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Fugitive On Tour On the lam for more than a decade, Robert Atwater blew his cover and ultimately lost his freedom when he couldn't resist the opportunity to live his dream of playing with the pros

March 08, 2004
March 08, 2004

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March 8, 2004

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Fugitive On Tour On the lam for more than a decade, Robert Atwater blew his cover and ultimately lost his freedom when he couldn't resist the opportunity to live his dream of playing with the pros

Robert Atwater has had a difficult relationship with the truth for
a long time. It first became apparent at least 15 years ago, when
he used to hang out in the VIP lounge at Sensations nightclub in
Atlanta, armed with nothing more than a killer smile and a decent
suit, trying to convince women that he owned the joint. Since
then Atwater (a.k.a. Darren Muarry, Fast Bobby, Darious Conions
Harris, Fredrick Jerome Bentley, Leonard Bentley, Curtis James
Atwater, Curtis Wayne Atwater and Wayne Atwater) has claimed to
be, among other things, the half brother of baseball Hall of
Famer Eddie Murray, the owner of a 45-foot yacht, an amateur
golfer good enough to have beaten Tiger Woods, an LPGA tour
caddie, a country club hustler, a born-again Christian and a
budding Champions tour pro. ¶ It should come as no surprise,
then, that Robert Atwater is a convicted felon. On Dec. 11,
2002, in the U.S. District Court in Atlanta, Atwater pleaded
guilty to conspiring to distribute five kilograms of cocaine
for one of the largest drug rings in Georgia history. Last
April 18 he was sentenced to 10 years and three months and
imprisoned at Taft Correctional Institute, a minimum-security
lockup with decent food and first-rate recreational facilities
100 miles northeast of Los Angeles. The truly surprising thing
is that what led Atwater to an eight-by-12-foot holding cell
deep inside Taft's maze of cool, cream-colored corridors is golf.

This is an article from the March 8, 2004 issue

"When they called my name on the 1st tee, I was hiding behind the
starter's tent taking some deep breaths," says Atwater, his eyes
wide and bright as he sits in the visitors' center at Taft. "Man,
you should have seen it--there had to be 5,000 people watching
me. I hit it good, knocked it slightly left but into the
fairway."

Atwater is describing his play in the Champions tour's 2001 SBC
Senior Classic at Valencia (Calif.) Country Club. It's an
engaging vignette, except the details are almost entirely wrong.
The gallery was no bigger than a couple of hundred. As for that
well-struck drive? "His practice swings were perfect; the real
swing not so good," says an eyewitness. "He topped the ball. It
went 50 yards."

Atwater faced a unique kind of pressure. As he stood on that 1st
tee, he had been on the run from federal authorities since July
1990. And not only was he playing under an assumed name (Darren
Muarry), but he was also just 49, one year below the minimum age
for the Champions tour. Whether it was the pressure or his
skills, he shot rounds of 85, 82 and 79 to finish dead last, 30
over par and 42 shots behind the winner, Jim Colbert. Atwater won
$756, and to hear him tell it, he didn't play badly after he'd
shaken off those 1st-hole nerves. "Actually, I was kind of
disappointed I didn't win," he says with apparent sincerity.

Atwater even made SBC Classic tournament director Brian
Fitzgerald feel his disappointment. "I felt sorry for the guy,"
says Fitzgerald. For the next few months Fitzgerald scanned the
Monday qualifying results on the Champions tour looking for
Muarry's name. "Nothing. But that's the way it is with guys like
that," he says. "They get their shot, find out they don't have it
and disappear. I assumed that one week at our event was the end
for the guy."

Fitzgerald was right. The 2001 SBC Senior Classic was the end for
Darren Muarry, but for Robert Atwater it was only the beginning
of the end.

Golf runs like a river through Atwater's world. He grew up on a
course in Georgia. He caddied through his school years and played
whenever he could. Golf, he says, is the only thing that came
naturally to him, even though his swing--an ugly, cross-handed
swipe that starts with him aiming 70 yards to the right of his
target and ends, more often than not, with the ball somewhere
near its intended destination--looks as natural as the Atlanta
skyline. Yet he could play well enough to make a living of sorts;
on mini-tours, at pro-ams and at country clubs and munis from
Florida to California. "I'd go anywhere there was gambling,"
Atwater says. "Everybody plays for something, even if it's only a
meal. I love golf and the challenge it offers--though it ain't a
challenge to me because I play well--and the people you meet
through the game. Good people." Bad people too.

Atwater met Atlanta-based businessman Vernon Copeland in Miami in
the early 1980s when Atwater drove the green on a short par-4
while Copeland was still putting out. At first Copeland was
angry, but then the two got to talking. "I told him I was trying
to make a living playing golf," Atwater says, "and he said I
should come and stay with him whenever I was in Atlanta. He said
he'd help get me some money."

To the casual observer Copeland was a businessman with a couple
of nightclubs. But he was also a major player in a drug ring. In
1992 he was convicted of distributing cocaine in the Atlanta area
and laundering the profits through his clubs and real estate
investments. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Atwater says
he knew little about his friend's activities, at least initially.
It wasn't his concern, and anyway he was happy to have Copeland's
roof over his head. Plus, there were perks that came with being a
friend of Copeland's: free courtside tickets to Hawks games;
rubbing elbows with Copeland's NFL buddies; VIP treatment at
Copeland's nightclubs, where Atwater also got the chance to work
his charms on the female clientele.

Why was Copeland so hospitable? Either he was very generous or
Atwater is being modest about his contribution to his friend's
illicit business. Special agent Frank Mazzilli of the Drug
Enforcement Agency in Atlanta says it was the latter. "According
to eyewitness testimony," says Mazzilli, "[Atwater] used to pick
up cocaine for the ring. He was involved in counting the drug
money and in the distribution of cocaine. He accompanied Copeland
on drug deals and helped deliver large quantities of drug money
that was used to finance the nightclubs. This guy played a
significant role in this criminal organization."

Whatever his relationship with Copeland, by July 1990 Atwater was
back in Florida eking out a living from golf, he says, when the
DEA ended its 18-month investigation of the drug ring with a raid
on Copeland's home. Among the items discovered there were four
handguns, 12 kilos of cocaine and a pile of clothes belonging to
Atwater. Eight people were indicted, including Copeland, his
partner, Fredel Williamson, and a big-time Atlanta lawyer named
Michael D. Griggs, who was involved in the pair's
money-laundering operation. An indictment containing 24 counts
was issued, including one naming Atwater as a coconspirator.
Williamson and Griggs were also convicted and given jail terms.
"I didn't know about Vern getting arrested until eight, nine
months later, when I went back to Atlanta," Atwater says. "I
didn't know there was a warrant out for my arrest. I asked my
lawyer if the police were looking for me, and she said, 'They
ain't called.' I figured if they ain't brought no warrant, they
ain't looking for me."

But according to the U.S. Marshals Service, which tracks down
fugitives, it was about this time that Atwater began serially
changing his name--to Muarry, Bentley, Harris, etc.--and he
established an address in Los Angeles. According to Atwater, he
carried on much as before, jumping from state to state (Florida,
Oklahoma, Texas) hustling golf, picking up loops wherever he
could. He claims to have spent time caddying on the LPGA tour
for, among others, Jane Blalock and Kathy Whitworth. (Shown a
photograph of the erstwhile bag carrier, both players said, "I've
never seen him before.")

Whatever he was doing, Atwater was able to avoid capture.
According to Deputy U.S. Marshal Arnold Perkins, "His case simply
went cold for a while." It started thawing in the spring of 1999,
when Atwater, going by the name Darren Muarry, showed up at the
caddie shack of L.A.'s Wilshire Country Club. "We had a Senior
tour event, and he was hanging around because he didn't have a
bag," says Pete Dwyer, Wilshire's caddiemaster. "I told him, 'Why
don't you caddie here?'"

Muarry soon made a reputation for himself at the club. Two
reputations, actually. In the caddie shack he was known as a b.s.
artist who talked a lot about his luxury yacht, his brother,
Eddie, the baseball legend (the difference in spelling didn't
come to light until later) and how he was going to make his
fortune playing professional golf. Among the members Muarry was
known as a good man to have on the bag. "He had only been here a
few weeks when people started asking for him," Dwyer says. "He
knew what he was doing out there, so he could help people with
their games."

One of the Wilshire members who started asking for Muarry was
Todd Ellsworth. "Did I like the guy?" Ellsworth says. "No. I
adored him. Basically, he sort of adopted me, and I sort of
adopted him."

Talk about an odd couple--the black caddie and the white
investment banker. The fugitive drug courier and the former
student president of Pepperdine Law School. The ladies man and
the family man. Yet "something clicked between us," Ellsworth
says. "I brought him to meet my dad and my son. They loved him
straight away, like I did. He was kind, gentle and had a strong
belief in God."

It didn't take long for Darren to graduate from Todd's caddie to
Todd's golfing buddy. "I'd only known him for a few days when he
told me he was in training for the Senior tour," Ellsworth says.
"I wanted to see if he had what it takes." Ellsworth let Muarry
hit a few shots one afternoon, and the result was a couple of
beautifully struck irons. A few days later the pair played
Wilshire's back nine. Muarry was four under. Ellsworth booked a
time at L.A. Country Club, a tougher track. Muarry shot one
under. "That's when I decided I'd help him," Ellsworth says.

It started with advice, then advanced to writing letters on
Muarry's behalf. Equipment was next. Muarry was using an old $80
set with a sweet spot the size of a sunflower seed and duct tape
for grips. Ellsworth gave him a new set of Mizuno irons and
bought Muarry some golf clothes. Then he and his father and a few
pals fronted Muarry $10,000 to kick-start his new life.

The plan was for Muarry to go to Florida for some warmup
tournaments, work with a swing coach and then start playing in
Monday qualifiers for the Senior tour. But when his big chance
came along, Muarry didn't need to qualify to secure a spot in the
field alongside Colbert, Ray Floyd, Lanny Wadkins and the rest of
the gang. He didn't need Ellsworth's 10 grand or the new clothes.
All it took was his inherent charm, and dishonesty, to get into
the tournament.

Muarry had hoped to pick up a pro's bag at the 2000 SBC Classic,
but he had to settle for a loop in the pro-am, caddying for SBC
executive Laura Watts. Like Ellsworth, Watts was impressed by the
way Muarry conducted himself on the course and by his apparent
determination to make it on the senior circuit--so impressed that
she introduced him to her husband, Jim, a retired SBC executive.
"He took me out to Riviera or some place like that," Atwater
says. "I shot four under, maybe five under, I can't remember. It
was supposed to be a tough course, but it didn't bother me."

The Wattses and Ellsworth got together and hatched a plan. "Laura
came to me and asked if Darren could be given consideration for a
sponsor's invite [for the '01 SBC]," says tournament director
Fitzgerald. "Ultimately it was my call, but I certainly take the
sponsor's wishes into account when I decide who gets to play. The
thing about Darren was, he ticked a lot of boxes. He was a
minority, and SBC is sensitive to minority issues. Plus he could
play a bit, and he had that cross-handed thing going. He was a
story--a feel-good caddie-turned-pro story--that I thought might
generate media interest."

Sure enough, the Los Angeles Times, Golf World magazine and Fox
Sports bit on the caddie-turned-pro story. (Golf World's
headline: former augusta national caddie can't master valencia.)
Ray Floyd took a sideways look at Muarry's unorthodox swing and
said, "I guess there's more than one way to skin a cat." To Tony
Chieffo and the other assistant pros at Valencia, Muarry was "a
cult hero," Chieffo says. "It started with the cross-handed
thing. You see guys putting cross-handed all the time but not
hitting the ball cross-handed." Chieffo was among the 100 or so
people who watched Muarry, in a group with Chuck Moran and Jessie
Patino, tee off in the first round. So was Ellsworth, as nervous
as a father on his son's first day of school.

Finishing 42 shots behind the winner will crush even the most
grandiose of golfing dreams. Within a couple of weeks Atwater had
stopped caddying at Wilshire and stopped returning Ellsworth's
calls. Ellsworth persisted until the day he punched in Muarry's
cellphone number and the message came up: disconnected. "I wasn't
bothered about the money," Ellsworth says. "Walking away without
saying anything wasn't the kind of thing you do to your friends.
It didn't seem like something Darren would do. I was worried
about him."

After a couple of months worry turned into hurt, then suspicion.
Ellsworth wrote down everything Muarry had told him about
himself, and it was obvious something wasn't right. "Part of me
said, I've been ripped off," says Ellsworth. "But the other part
said, I want to find this guy, look him in the eye and ask, 'Were
you telling me lies all along?'"

On the other side of the country, someone else was putting
together another inventory of Darren Muarry's life, though under
the heading Robert Atwater. A new deputy U.S. marshal, Leza
Myracle, had been assigned his case in the fall of 2001. She came
to the case with fresh enthusiasm, new insights and investigative
techniques, and a breakthrough--she had linked the name Darren
Muarry with Robert Atwater, though she won't say how, for fear of
affecting the search for other fugitives.

"During the course of her investigations, Deputy Myracle
established that Atwater was an avid golfer," says Perkins, who
was Myracle's supervisor. "When she put Muarry's name into the
Yahoo search engine and his scores from the SBC Classic came up,
she was fairly certain it was him." Marshals in L.A. started
circulating Atwater's picture at city courses. Within days
someone provided an address. A house in Inglewood was put under
surveillance. On April 30, 2002, a dozen armed marshals arrested
Atwater in an early-morning raid on the house. After 11 years, 10
months, a handful of aliases and an abortive career as a
Champions tour pro, Atwater's odyssey was finally over.

Now, locked up in Taft, where the earliest he can be released is
April 2011, Atwater has had all the time in the world to answer
the most vexing of questions: Why would a fugitive play in a pro
golf tournament? "I couldn't stop myself," he says. "I love golf.
This was my chance, and if it happened again, I'd do the same
thing."

What about the people who helped him: Laura Watts, who has been
the subject of endless teasing at the office, and Todd Ellsworth,
who gave him emotional and financial support and received lies
and deception in return? "They're good people, nice people,"
Atwater says. "I've been trying to get in touch with Todd. I
didn't set out to hurt him. I'm not an evil person."

There's nothing in the Champions tour's rule book that says
convicted felons aren't welcome. So now Atwater dreams of Q
school, circa 2011. Until then he will stay in shape with sit-ups
and push-ups and endless jogs around the barbed-wire-enclosed
track at Taft. To keep his golf muscles sharp, he hits a
Ping-Pong ball around the prison yard with a broom handle. He
recently heard about a prison in Las Vegas where the inmates get
to work at a driving range, and he's thinking about applying for
a transfer. "You write this down," he says, "you let the world
know--I am going to play on the Champions tour."

What a story that would make, you tell him. He shakes his head.
Never mind a story, what about a movie? A cross between Catch Me
If You Can and The Legend of Bagger Vance.

Atwater knows just the guy to play him on screen. "Will Smith,"
he says excitedly. "Now there's a good-looking guy."

Will Smith is good, you say, but Denzel Washington would be
better.

Suddenly, Atwater is on his feet, he's so excited. He thinks he
can make this one fly. "Denzel Washington?" he says. "Denzel's a
friend of mine. I met him at a tournament once."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TODD BIGELOW/AURORA CON MAN Atwater, who played in the '01 SBC Classic under an assumed name, was given a 10-year sentence last April.COLOR PHOTO: U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE (INSET)THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TODD BIGELOW/AURORA

"Did I like the guy?" Ellsworth says. "No. I adored him.
Basically, I sort of adopted him."

"You see guys putting cross-handed," says Chieffo, "but not
hitting the ball cross-handed."

"Let the world know," atwater says from jail, "I am going to play
on the Champions tour."