INNOCENT BYSTANDERS

THEY MET BY ACCIDENT AT SAGURO LAKE. A WEEK LATER, THEY WRER IN JAIL.

A handful of feds checked out the lake ahead of Kaplan's arrival. About one-quarter mile from the boat ramp, the agents saw two cars parked side by side--a red Corvette and a Mercury sedan. A computer told them the Corvette was registered to a Mark A. Nelson, the Mercury to a Michael G. Miller.

Four men engaged in what appeared to be casual conversation near the cars. The driver of the Corvette, who was wearing his long hair in a ponytail, was using a cellular telephone.

Down at the ramp, Marc Kaplan found a suitcase and another written note. This message told Kaplan to take his shirt off and to turn around slowly, then to place the $250,000 in the suitcase. Kaplan was to drive across the Valley to west Phoenix and bury the cache at a predetermined location near the remote Estrella Parkway.

Kaplan again did as he was told. The FBI agents noted that the Corvette and the Mercury left the lake immediately after Kaplan. The Mercury went in one direction, but the driver of the Corvette--according to an FBI report--tailed" Kaplan as he headed toward Phoenix.

The agents watched as Mark Nelson pulled his Corvette alongside Kaplan's Mercedes. Kaplan later told the feds how the longhaired man had stared at him balefully for what had seemed like a long time. The FBI would take this as a sign of Nelson's participation in the scheme. The agents became even more convinced of Nelson's involvement when Kaplan stopped at a McDonald's restaurant on his way to the Estrella drop-off site.

There, according to the feds, the passenger in the Corvette--later identified as a friend of Nelson's from California named Jeff--walked within a few feet of Kaplan's car and looked in at him. A worried agent approached Kaplan on foot from the other direction. Jeff returned to the Corvette and the driver immediately left the area, the FBI said.

The FBI followed the Corvette into Scottsdale. In the Dragnet-style language of FBI Special Agent Keith Tolhurst, Nelson "engaged in maneuvers which appeared to be attempts to prevent others from following him."

Nelson parked at a Scottsdale apartment complex and walked into his residence of two years.

Other agents trailed Marc Kaplan to Estrella Parkway, where he buried the suitcase at the assigned location. Kaplan then returned to his Paradise Valley home and awaited the next move.

No one came by the Estrella money-drop site that night, but the feds were convinced they were close to breaking the case. Through fingerprint analysis, they had tied Mike Miller--the man in the Mercury sedan at Saguaro Lake--to the pay phone from which Kaplan had gotten his verbal orders earlier that day.

The feds also came up with what they considered a motive for Mark Nelson's alleged involvement. Their preliminary investigation revealed that Nelson was a big talker who dreamed of buying a Tempe rock n' roll nightclub. All he lacked was front money, Nelson would tell anyone within earshot. Was there a better motive for a quick-buck extortion scheme?

On February 18, five days after Kaplan had buried the $250,000 in the desert, the FBI struck pay dirt. That morning, as agents looked on from hiding places near Estrella Parkway, a man parked his car, took out a mountain bicycle and pedaled to within a few yards of where Marc Kaplan had dropped off the extortion money.

The agents completed a computer run on the man's car while he was gone. It came back as registered to a Frank Alber of Mesa.

Bingo! The FBI already knew who Alber was. Marc Kaplan had suspected him from the start. In 1991, Kaplan had fired the computer programmer from Kaplan's mail-order marketing company, Health and Nutrition Laboratories. The extortion letter had been prepared by someone who knew how to produce a professional-looking document on a computer.

The feds weren't quite ready to swoop down on Frank Alber just yet. Instead, they continued to focus their investigation on Mark Nelson and Mike Miller.

@rule:
@body:To the FBI, Mark Nelson looked and acted the part of a guy who would get involved in a stupid, but potentially dangerous, plot. Even his friends call Nelson a man who has thrived on his dreams, not his accomplishments.

A former rock n' roll singer, Nelson is notable for his long, long hair, his plethora of gold chains and his ever-present cellular telephone. The Maryvale High School graduate is an incessant name-dropper--Donald Trump often pops up in conversation about possible investors in his nightclub venture--whose favorite subject is himself.

But his actions in the week after his trip with Jeff to Saguaro Lake didn't seem like those of a hardened criminal. All that week, Nelson had suspected someone was following him. He says he dredged his mind for possible reasons--a jealous boyfriend of an ex-girlfriend, someone he may have owed money to--but he couldn't figure it out. Finally, Nelson decided to take action.

On February 19, he dialed 911 from his car phone at Pima and Indian School roads in Scottsdale.

"I'm calling because I am being followed," a worried-sounding Nelson told the police dispatcher from his Corvette. The next day, Nelson was painting on a patio in Scottsdale when the men who'd been following him materialized. A dozen FBI agents swept in and arrested him on charges of conspiring to extort money from Marc Kaplan.

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