By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
At FBI headquarters in Phoenix, agents stuck Nelson in a room with blown-up field photographs of himself, his girlfriend, Mike Miller, Marc Kaplan and others.
"They tell me if I cooperate, they'll go easy on me," Nelson recalls. "If I pass a lie-detector test, I can go home. I say, 'Great. I've got a date tonight.'"
But the interrogation continued for hours. A nervous type, Nelson blabbed and blabbed. Yes, he had heard of Marc Kaplan, because his current boss had built Kaplan's home in Paradise Valley a few years earlier. But, no, he didn't even know where Kaplan lived or what he looked like. And he had had nothing to do with any extortion plot.
Nelson told the FBI he'd never met Mike Miller before the brief meeting at Saguaro Lake. He had taken the day off because of the inclement weather, he insisted, and he and Jeff had gone to the lake just to hang out for a while.
Yes, he had pulled up alongside Kaplan's Mercedes on the highway, Nelson said. "I told them the truth about what had gone down," he says. "I told Jeff, 'Look at that sweet car. Give me five months with my nightclub and I'll be driving one of those.' Jeff says to me, 'That dude looked scared.' I said, 'Screw him. All I'm doing is looking at his damn car.'"
But things got worse for Nelson as the interrogation wore on. "Now they tell me I'm going to jail, no matter what," Nelson says. "I was getting confused. At about 10 p.m., they put me on the machine. I don't know if I'm comin' or goin'. Then they tell me I flunked. Even my name was wrong."
One of the test questions was, "Did you plan with anyone in a scheme to get money from a guy called Marc Kaplan?"
"No," Nelson answered.
The FBI's polygraph operator told him he was lying.
The operator soon administered a second test. Again, Nelson failed.
"The guy looks across at me and says, 'Are you a Christian?'" Nelson says. "He says, 'Hey, even Christians make mistakes sometimes. You're trying to open a nightclub and you don't have money. Why don't you just tell us you did it? Our machines don't lie.' I say, 'You're full of shit. Take me to jail.' So they did."
@body:In another room at FBI headquarters, Mike Miller, too, was pleading innocence. The construction worker had also been off work that day because of the rain. He repeated that he and a pal named Bennett had decided to go somewhere and drink beer. On the road, Miller said he had suggested they follow a huge rain cloud to Saguaro Lake. Really.
At the lake, Miller and his friend had struck up a conversation with two guys in a Corvette. They chatted about their jobs and listened to Nelson brag about his connections. Nelson had handed Miller a business card, and he and Bennett had gone off to their boss's home. That was about all he knew, Miller told the feds.
Miller then tried to explain away the crucial matter of his fingerprints on the pay phone in Chandler. He had used the pay phones in that mall before, he said, because it was near his home. But there was no way in hell he would have participated in a plot to kidnap and cut up a child.
The FBI arrested Miller on the same charges as Mark Nelson.
On February 21, Nelson and Mike Miller--whose photograph in handcuffs had been plastered in the Republic that morning--made their way to a federal court for an initial appearance before a magistrate.
FBI agents overheard Nelson say to Miller as they headed to court, "I don't even know you. I've never even met you, except for the one time at the lake." Miller didn't respond. The feds later implied in a report that Nelson had been telling his partner in crime to stick to their story.
@body:The same day the Republic's big headlines about the two arrests hit the streets, the FBI heard from a friend of "mastermind" Frank Alber.
Rick Fair said he had read that more arrests were forthcoming and that he was scared to death. He nervously told the feds he had made the call to Marc Kaplan on February 13 from the pay phone in Chandler. Fair explained that he and Alber had been drinking and that Alber asked him to read a brief note to the person who answered as some kind of joke.
Under questioning, Fair said he'd never heard of Mark Nelson or Mike Miller until he'd read their names in the newspaper. The feds soon offered Fair immunity from prosecution if he would help them nail Frank Alber.
On the morning of February 24--one year ago, today--the feds wired Fair for sound and sent him to Alber's home in Mesa. A transcript of the conversation reveals Fair berating Alber from the outset for involving him unknowingly in the extortion plot.
"I have stomach pains," Fair says. "I mean, Jesus Christ, Frank, I thought we were friends."
Alber tries to smooth things over, but Fair won't bite.
"You don't think a freakin' 100 [FBI agents] are gonna find something out?" Fair continues.