessman. Earlier, Marc Kaplan had received an anonymous letter saying that a team of three ex-Green Berets would kidnap ®MDRV¯his®MDNM¯ 12-year-old son if Kaplan didn't comply with their demands. The letter included a threat to amputate the boy's limbs if Kaplan failed to follow instructions.
The arrested men were Mark Nelson, 31, of Scottsdale and Michael Miller, 24, of Mesa. As evidence, the FBI cited Miller's fingerprints on a Chandler pay phone used by the extortionists to direct Kaplan's moves. Nelson had been seen with Miller near Saguaro Lake at the same time Marc Kaplan had gone there to get further instructions.
Four days after the Republic story broke, the FBI arrested Frank Alber, a 36-year-old Mesa man who had once worked for Kaplan. The feds considered Alber the "mastermind" of the failed plot, because they found a draft of the extortion letter during a search of his home.
The third arrest seemed to wrap things up neatly: The Phoenix daily lauded the FBI for breaking the case and itself for breaking the story in an editorial published shortly after the arrests. Headlined "FBI to the Rescue," the editorial said the quick arrests proved that "one of the best-trained police agencies in the world is quietly doing its job. . . ."
The media and the public moved on to other cases, other headlines. Nelson and Miller each spent about a week behind bars, then were released pending trial on federal charges of conspiracy and of mailing the threatening letter.
That lawyers for Miller and Nelson insisted on going to trial should have been a tip-off that something was amiss with the government's conspiracy case. Something was. On the eve of trial last January 20--11 months after the celebrated arrests--mastermind" Frank Alber pleaded guilty to attempting to extort $250,000 from Kaplan. That same week, however, assistant United States attorney Chuck Hyder abruptly dropped all charges against Mike Miller and Mark Nelson.
But it had been chillingly clear months earlier that Nelson and Miller had had nothing to do with Alber's twisted extortion plot. Instead, the two were the victims of tunnel-visioned agents with overactive imaginations, of a bullheaded prosecutor with a controversial track record, and of some remarkably unlucky coincidences.
The government persisted in its case against the two innocent men, even though it developed no evidence that Mike Miller and Mark Nelson had known each other before speaking at Saguaro Lake.
The FBI likewise had no evidence that "mastermind" Frank Alber knew his alleged co-conspirators. The FBI, in fact, had a tape of a conversation in which Frank Alber told a friend he'd never heard of Miller and Nelson before their arrests. But prosecutor Hyder never informed a federal grand jury about that key admission, a violation of federal rules under which prosecutors must present evidence of a suspect's innocence. ®MDRV¯Instead, ®MDNM¯Chuck Hyder played hardball with Miller and Nelson, even as his case against them unraveled and as it became increasingly apparent that Alber had acted alone.
Prosecutor Hyder maintained for almost a year that the trio was "a highly sophisticated and dangerous group of criminals." Miller is a 24-year-old East Valley construction worker; Alber is a 36-year-old, nerdy-looking computer jock; and Nelson is a 31-year-old house painter and wanna-be concert promoter.
Recalls Nelson, "After they busted me, I'd tell my friends, 'You know me. I couldn't do anything like this.' They'd say, 'The government obviously knows something we didn't. Would you really cut off a little boy's arms?' One day at the lake caused me 11 months of bullshit."
@body:The four-page missive to Marc Kaplan got right to the point.
"IF YOU VALUE YOUR SON'S LIFE . . . READ THE REST OF THIS LETTER!" it began. "You will pay us $250,000 in cash in one week or we will remove your son's arm or leg. We use $250,000 as the base because this amount usually equates to the value of our client's cars. The correlation here is a simple one: Do you value your son's life or limbs more than your cars?"
The anonymous writer added, "We don't really like to hurt children, but our government let us do it before so we feel we can do it now." The letter told Kaplan to expect a telephone call six days later at his Phoenix office.
"LET THE GAME BEGIN!" the letter concluded.
The frightened Kaplan notified the FBI. The feds put a tap on the businessman's telephones and waited for the extortionists' next contact. The call came at 2:17 on the rainy afternoon of February 13, 1992. The male caller ordered Kaplan to drive by himself to a bank parking lot at the intersection of Tatum and Shea boulevards. There, Kaplan would find a note attached to a pole.
Kaplan did exactly as he was told. The note ordered him to a boat ramp at Saguaro Lake, where more instructions awaited. A team of FBI agents tried to remain inconspicuous nearby as Kaplan drove in his Mercedes to the manmade lake, located in the far northeast Valley, near Fountain Hills.