Longform

INNOCENT BYSTANDERS

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@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.

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."
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@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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin