In the annals of crime the Case of the Scared Sportswriter may not rank up there with the Brink's job, yet it created a winter-long furor nationwide. The case ultimately involved the FBI, the attorney general of Alabama, the commissioner of the NFL and several excited and often error-prone reporters. It called into question the reputation and possibly the livelihood of a $342,000 quarterback, the honor of a small-town police chief, the judgment of a badly frightened journalist from The Sacramento Bee, as well as the economic stability and public image of a lush little Alabama resort called Gulf Shores.
The case had its inception on Monday, Jan. 22, 1979. That day the man from the See, Bob Padecky, 32, arrived in Gulf Shores after covering the Super Bowl in Miami. An award-winning reporter, Padecky writes about major league sports in the San Francisco Bay Area, a plum assignment on the Bee. This includes the Oakland Raiders. Padecky was in Gulf Shores to get an exclusive interview with Kenny Stabler, the Raider quarterback. Stabler grew up in the town of Foley, Ala. just across the bridge from Gulf Shores, and now spends his off-seasons on nearby Ono Island.
In a 2 a.m. call to the Bee on Jan. 17 Stabler said he would tell all to Padecky about his season of discontent, in which the Raiders had a dismal (for them) 9-7 record. In talks with Padecky and others, owner Al Davis had blamed Oakland's collapse mainly on his quarterback. Stabler said that one reason he chose Padecky "to spill my guts to," rather than a reporter from a larger, more prestigious publication, was to counter Davis' remarks directly. Another reason, Stabler said, was that he had been irked over articles Padecky had written early in January after a trip to Gulf Shores and Foley.
"He came to talk with local people about me," said Stabler at the time. "He tried to con them into saying bad things about me. He asked how much I drink, what kind of citizen I am.... He relentlessly stayed on me and I couldn't figure why. I finally called during [the week of] the Super Bowl and told him to come down...."
April 23, 1979
Whatever Stabler's motive for granting the interview to Padecky, one thing that didn't happen on Jan. 22 was an interview between Padecky and Stabler. After three different meetings with Stabler in three different bars, Padecky had gathered no useful information, although he had met some of Kenny's close friends. They included 245-pound Billy Walker, who played center at Alabama, and Randall Watson, 36, who had served time in Mississippi for bank robbery in 1971 and recently had pleaded guilty to charges of trying to extort $75,000 and the bill of sale for a four-wheel-drive vehicle from an Alabama telephone company executive on the threat of publicly accusing the man of committing adultery with, er, well, Mrs. Randall Watson, who was also indicted.
Most of Padecky's time in the bars was spent either waiting for Stabler or listening to Stabler harangue him for his journalistic shortcomings. At about 2:30 p.m. Stabler had disappeared once again and Padecky was alone at the Silver Dollar Lounge. A waitress told him Stabler had called and would meet him at B J's restaurant. "By then," Padecky wrote later, "I was convinced this was more than a routine runaround. Still, the story seemed worth the trouble."
The story was worth nothing but trouble. Padecky pulled out of the Silver Dollar lot in his rented Mercury and drove about 30 feet before being hemmed in by two squad cars, a motorcycle and a quartet of Gulf Shores' finest, led by Chief James Maples. Padecky was spread-eagled on his car, searched and handcuffed, while Sergeant A. D. (Cotton) Long reached under the left front fender of the car and removed a magnetic metal key case containing white powder.
Padecky was taken immediately to the police station, a squat, boxy building made of cement block and containing four cells. The man from the Bee was put in cell No. 1—the others were empty—while the police conferred about the case. Moments later, Long went to Padecky's cell and asked him, according to Padecky's account in a copyrighted story, "Tell me what happened before you were arrested."
Padecky wrote, "I started to talk about my bizarre afternoon in search of Kenny Stabler.
"I had hardly begun when Long said, 'Come with me.'
"We went to see...Maples in his office.
" 'Chief, listen to what he's got to say,' said Long. 'I think he's been set up.'
"I completed my story. Long turned to Maples and said, 'Chief, I'm no expert, but this is a setup if I ever saw one.' "
Five minutes after Padecky had been locked up, he was released and told that everyone had concluded he was the victim of a setup and that no charges would be filed against him.
While Padecky was in jail, the phone in the police station rang. The caller identified himself as a bail bondsman and asked if bail had been set on Padecky. Maples said bond had not yet been set—and the caller hung up.
Chief Maples then suggested that Padecky might help catch those who had set him up if he would cooperate by parking his car in the lot of the Holiday Inn, where he was staying. The police would stake out the car in the hope that whoever had planted the white substance (presumed, at that point, to be cocaine) might return to see if it was still under the fender. Padecky agreed, and spent an hour and a half waiting in Room 114 of the Holiday Inn with Maples. No one approached the car, and that evening Maples escorted Padecky to the airport in Pensacola. They shook hands and parted warmly.
Those are the bare facts. From this point on, matters become confused.
For one thing, it was intimated that perhaps the police were involved in the setup of the writer. This suggestion was so offensive to Maples that he and the mayor of Gulf Shores, Mixon Jones, a real-estate man (as are three of the five members of the city council), asked the state attorney general's office to send in investigators to be sure there was no such wrongdoing. The resulting report stated that the police were not implicated.
But then how did they know it was a setup so quickly? Says Maples, "Sergeant Long took the call that gave us the tip-off on Padecky. It sounded like an open-and-shut case, but that made us suspicious. You never get a tip that perfect.... So we were pretty sure it was a setup as soon as we completed the arrest."
Who arranged the setup, then, and was Stabler involved? Maples says, "I don't even have a suspect whose name I can mention. I have never said I suspected Kenny was a part of it. It has been reported that Kenny and I are real close drinkin' buddies, but that's not true. He's a friend, but we don't hang around each other that much. He never gives us any trouble. He's real low-key around here. Kenny might have done it, he might not have done it. I'd be a fool to say for sure."
The attorney general of Alabama, Charles Graddick, investigated the matter, and he says, "If you could convict on speculation, we'd have a pretty good case. But that's not the law."
Some speculation revolved around Randall Watson, because he had indeed asked Joyce Dykes, a waitress who works at a Gulf Shores restaurant called Lefty's, to buy him a magnetic key case precisely like the one found under Padecky's fender. The reason, Watson told the Mobile Register, was that he was constantly locking his keys in the car and wanted an extra set available. Yes, indeed, that was true, confirmed Dykes, who reportedly said, "He locked himself out of his car about a thousand times. We were all teasing him about it all the time." Watson, in fact, showed a reporter that he still had the key case she bought for him, but a receipt showed that she had apparently bought two of them. Dykes has refused to discuss the matter further, and Watson is the only person involved in the case who has refused to be interviewed by Graddick's investigators. "With the evidence we have now," says Graddick, "we can't convict anyone. But we'd still like to talk to Watson."
As for Stabler, he said of the suggestion that he was involved in the setup, "I know absolutely nothing. He [Padecky] is implying that I invited him down here so he could get busted. He is sadly mistaken. I don't stoop to those kinds of measures." Padecky himself says he didn't imply anything. He said not long after the incident, "Who set me up, I don't know. I want to make that more than perfectly clear."
The FBI carried out what it called a "cursory" investigation of the arrest to determine whether Padecky's civil rights had been violated. Donald H. Roberts, the assistant agent in charge of the FBI office in Mobile, says, "We instituted inquiries into Mr. Padecky's arrest and subsequent police escort out of town. This is a routine procedure, and I believe our source was newspaper accounts. As far as I know, no one made a request that we investigate. Our investigation was very cursory. If the Department of Justice feels a full-scale investigation is warranted, they will order one and we will perform it."
The NFL was ultimately involved because of Stabler. Commissioner Pete Rozelle made several statements. At first he promised that the NFL would "scrutinize" the situation. Later Rozelle said that the case had been "investigated" and the NFL was able to say there was "no problem" of any complicity in the setup on the part of Stabler. Most recently, Rozelle issued this brief statement: "We obtained all available information from Alabama law-enforcement officials concerning the Gulf Shores incident and have no plans to look into it further."
However, neither the Gulf Shores police nor the state attorney general nor the FBI gave any report to the NFL. Indeed, as far as they know, none of these agencies has even been contacted by the NFL—nor have Padecky and his lawyer, nor Stabler and his lawyer, nor anyone else closely involved with the case.
An element that was not clear until about two weeks after Padecky's arrest was whether or not the laboratory found the white powder in the key case to be cocaine. The powder was indeed cocaine, at least partly, for it was diluted. Of the .71 gram of powder about one-third was cocaine, with a street value of less than $100. If this was indeed a "prank," whoever set up Padecky was playing a dangerous game; the reporter would have been just as discommoded if the key case had been filled with sugar. Had the affair backfired, Padecky—or, for that matter, the pranksters—could have been charged with a felony: possession of cocaine, which, in Alabama, could have resulted in a two-to-15-year jail term.
In any case, whoever wanted to frighten Padecky succeeded beyond their meanest dreams. The day after his arrest, Padecky filed a first-person story to the Bee that was fraught with cold fear. He termed it "the most terrifying day of my life" and went on to relate, "With my hands handcuffed behind me, I was driven to the Gulf Shores police headquarters. On the way, the officer read me my rights. I was terrified. My stomach was heaving. My palms were clammy. I am 32 years old and the closest I have ever been to a jail was my television set." That story received front-page play in many papers across the country.
Two days later, on Page One of the See, another article by Padecky appeared under the headline: INTIMIDATION GETS NEW MEANING IN A JAIL CELL.
He wrote of his five minutes in jail: "...I was alone in that cell. With my emotions. With the graffiti. With my life flashing before my eyes. 'Padecky, is this how it's going to end? Right here, under a sketch of a naked woman? My career, my life. Right now?'
"This is intimidation, this is Fear. A concrete cell. An unflushable commode that stunk from previous tenants. A sink that spat out water under protest.
"I began to shake in my bunk. It was warm that day and yet I felt I was in Minnesota.... I pulled the sheet—my crude blanket—tighter. I still shook. I looked down at my body. It was having fits. I have never seen anyone receive an electric-shock treatment, but it must look like what I saw. My shoulders, my legs, my toes, even down to my last metatarsal—I was quivering everywhere.
"Then I remembered my 'crime.' Cocaine. That's what they said they'd found.... I overheard someone say it'd get you seven to 12 years....
"I began to add. I'd be able to write again in 1991.... I switched to another fantasy. I wondered if the Raiders would still be playing football in 1991.... The dread increased. I became frightened. What would this do to my parents? God, how could I ever explain?
"I felt like hell. When the cell door opened and the police led me out, I couldn't believe my wristwatch: only five minutes had elapsed."
Recently, Frank McCulloch, the managing editor of the Bee, admitted, "We overwrote the story. It was pretty florid. In retrospect, I think we could have exercised more discretion."
There was other overheated writing about the incident. A team of Miami Herald reporters wrote the day after the arrest: "Armed with machine guns and shotguns, an eight-man police squad kept Padecky under guard in a dark motel room for 90 minutes.... They told Padecky that reporting what had happened not only might get him killed, but would ruin the investigation.... Padecky said the chief sat beside him on the hurried 40-minute midnight drive to Pensacola in the rented Mercury. 'He was cradling a machine gun in his lap. He told me if any cars should come by, I should stop on the curb. He would pop out and spray them.' There were five officers on the trip. When they said goodby to Padecky at Pensacola airport, they repeated an earlier warning not to write anything...."
Of course, a "machine gun" may exist in the eye of the beholder and a "warning" may be a matter of interpretation. Maples, red-faced and broad-chested, is a tough-looking customer who turns out to be a friendly, even bombastic, sort of salesman bent on singing the glories of Gulf Shores. He said of the reporting, "We don't have a machine gun in the police department. It's very hard to get a permit for one of those and we don't need one. I was carrying a Colt AR-15, which is a sports rifle that uses .223-caliber ammunition. I also had a .357 magnum pistol in my belt. I don't know how he mistook those things for a machine gun.
"As for warning him that he might be killed if he wrote a story, what I did was ask him not to write anything because we figured the guys who pulled this setup on him would eventually brag about it and we'd get them—if there wasn't a lot of publicity about it. But they wrote about it the next day. I was mad at first, but then I figured they just didn't know the harm they were doing by stirring up so much noise. I think we might have solved it already but for the national publicity it got."
As for whether there was intimidation—real or implied—in the way Padecky was taken out of town, Maples said, "No, if we'd wanted to really frighten him, I'd have let him go without any police escort. We didn't know who set him up, and we figured if they went to that much trouble, they might want to black his eyes if they'd found him loose on the street. Padecky drove himself. I was off duty. I didn't have to stay with him. Newsweek said there were five officers riding shotgun to get him out of town. That was wrong. There was one other officer on the trip.... Sergeant Bourne followed in an unmarked car to give me a ride back to Gulf Shores after Padecky dropped off his car at the airport. Anyway, Padecky was nice as he could be the whole time—and I thought we were, too. In fact, in hindsight, the only thing we did wrong in the whole case was to handle that key case and louse up any fingerprints that might have been on it."
The one element in the case that upset Gulf Shores more than anything was the way the press handled the story. Maples said, "I got 17 long-distance phone calls at home the first night after the arrest. Penthouse magazine called. I got clippings from a paper in the Panama Canal Zone. I was the most famous police chief in the country. But I don't think those people printed one thing I told them. And if you believed what you read in the papers, you'd think this whole town was nothing but guys fighting in the street outside bars."
At one point, it was reported that the whole community was angered at Stabler and his friends for bringing negative publicity down on the region. This, too, proved to be exaggerated. Mayor Jones says flatly, "No, sir, we don't think the publicity was all bad. Sure, they blew it way out of proportion, but we believe that any publicity helps—good or bad—just so they spell our name right."
Jesse Winder, who covers Gulf Shores for The Onlooker, which is published in nearby Foley, says, "Most of the reporting about the incident was by people who seemed to have learned everything they know about the South from seeing In the Heat of the Night"
The term Redneck Riviera was used frequently in reporting about the incident, and the Gulf Shores city council became so agitated by this that it was prepared to pass a resolution condemning the label. At this point, common sense came into play in the person of Madison (Shine) Powell, 40, a former marine biologist turned country-music performer, who with Norma Donaldson now runs a Gulf Shores restaurant called Sam 'n Shine's. In the midst of a council debate over the resolution, he pleaded for wisdom and a sense of humor. He said the town could easily turn its publicity about being the Redneck Riviera to its advantage. He then proceeded to recite the lyrics to a zippy piece of progressive country music he and some friends had just written. The title was Redneck Riviera—of course—and some of the words were:
It suits my taste, this laid-back place but it ain't no Monaco.
It's souvenirs and ice-cold beers where blue Gulf waters flow.
We got redneck bars and football stars who would rather drink than fight.
It's Alabam', where we give a damn about magnolia summer nights.
It's easy style and a friendly smile to lift you when you're low.
That's the Redneck Riviera where the sand is white as snow...
As Powell says, "There are two definitions of redneck, you know. One is the troublemaker, the scum of the earth. The other is just hard-working people, farmers and blue-collar people who get red on the neck from working in the sun. Well, all I can say about the kind of rednecks we got down here is that people are maybe going to come to Gulf Shores because of this Padecky thing, and when they get here they are going to be real impressed with how friendly everyone is, and the contrast to what they've been reading is going to be really astonishing."
You can't tell Bob Padecky that.