On first hearing, the tale sounds like a standard-issue urban legend.
Guy goes to Vegas. Guy meets hooker. Guy gets fleeced. But there are elements to this particular version of the old story that saved it from Jan Brunvand's heap of mythological scraps. (Brunvand, a professor at the University of Utah, has published several books filled with similar urban legends, carrying such evocative titles as The Choking Doberman, The Mexican Pet and The Vanishing Hitchhiker.) Element 1: It was overheard on local ham radio. E2: The guy is "a district judge" from Phoenix. E3: The guy was fleeced of . . . a kidney. An anonymous tipster heard the kidney-ring-in-Vegas tale one recent day while listening to his ham set. There are some 11,000 amateur radio buffs licensed in Arizona (half a million across the country) and broadcasting to one another on countless bands. It's okay to listen in on someone else's conversation--there's no way anyone would know, at least--but it's considered not quite cricket to rebroadcast what you hear either by ham or by less technical media. Hence, our informant's need for anonymity. The conversation was overheard on the 440 MHz band, good for a range of 50 to 100 miles, and one of the more popular frequencies among hams, as they're known.
The conversing parties were "visiting about this and that," according to our undercover ears, when one of them mentioned that he frequently travels to Las Vegas on business. "Hey," said the other. "I've got a real wild story to share with you, and I'm told it's true."
The story: The unnamed Phoenix judge goes to Vegas to attend a conference. Seen carousing in a casino one evening with a "very attractive woman," the judge then vanishes. Several days later, the local 911 operator receives a call from a hotel room. The judge is there, drugged, and can't move. Later, in a hospital emergency room, the judge learns that one of his kidneys has been professionally removed.
The story continues. The judge, allegedly in his mid-40s, has since returned to Phoenix and is returning to good health--minus, of course, some renal capacity.
"Amateur radio, like a lot of other things in life, can be full of rumors," says our tipster. "It's people talking to one another. Some of em know what they're talking about, some of em don't.
"It's a weird one to me. Maybe it's bunk. I don't know."
Instead of sending an intern down to the local courthouse to lift robes and check for scars, New Times called the Las Vegas police. We had barely begun to frame our question before Lieutenant Carl Fruge (pronounced "Froozh-AY"), the force's public-information officer, broke in. "Oh, Lord, let this not be the stolen kidney," he says. "Normally, it's a high roller that came to town, or somebody who won a free trip. The more sinister version is the free trip, and somebody sets him up with an escort. The next thing he knows, he wakes up in a motel room with stitches.
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Fruge says the rumor became so pervasive that his department checked its validity with local health officials and even with the Las Vegas Coroner's Office. According to those authorities, Fruge says, a victim of such a scam would not likely survive without at least a week of intense hospital supervision.
"I've heard about the stolen kidney from reporters in Florida, from Texas, from Alabama," he says. "It's wild. I guess it's like the poodle in the microwave." The poodle reference comes from Brunvand, who is on sabbatical from teaching chores--he's hiking in the wilderness, according to the University of Utah's English Department--and unavailable for comment.
Meanwhile, Superior Court communications staffers claim no knowledge of the story. "I checked with our folks here," says communications director Mary Budinger. "That kind of thing usually makes the rounds up here. We'd hear about it sooner or later." Says Fruge, from Las Vegas: "We've been hearing about it for about three months. Once a week or so, I get a phone call saying, 'Well, this is so crazy, I hate to talk about it, but. . . .'
"Las Vegas is a great place to have something happen. There are several items you can lose when you come to Las Vegas, but most come out of your pocket. "We think Florida's starting it.