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INNOCENT BYSTANDERS

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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.

@rule:
@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.

In another attempt to calm Fair down, Frank Alber brings up the arrests of Miller and Nelson.

"They had one set of prints, and they have the guy who was there and also out at Saguaro Lake," he says.

"Do you know those guys?" Fair asks.
"I swear to God, I never heard of em," Alber says. "Never saw em. Never heard of em."
@rule:
@body:The FBI had more than enough evidence to arrest Frank Alber on February 25. In a search of his home, federal agents found a draft of the extortion letter to Kaplan and other incriminating items.

They also found something they considered critical at the time to their conspiracy theory: a canceled check from Frank Alber to a Mike Miller.

Things were coming together.
Alber waived his right to an attorney down at FBI headquarters after his arrest. At first he denied wrongdoing, admitting little more than that he had fallen on financial hard times and was working nights at a 7-Eleven store.

He told the agents he didn't know a Mark Nelson. But he did know a Mike Miller, he said. Did he write a check to that Miller recently? the feds asked him. Sure did, Alber said. That's the name of my divorce lawyer.

The agents then told Alber they had a tape recording of his recent conversation with Rick Fair. Alber admitted he had asked Fair to make the extortion call, because he'd feared Marc Kaplan would recognize his voice.

Alber swore, however, he hadn't sent the extortion note and "had no idea" how a draft of the letter had gotten into his home.

Despite many, many unresolved questions about the involvement of Mark Nelson and Mike Miller, prosecutor Chuck Hyder felt comfortable enough on February 26, 1992, to present the conspiracy case to a federal grand jury.

Keith Tolhurst, the FBI special agent in charge, testified that Mike Miller had not made the extortion call, though Miller's fingerprints were on the pay phone. The agent admitted he hadn't been able to link Nelson and Miller except for the single meeting at Saguaro Lake.

As for a prior relationship between Nelson and Frank Alber, Tolhurst testified it wasn't "conclusive, but we do know that Mr. Alber was attempting to promote a concert with some large-name musical acts . . . and we also know that Mark Nelson claims to be a music promoter of some type."

And what about Alber and Mike Miller? "The only connection that we really have at this time is that they both seem to live in the Chandler area," the agent replied. The government neglected to tell the grand jury about the secretly taped discussion between Frank Alber and his friend Rick Fair.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin