To understand the motivation behind one of the more unusual crimes in New Jersey in recent years, you have to go back to the pity party.
Roy Slates, investigators say, was in a melancholy mood as he drank in a rural Missouri bar that day last fall, lamenting to a buddy that he’d once been a wealthy man. He’d had a big house. A big property. Even his own private airstrip.
It was that golf deal, way back in 1998, that had ruined it all. Not far from majestic Bryce Canyon in southern Utah, a golf resort was to have been built, with a champion-caliber course designed by three-time U.S. Open winner Hale Irwin.
Then the deal went south, and the fortunes of Slates, who’d begun work on a contract to move tons of dirt around, went south with it.
The Nevada, Mo., resident had a list of folks to blame, and at the top of that list, investigators say, was a money broker named Jeffrey Muller.
From that beer-soaked encounter sprang the germ of an idea that authorities say would lead to the much-publicized kidnapping in January of another man named Jeffrey Muller — the wrong Jeffrey Muller — in the parking lot of his Sussex County pet-supply shop.
Zapped with a stun gun and beaten repeatedly during a 1,200-mile drive west, Muller escaped after the thugs’ aging car broke down in a Missouri town.
Now, with five men awaiting trial and investigators close to wrapping up their probe, a more complete portrait of the events leading up to the abduction has emerged. It’s a story that includes elements of both the sinister and the bizarre.
Sinister because some of the suspects allegedly planned to kidnap a second man involved in the Utah deal once they were done squeezing Muller for cash. And bizarre because of the suspects themselves, whose missteps and backgrounds led the chief investigator in the case to compare them to the bumbling Black Widow gang in “Every Which Way But Loose,” the 1978 movie that stars Clint Eastwood and an orangutan.
“On a personal level, I had a lot of fun investigating it,” said Deputy Steve Schlup of the Vernon County, Mo., Sheriff’s Office. “You don’t get many cases like this in your career.”
Pretender to the throne
William Barger fancied himself motorcycle royalty. Intent on starting up a “Heartland” chapter of the Hells Angels in western Missouri, he spread the word that he was the son of Ralph “Sonny” Barger, founder of the legendary gang, Schlup said. To further the mystique, Barger had the number 81, a Hells Angels symbol, tattooed on his fingers.
It was a fantasy. Both Schlup and Fritz Clapp, Ralph Barger’s lawyer and business manager, say William Barger is not related to the founder.
“I can state emphatically that Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger has no children, and the subject comes up at least once a year now that he’s such a celebrity,” Clapp said. “Obviously this guy was trying to give himself some credibility, but he was lying.”
There was another problem with the new biker club: It didn’t have a single motorcycle.
What’s more, Schlup said, the gang had just one full member — William Barger — and three prospects.
Barger, 48, had once owned a cell phone store, but that had shut down, and he was eking out a living installing satellite dishes, Schlup said. For some time, he’d been bunking in the home of one of the prospective gang members, 46-year-old Douglas Stangeland, just outside the town of Nevada.
Stangeland, the owner of a vending machine company, would serve as a crucial link in the case, Schlup said. On the fall day when Roy Slates unburdened himself in the bar, complaining that he’d lost more than $500,000 in the Utah deal, Stangeland was his audience.
Slates, a heavy-machinery contractor, was “reminiscing about how he didn’t have what he used to have,” Schlup said.
“He had been more than comfortable,” the investigator said. “He had a very large home with numerous acres and an airfield right on the acreage where he ran his own plane.”
The Utah losses forced Slates to move to a smaller home closer to town.
In the days after the friends talked, Stangeland mentioned it to Barger. Schlup said Barger smelled an opportunity and approached Slates with a proposal: The Hells Angels Heartland chapter would recoup Slates’ losses for a 25 percent cut.
Slates agreed and fronted the group $10,000 in expense money, Schlup said. The plan had been set in motion.
Down the drain
The Bryce Canyon National Golf and Country Club had been Neil Foster’s dream. In the end, it became his nightmare.
Set on 1,100 acres just outside Bryce Canyon National Park, famous for its rocky spires, the project was to include a 180-unit motel, hundreds of homes and the centerpiece golf course designed by Irwin, who was among the nation’s most successful golfers through the 1970s and 1980s.
The self-made Foster family — owners of a motel, supermarket and steakhouse nearby — sank $8 million into the deal, Neil Foster said, and partnered up with a Kansas City, Mo., contractor by the name of Chuck Scammell.
Scammell, in turn, hired other contractors. One was Roy Slates, and he began some of the preliminary earth-moving work. Scammell also brought in a pair of rainmakers — money brokers who were to sell investors on the project — named Jeffrey Muller and Art Lackman, Foster said.
“To the best of my knowledge, they didn’t raise any money for the project,” Foster said.
Had everything else gone according to plan, that might not have been a deal-breaker. But when the Fosters ran into a problem over water rights and invested heavily in a treatment plant that didn’t work as advertised, more money was needed, and there was none left.
“We lost everything we had,” Foster said. “We lost 30 years of work. We had to sell the 1,100 acres. We had to remortgage everything. We were the scapegoats. Scammell and everybody else left the picture rather rapidly.”
All these years later, Foster, 48, says it would never occur to him to hire a biker gang to get some of his fortune back.
“You can’t hang on to the negative,” he said. “It’ll eat you up.”
Slates apparently felt differently.
Schlup said Slates blamed Muller and Lackman, the money brokers, for his losses, and now he had to help Barger’s motley gang find the pair. To that end, he allegedly directed them to the home of Scammell, the Kansas City contractor.
On Nov. 9, police say, Stangeland and the gang’s other two prospects — Andrew Wadel, 21, and Wadel’s uncle, Lonnie Swarnes, 44 — burst into Scammell’s home and demanded to know how to find Muller, shooting the contractor in the hand for good measure.
Lackman had been based in San Francisco, they were told. Muller was in New Jersey.
Little did they know the information was no longer accurate. That Jeffrey Muller had left New Jersey two to three years ago and now lives in New York, Schlup said.
It remains unclear how the trio settled on the Jeffrey Muller who sells pet food. But on the morning of Jan. 8, authorities say, Stangeland, Wadel and Swarnes were waiting for him in the parking lot of his Newton store. They shot him with a Taser, battered him and trundled him into their car.
Over the next 24 hours, Muller repeatedly told them they had the wrong man. Eventually, they came to believe him, Schlup said, but with no idea what to do about it, they continued heading with him toward their home base in the Ozark Mountains of western Missouri, stopping only for gas and Slim Jims.
It was in Lake Ozark, Mo., that the trip ended, when their Chevy Malibu developed engine trouble. As two of the kidnappers went hunting for car parts, Muller managed to free himself from the plastic ties on his wrists and bolted from the Malibu, authorities have said. A convenience store clerk spotted him and called police, who quickly arrested the three other men.
Today Wadel, Stangeland and Barger remain jailed in Missouri. Swarnes waived extradition and has been transferred to New Jersey, where he is being held in the Sussex County Jail in lieu of $750,000 bail. All face charges of kidnapping.
Slates, charged with concealing a felony and hindering apprehension by lying to investigators, is free on $5,000 bond.
Muller, who has returned to work, declined to comment for this story, saying he didn’t want to jeopardize the investigation.
Schlup said he has spoken with the New York Muller, who was “surprised and aghast” when he learned how close he had come to being kidnapped.
“He had no real understanding of why they were after him,” Schlup said.
Though Schlup doesn’t downplay the seriousness of what happened, noting that New Jersey’s Muller or others might have come to real harm, the rural Missouri investigator said he wonders if the strange case isn’t perfect fodder for Hollywood.
“We’ve been joking about having a movie made and about who was going to play me and who was going to play the sheriff,” he said. “Stuff like this just doesn’t happen around here.”