'Gun for Hire' Had Many Clients : Bumbling Gang of Killers Left Trail of Death, Terror

Times Staff Writer

Doug Norwood believes killers will return to stalk him again.

He thinks about them constantly and always carries his .357 magnum. His house is loaded with electronic gear to warn him if an intruder is about. Although he knows the gang that tried to kill him is locked up, Doug Norwood cannot rest easy.

He won't go out at night because darkness is a killer's friend.

Norwood is a deputy county prosecutor in this small town in the northwest corner of Arkansas. He is short, his hairline is receding, he wears glasses and shows the beginning of a paunch. Hollywood would not pick him for the movie about the gang, but in this story Norwood is one of the central figures. So is the cop who finally believed him.

When the police had done their work, when the confessions were in and the pieces were finally fitted together, the story was one of killings and bombings, and, sometimes, of the work of a bunch of bumblers.

Murders had been planned in a seedy Tennessee strip joint by men and women gone bad. Perhaps worse was that, on the strength of a three-line ad in Soldier of Fortune magazine, these people had attracted as much business as they could handle.

The ad read: "GUN FOR HIRE: 37-year-old professional mercenary desires jobs. Vietnam veteran. Discreet and very private. Bodyguard, courier and other special skills. All jobs considered."

Larry Gray saw that ad and called. He wanted Doug Norwood killed for dating Gray's estranged wife, Cathy.

Albert Thielman saw that ad and called. He wanted his wife, Mary, and their three children killed. He was willing to blow up an airliner with 154 people aboard to get the job done.

Robert Spearman saw the ad. He wanted his wife, Anita, killed.

The list of potential clients' names was long, and some of the calls were passing strange. A man in Rochester, Minn., wanted a chicken shed in Fertile, Iowa, blown up to settle an old score.

At one point, Mary Alice Wolf called the number, but the woman she wanted killed in her hometown was spared because she was deemed too pretty to gun down.

"I don't know what it says for us as a country--to run that kind of ad and get that kind of response," said Tom Stokes, who helped coordinate the investigation out of Atlanta for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Widespread Crimes

Stokes was talking in the summer of 1987, after federal authorities were fairly certain that they had accounted for all the crimes committed from Minnesota to Florida, for all the damage the gang had done.

Norwood certainly hadn't any reason to worry back in the summer of 1985--or so he thought. The former Florida prison guard and policeman was then a 30-year-old law student at the University of Arkansas in the Ozark foothill town of Fayetteville. On the morning of Aug. 30, his nightmare began.

Norwood lived in an apartment complex in Fayetteville that was nicknamed "the Law Quads." At 8:30 that morning, he was on the phone to the financial aid office when there was a knock. When he answered, still talking on the phone, two men stood in the door.

Norwood motioned them to come in. When he hung up, they told him they were private investigators looking into the background of another law student.

Used Stun Gun

Then, everything happened in a blur of motion--one man charging with an electric stun gun and Norwood lashing out in defense with a kick to the chest that broke four of his attacker's ribs, the struggling to break free, the other man aiming Norwood's own rifle at him, the bullet smashing into his shoulder, his flight down the long balcony outside, more shots, taking a bullet to the leg, jumping a drainage ditch, collapsing in a parking lot, pleading with a man and woman nearby for help.

Yet, as Norwood watched, his shirt soaked with blood, the couple coolly got into a car and drove away. Had it not been for an employee at the Hogwash coin laundry and bar, who called an ambulance, the gang might have completed its mission right there.

Norwood would survive the two bullets, but he would not rest easy from that day on.

In the following months, as police pursued the case, several things would come to light. One was that Larry Gray, a Tulsa, Okla., businessman, had instigated the attempt on Norwood's life because Norwood was dating his estranged wife. Another was that the couple standing in the Fayetteville street were part of the gang. In fact, Norwood would later identify the man as Richard Savage of Knoxville, Tenn., owner of the Continental Club strip joint there and one who had placed the ad in Soldier of Fortune.

And, in keeping with their bungling way of doing things, it later turned out that the two men who shot Norwood ran the wrong way to reach their getaway car.

Richard Savage was not always on the outs with the law. He used to be a part of it. He had a degree in police administration and three years' experience as a prison guard in Lexington, Ky., and he was a policeman in Lindsay, Okla., for six weeks in 1977, before he got out of law enforcement.

He later worked as an insurance adjuster and restaurateur. He had hoped to take advantage of the Knoxville World's Fair when he opened a motel in nearby Gatlinburg, but the fair was a failure and so was the motel. Savage later converted it into a nursing home. That also failed, and Savage, deeply in debt, took over the Continental Club. It was his last legitimate business venture before he took out the $87 ad in Soldier of Fortune in June, 1985.

A month later, another ad appeared in the magazine. This one was placed by a Michael Wayne Jackson, living in East Texas at the time. Like Savage, Jackson had a law enforcement background, and he held a degree in criminology from California State University, Hayward. Although he advertised himself as a " 'Nam sniper," the closest he had come to such experience was as a Navy firefighter on Guam. He once had impersonated a sheriff's deputy.

Jackson's tenure as police chief of rural Tatum, Tex., lasted only three weeks because he continually brought handcuffed prisoners through the City Council chambers while a meeting was in session. A short time later, he was arrested for shooting a dog in his front yard while the two young boys who owned it watched, dumbfounded.

'Quick-Draw-Type Fella'

"This guy was a gun nut," said Sheriff Bill Oldham of Harrison County, Tex., where Jackson once worked. "He was a quick-draw-type fella. He'd see how fast he could draw and then shoot his barn door."

It is unclear whether Savage got in touch with Jackson or the other way around, but together they were the beginnings of a loosely knit group into which others wandered. There was a Florida fisherman named Sean Trevor Doutre, who turned up in Knoxville after he read the advertisement. Then there was William Buckley, a former Knoxville security guard who, when it was over, was the most penitent of the bunch. There were also Dean DeLuca of Toronto, then a teen-ager, and Debra Mattingly, Savage's wife.

She was with Savage when Norwood cried for help outside his apartment. Buckley and DeLuca were the hit men who went the wrong way.

When the investigation of the assault on him began in Fayetteville, Norwood found himself having a devil of a time. For whatever reason, he failed a police lie detector test. Larry Gray, the only person who seemed to have even a remote reason to kill Norwood, passed his polygraph with flying colors. It would be months before investigators learned that Gray had taken several practice tests and had sought advice on how to dupe the polygraph.

No Ballistics Tests

The Fayetteville police, faced with the shooting of a bearded law student from Florida, a state they considered a cocaine mecca--one who had failed a lie detector test--were not exactly in hot pursuit of those who had tried to kill Norwood. In fact, when Norwood returned home several days after he was shot, he found the stun gun where Buckley had dropped it and two places where bullets aimed at him had lodged in the banister. The police had made no attempt to remove them for ballistics tests.

The only good thing about Norwood's life was that Cathy Gray had moved to an apartment outside Fayetteville and he was seeing more and more of her. Then, almost a month to the day after the first attack on him, there was another one. This time it was a bombing attempt. Norwood was driving Cathy's Ford Escort that morning, and he parked in the university's stadium parking lot. When he returned and started the engine, there was an explosion under the hood. John Herring, an investigator with the school Police Department, answered the call.

Norwood emerged from the car dazed but unhurt. Only a part of the bomb had gone off, enough to damage the car but not enough to kill anyone inside. Herring, who had been with the Tulsa police before he came to Fayetteville, took Norwood in for questioning. (Unlike some campus law enforcement agencies, the one at the University of Arkansas has the powers of a city police force.)

Although Herring had not worked on the Norwood shooting case, he had a certain familiarity with it. In Fayetteville, after all, attempted murder is not an everyday occurrence. Yet when he sat down with Norwood, Herring heard some weird things.

Mysterious Woman Caller

For one, Norwood was convinced that the killers had first made contact with him in Florida, in the guise of a woman who had called and asked him for a ride back to Arkansas. He told Herring a somewhat convoluted story about that woman's changing the meeting place to Memphis because of an illness in her family, of being confronted at the agreed-upon hotel with a muscular young man who claimed to be the woman's brother, of driving around and killing time, of strange and disconcerting conversations about guns.

He told Herring that the woman never showed up, but he checked into a hotel for the night. He said that, on a hunch, he slept with his .22 rifle at his side. Two days later, he was shot in his apartment.

As Herring listened to this, he became more and more skeptical. For one thing, Norwood remembered too much, or so it seemed. In Herring's experience, people under stress forgot more than they remembered, but here was Norwood reeling off not only the names of the hotels involved but also the room numbers.

Much as Herring doubted the story, he was a good enough cop to know that even the most bizarre and seemingly unrelated incidents might have a connection. He began running down Norwood's background, as well as the Memphis hotels Norwood had described, but it was truly a confusing case.

Herring did not have the only confusing case. There were others happening in other parts of the country.

Unexploded Bomb in Bar

Harold Hayes of Rochester, Minn., found an unexploded bomb in his bar and later found out that a rival had sent the gang members to break his kneecaps. He was never alone long enough for them to do that part of the job.

While in that part of the country, the gang also contracted to blow up the chicken shed in Iowa, which it did quite well.

The family of Albert Thielman was on a flight that had landed in Dallas when a bomb went off in the cargo hold, causing a great deal of smoke but no injuries. That was alarming enough, but Mrs. Thielman was even more shocked to discover that the bomb had been in her cosmetic case. One of the gang members now in prison has been indicted for selling Thielman the bomb.

Mary Alice Wolf wanted Victoria Brashear killed, but the two gang members sent to Lexington, Ky., to do the job decided that the intended victim was too pretty to be killed.

Car Blown Up

Dana Free, a Marietta, Ga., businessman, fled for his life in August, 1985, after two hand grenades exploded in his car. He was not injured and hid out at his ex-wife's home in Houston. While he was staying there, two hand grenades were thrown into the living room. They exploded, but no one was in the room at the time.

Then the killers started getting better at their work. Richard Braun, an Atlanta businessman, was shot as he was driving from his suburban home. His son, who was also in the car, watched him die.

Anita Spearman, the assistant city manager of West Palm Beach, Fla., was bludgeoned to death in November, 1985, as she lay in bed recovering from a mastectomy. The killer took her jewelry and a shotgun that belonged to her husband, Robert.

A few days later, a policeman in Maryville, Tenn., arrested a man identified as Sean Trevor Doutre. Doutre was carrying a shotgun, a machine pistol, a silencer and $6,000 in cash. It was only after he had posted a $10,000 bond and had been released that police learned the shotgun belonged to Robert Spearman.

Always Carried Gun

In Fayetteville, Doug Norwood was becoming a pain. Although Herring and his boss, Lt. Jim Swearingen, had run out of leads, Norwood was constantly calling them to report that he was being followed.

"We did get a little weary of it," Herring said.

One day, Norwood called again. The story was the same--someone was tailing him. Herring and Swearingen got into their unmarked university patrol car and drove to the law school, where they spotted the Ford sedan Norwood had just described leaving the parking lot. They followed it for a couple of miles, then pulled the driver over. A pleasant enough man jumped out of the front seat and identified himself as Michael Wayne Jackson. He pulled out a badge and said he was the former police chief of Tatum, Tex., and was looking into a couple of programs at the school.

While Swearingen talked to Jackson, Herring went to the car and looked in the window. Under a sweater was the end of an assault rifle. From the window on the other side of the car, he could see a semi-automatic pistol equipped with a silencer under the steering wheel. Both weapons were illegal. Herring signaled Swearingen to be careful. They arrested Jackson without a fight and brought him to the University of Arkansas police station.

Jackson started talking very quickly.

"We interviewed Michael Jackson and we suddenly had our eyes open as to what was happening," Herring said. "Jackson told us of other bombings and murders that he was aware of. I think I can say that the arrest of Michael Jackson led to the snowball effect."

Checking Out Details

Just having Jackson admit the crimes wasn't enough, however. The officers began checking out the details to make sure he was telling the truth.

"It was an arduous, long process," Herring said of the investigation. "It kept expanding and expanding and expanding."

Before it was over, Herring's department alone would compile 20 volumes, of 150 pages each, on the case.

In February, 1986, Doutre was arrested again in Athens, Ga. He talked, as Jackson had, and this led to further arrests. All of those involved, the hired guns and those who did the hiring, have since been tried and sentenced. Savage, Jackson, Doutre, Buckley, DeLuca and Mattingly are all behind bars.

Mattingly turned out to be the woman who telephoned Norwood about a ride to Arkansas. Herring said the investigation showed that Larry Gray tried to hire five different individuals to kill Norwood.

Sued Magazine

Norwood and Cathy Gray, meanwhile, have married. Norwood sued Soldier of Fortune for $4 million and the suit was settled out of court this summer. He does not disclose the amount of the settlement, but he does say: "I don't have to work again if I don't want to."

And Herring keeps on being a cop with the university police. He is proud of the role he and Swearingen played.

"They tried to be the Walter Mittys of the adventurists," he said of the gang, "but it went beyond fantasy and it turned evil."

Norwood will continue to carry a gun because he thinks Larry Gray will strike again, somehow.

"All he'd have to do is hire someone getting out on parole," he said. And, no, he is not paranoid.

"People who are paranoid are people who only think someone wants to kill you. I know someone wants to kill me."

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