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That conversation--I swear to God, I never heard of em"--certainly favored the suspects. Under federal law, Hyder was obliged to present any exculpatory evidence--that is, evidence that might clear the suspects.

MDRV"I knew of the tape," Hyder says, "but I hadn't read the transcript or heard it before we went to the grand jury. You have to understand, the investigation wasn't completed when we presented the case. We feared for the safety of the boy and we had to go early. The grand jury heard everything that I knew at the time."

But there were other oddities. Although there were four men at Saguaro Lake that day, Hyder brought charges only against Miller and Nelson. Hyder won't say why he didn't prosecute MDNMthe two other men who had been at the lakeMDRV.MDNM MDRVBut it appears tMDNMhe feds had as muchMDRV, MDNMor as littleMDRV, MDNMevidenceMDRVon the other two men as they had on Nelson.MDNM

MDRVLast February 26, MDNMthe federal grand jury indicted Alber, Nelson and Miller on charges of conspiracy and of mailing threatening communications.

@body:The FBI interviewed dozens of people in the days after the indictments against the three men. But the government's case kept getting weaker and weaker.

"We try to gather as much information as possible during our investigation," FBI Special Agent Al Davidson tells New Times, "and then let the prosecutor make the decisions about where to go from there. Sometimes, there may be enough evidence to show 'probable cause' that a person has committed a crime, but there isn't enough to convict that person. That may be what happened in this case."
Mike Miller's boss told the feds Miller hadn't worked that day because of the rain, but had dropped by his house late that afternoon with his friend and co-worker, Bennett. Miller told him he and Bennett had met two other men at the lake. One of them, the longhaired one, had given him a business card, which he showed the boss.

The boss added that he couldn't fathom Miller being part of an extortion plot. Why, the kid didn't plan for more than a few hours ahead, and even then, it concerned only when and where he was going to party.

Miller's friend corroborated, in a separate FBI interview, Miller's goofy story about following a rain cloud to Saguaro Lake. Bennett, too, said he didn't know Mark Nelson or Nelson's friend.

A search of Miller's home produced a marijuana plant, but absolutely nothing that connected him to a conspiracy. For unexplained reasons, the feds didn't search Nelson's apartment or his car for evidence.

Nelson's friend Jeff told the FBI he had been the one who had started the infamous lakeside conversation with Mike Miller and the other fellow. And what about that stop at the McDonald's restaurant on the way from the lake?

Jeff said he had had to go to the bathroom. He knew nothing about the man in the green Mercedes--Marc Kaplan--other than that Nelson had said something nice about the man's car on the way from the lake.

As weeks, then months, wore on, the feds tried diligently to prove the Republic was on-target when it called the Kaplan investigation a shining example of "how the FBI performs on a regular basis." But the investigation that had drawn such raves seemed to be going south faster than Mark Nelson's little red Corvette.

@body:Phoenix attorney Dan Maynard normally handles corporate matters, not criminal cases like the would-be kidnaping and maiming of a child. How Maynard got into the case last fall as Nelson's second attorney is a story in itself.

One of Maynard's major corporate clients had heard Mark Nelson's tale of woe while Nelson was painting his house. The client asked Maynard to take a look at the strange case as a favor. Maynard did so, and was immediately intrigued.

"I spent the weekend with the file," Maynard says, "and I thought that it was one of the craziest stories I had ever seen. I couldn't believe that the government hadn't dropped the case against Nelson. Instead, Hyder strung us out and kept getting tougher and tougher on the kid."
Nelson remembers one of the first comments Dan Maynard made to him.
"He told me, 'You're either Sir Lawrence of Olivier or you've been framed,'" Nelson says.

But Chuck Hyder wouldn't ease up on Nelson, despite the thin case against him. In May, Hyder had asked Judge Robert Broomfield to place Nelson under house arrest. Nelson had been ordered to stay away from the East Valley, but volunteered to authorities that he had spent a few minutes in Scottsdale visiting his girlfriend, who had just miscarried their child.

House arrest meant Nelson had to wear a homing device on his ankle that told authorities where he was at all times. He also was to stay at his parents' home in west Phoenix and to abide by a strict curfew.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin