Dale “Mad Dog” Messmer is Hollywood’s perfect version of a bad guy.
His head is shaved bald and he sports a scraggly brownish-gray goatee. His eyes are ice-blue and lucid. His body hosts an impressive collection of gunshot- and knife-inflicted scars.
In short, Messmer looks like someone who could kill with his bare hands.
The way he tells it, he has.
While in jail.
For drug smuggling.
As part of a Colombian cocaine cartel.
After serving 10 years, eight months, 11 days in prison (since serving time, he counts everything), Messmer, 52, has now settled in Thousand Oaks, one of the safer cities in the country.
But residents need not fear. Messmer is a changed man. In fact, he’ll probably be visiting children in school next year.
His goal is to take his anti-crime, anti-drug, anti-gang message to as many junior and senior high school students as he can--with talks already lined up with Thousand Oaks and Newbury Park youths.
He caught the do-good bug when he started speaking to students as part of a work program while still in an Arkansas prison. Incarcerated life was like no other experience, not even his tours in Vietnam, and he has a detailed, no-holds-barred story to tell that keeps usually antsy students riveted.
Messmer is a recent transplant from Arkansas, where he created the Straight Talk Outreach Program, or STOP, to prompt kids to think about their choices. His efforts are endorsed by no less than that state’s top crime prevention official and the governor.
Lured by Hollywood’s need for a regular supply of bad guys and truckers, Messmer moved West and is hoping to start a new nonprofit group to reach California kids.
Convincing people that a man who was once considered “heavily armed and extremely dangerous at all times” by the FBI is now trustworthy has been a major hurdle for this newcomer.
“There are two assumptions people always make [about a convict]. You’re a liar, and you’re stupid,” Messmer said. “I’m not a liar.” Nor does he appear to be stupid.
Messmer is genuine, insists Tona DeMers, the former Arkansas attorney who represented him at his parole hearing.
“I have seen him doing what he’s trying to do [in California], in Arkansas. He did it tirelessly. He did it out of his own pocket,” said DeMers, who now practices in Florida. She was so moved by his reformation that she let him live with her for the first few months after his release from prison in November 1994.
“It’s unfortunate for the young kids in Arkansas not to have the benefit of what he’s trying to teach them. On the other hand, the kids in California are lucky to have him,” DeMers said.
So how does an educated and highly decorated veteran become a drug runner? And how does he make the climb back into mainstream society? For Messmer, the answer to the first question is mostly bad choices, along with a dash of bad luck.
The tale of Messmer’s childhood is heartbreaking. He was born and raised in Wichita, Kan. His mother died when he was 5. He had three older brothers, all of whom have since died. Only a younger brother, who was adopted by another family but has since reunited with Messmer, remains.
When he was 15, Messmer left home to live with an aunt. “Straight and sober as a judge,” Messmer said of her. But one night, she fell asleep at the wheel and died when her car ran into a moving train, he said.
At 16, Messmer lied about his age and got a job working for Cessna Aircraft, he recalled. He worked the graveyard shift, clocked out at 7 a.m. and went to school, where he played football. He slept when he could, but he didn’t need much. To this day, he only sleeps four to five hours a night.
Despite the rigors of his schedule, Messmer played football at Kansas State University and graduated in 1965 with a degree in journalism. His future looked bright.
Two years later, his number came up in the draft lottery and he joined the Marines, arriving in Vietnam in December 1967. Messmer found his groove in the Marines. He was a sniper scout, often dropped into enemy territory alone or with a small team, he said.
He was on leave in Okinawa when he earned his nickname. During a visit to a brothel, he had a “difference of opinion” with a Japanese policeman and his dog, he said. The officer survived. The canine didn’t. Ergo, “Mad Dog.”
After several tours in Vietnam, Messmer became a Marine drill instructor, an effect still evident in his seminars.
Messmer carries the physical scars of combat. He lost part of his ankle in a booby trap. He has an artificial hip socket and steel rods in his legs to replace shattered bones. His brow furrows askew because of a gunshot wound. Had the weapon been fired at close range, it surely would have killed him.
Serving 10 years in the armed services, he said he entered civilian life teaching sniper classes and developing a SWAT team with law enforcement officials.
Afterward, Messmer took odd jobs to make ends meet. As fate would have it, he answered an ad in the late 1970s seeking security personnel for foreign assignments.
The next thing he knew, Messmer was working for a so-called gold and silver company in Colombia, and for a while, he thought he was actually safeguarding precious metals. Then one day, his mule train was ambushed, he said. In the attack, one of the boxes opened and coca paste, which is used to make cocaine, spilled out.
“I decided the best thing was to shut up and expire the rest of my contract,” he said.
Vowing to get back on the straight and narrow, Messmer worked a variety of jobs, all legitimate, albeit if barely. He was a bouncer, a bodyguard and a bounty hunter. His work took him to Nashville and he ultimately launched his own security company.
It was at a concert in Florida that Messmer said he was approached by henchmen for a South American cartel leader. The big boss was apparently pleased with his earlier work guarding the mules and wondered if he was interested in making a little side money smuggling drugs.
“It was an offer I should have refused,” he said.
In his speeches before students, Messmer likes to brag how good he was. Why even his own wife (No. 3) didn’t realize he was a drug smuggler for the first 2 1/2 years.
“I was above suspicion. I was a businessman with my own business. I was a member of the Chamber of Commerce and the Better Business Bureau,” he tells them.
And that’s just the point, Messmer tells kids. No matter how good you are, how smart you think you are, the pure number of law enforcement officials puts the odds in their favor. You’re going to get caught. He did.
Messmer jumped bail but later turned himself in. His lawyer arranged for a plea agreement that saw the federal charges dropped, he said. He served 3 1/2 years of a 15-year sentence in Tennessee and then was shipped to Arkansas, where he served another seven years of a 23-year sentence for an unrelated armed robbery.
Messmer has a lot to say about the Arkansas Department of Corrections, none of it flattering. While the tales of rapes and beatings held the students’ attention, they made him unpopular with some authorities in that state’s prison system. Both he and his lawyer said they feared for his safety there.
While still in Arkansas, he was “discovered” by a talent agent who told him he had “the look.” He got bit parts in “Real Stories of the Highway Patrol” as--surprise--the bad guy and decided to move West where entertainment-industry jobs are more plentiful.
But becoming a star is secondary in importance to his goal of reaching kids, Messmer said.
Since moving to California in January, Messmer has become a regular speaker for the Los Angeles Police Department’s Gangbusters Program. Typically first-time offenders, they are sent to the LAPD station in downtown by court order.
On the roof of the station with skyscrapers as a backdrop, Messmer paces back and forth as he tells his stories. The body language is part Marine drill instructor, part preacher, part Amway salesman. The teenagers stare at him.
You think you’re tough? He’s a trained killer. He’s earned the country’s second highest military medal, the Navy Cross, for saving the lives of seven soldiers during an ambush as well as the Silver Star and three purple hearts--boasts that his military discharge papers bear out.
He entered prison with all his teeth. He takes a full bottom row of dentures out to make his point.
You think you’re tough? How are you with your bare hands? “Down there, it’s a jungle, and it’s survival of the fittest,” he tells the youths.
You think you can handle the sexual advances in prison? “There are men who have been in prison longer than you’ve been alive,” he barks. “They ain’t never going to get out, and you look as good to them as any woman.”
The cringing faces indicate his message is beginning to get through.
Officer Frank Dipaola, who organizes the Gangbusters program, said Messmer is a welcome addition.
“Dale is very articulate. He has an education,” he said. “He has a natural gift of speaking to people.” The letters of thanks are already coming in, Dipaola said.
Messmer has appointments to speak at the Thousand Oaks Teen Center this summer and to Newbury Park High students next school year. Although his only income now is an $800-a-month disability check for his war wounds, Messmer doesn’t charge for his presentations. A letter from the Ventura County superintendent of schools’ office encourages other schools to pencil him in.
“It is not usual procedure for me to write to you about a particular speaker,” wrote Judy Seyle, director of health programs.
“Dale’s approach is one of straight talk to students about the choices they make and the consequences of those choices that may impact the remainder of one’s life.
“He does not glamorize his life, nor boast of making it through prison to parole, but rather tells of his losses, his survival and his hope that others would make better choices than he did.”
Messmer said he has been frustrated by some school administrators who don’t want to admit there are at-risk students in their schools. One principal told him only 10% of the students at his school are involved in gangs. Why, there are three kids on his neatly manicured block in Thousand Oaks who are using drugs.
“If somebody doesn’t tell them, we’re going to lose them,” Messmer said of the kids. “I’m going to do this as long as I can do it. I’m going to do this till I drop dead.”