Hard Case

Was a 30-year sentence for counterfeiting Masters badges justice, or an only-in-Augusta confluence of power and privilege?
April 04, 2005

In a small county prison in rural southern Georgia, there resides a man with a sticky drawl and an XXXL white jumpsuit named James Lee Davis. His prisonmates are drug dealers and car thieves and arsonists, but Jimmy Davis is none of those things. He's a forger and not a good one. A few years ago, in a courtroom in Augusta, Davis was sentenced to 30 years in prison, with no possibility of parole, mainly for selling 15 bogus Masters badges for $25,000 and for having 26 more at home. ¶ On the face of it, that sentence might sound excessive to you. If it does, you've got company. Jimmy Davis felt his sentence was crazy long. So did his wife, Ethel, a factory worker who lives in a modest brick ranch house in south Augusta. Ditto for Jeffrey Bowman, Davis's court-appointed lawyer at his 2002 trial. More significant, so did the judges on the three-person Georgia Sentence Review Panel, before whom Davis appeared last year. Defending himself this time--"I wouldn't let Jeff Bowman represent my dog in a dogfight," Davis says--he had his time cut in half. Still, he has 11 years to go. He also has a theory (and that's all it is) on why he received such a lengthy sentence: His crime was a threat to the Masters and, by extension, to a way of life in Augusta.

"I like the Masters and all," Davis said in a recent interview at the Bulloch County Correctional Institution. "I been to the tournament. The course is extremely beautiful. Very sophisticated people there--you can tell they're people of means. But you don't cross those people. They're making an example out of me.

"Why did the district attorney [Danny Craig] of Richmond County, who has murder cases to prosecute, personally handle this simple case of forgery unless someone was behind it? Doesn't he have killers to put away? Why'd the Richmond County sheriff [Ronnie Strength] take such an interest in my case? Why'd I get appointed a lawyer whose main defense strategy was, 'Maybe their key witnesses won't show up for the trial'? After I got arrested, a source in jail told me, 'They're having meetings about you on Washington Road,'" Davis said, referring to the street where Augusta National is located.

In the two-hour interview Davis never sounded angry; he sounded as if he were enjoying his chance to vent. To do so, Davis had been allowed out of isolation--he has not been a model prisoner--but was required to wear handcuffs and ankle shackles. "When a gentleman by the name of Buzzy Johnson from the Masters testified at my trial, that added gasoline to the fire." Buzzy Johnson, the Masters' tournament director, is not related to Hootie Johnson, the chairman of Augusta National.

"That lady who wants the women at Augusta, Martha Burk? She never had a chance," Davis continues. "[City officials] and Ronnie Strength made sure her protest was nowhere near the front gates of the club." For a while there, Strength's name showed up in one story after another about Martha Burk and her doomed civil rights movement in Augusta.

It's hard to believe that John Grisham, writer of legal thrillers set in the American South, has not yet mined Augusta for material. He'd have a field day with characters like James Lee Davis, a high school dropout with beautiful penmanship who grandly refers to the Applebee's on Washington Road as his (now former) "afternoon watering hole" and who likes to show off his legal Latin, proudly citing his upcoming writ of habeas corpus hearing.

Then there's his wife, Ethel Davis, born in Greece, raised in Augusta and ready to save your sinning soul. And Ethel Davis's neighbor with the Ten Commandments posted on her front door. There's harried counselor Bowman, trying to look less pressured with his gentleman-lawyer-of-the-old-South look (striped shirt, striped tie, plaid sport coat), who took Davis's dogfight line in stride. ("Sitting in jail, you get kind of bitter," Bowman said.) And there's the white-haired superior court justice who put Davis away, Bernard J. Mulherin Sr., a former J. Edgar Hoover--era FBI agent with a patrician accent who lists himself as Judge Mulherin in the white pages. He's a 23 handicapper at the Augusta Country Club and reckons 93 is about the best score he's ever made at neighboring Augusta National.

Then there's Augusta National itself. The club allows certain public officials, including the Richmond County district attorney and the superior court justices with chambers in Augusta, the coveted opportunity to buy two tournament badges annually. Augusta National is a large seasonal employer in the city, and the Masters is a source of income for many. The club sells thousands of badges to locals each year at the artificially low price of $175; it's an open secret in Augusta that many of those badges are resold at tremendous profit. (Such sales are legal, but in violation of Augusta National's private rules for badge holders.) The profits pay for Disney vacations and college tuitions and new boat engines. The four-day tournament badges are routinely sold for $2,000 or far more. Offered through a professional agency, the rental of a spacious, well-appointed house for Masters week with four badges and limo rides to and from the course can easily fetch $50,000.

James Lee Davis knew the demand for Masters badges was extreme. That's why, in the winter of 2001, with the frenzy over the Tiger Slam at its peak, he changed his criminal modus operandi.

Davis, who turns 50 in August, has a peculiar career as a crook. All told, he has spent 17 years in prison. He and Ethel were wed in 1977, and he has been locked up for nearly half their married life. "You must like it in there, the way you keep going back," Ethel said to him years ago. "I swear to you I don't," Davis responded. But he kept returning, always for the same thing, forging checks. The checks were never for great sums--a few hundred dollars in one conviction, $1,500 in another--but the amounts and the methods were enough to trigger felony charges, and he was convicted seven times. In court Jeff Bowman called his client a "nickel-and-dime flimflam man," which seemed about right.

Until Davis got more ambitious. In that winter of 2001 Davis, then out of prison, responded to an ad in the sports section of The Augusta Chronicle, looking for sellers of tickets to an "April sporting event." (The publisher of the Chronicle, William S. Morris III, won't let the word Masters be sullied in his paper; he's an Augusta National member.) The ad was placed by two men from New York, Vincent Caruso and Stephen Simon, professional ticket brokers trying to land, for the first time, one of the toughest tickets in sports.

When it came to the Masters, the two men were obviously green. The badges they bought from Davis were marked augusta golf club. When a nervous and rushed Davis handed them a pile of the crudely made badges in a Long Island diner in March 2001, the ticket brokers didn't even notice the missing word. The real Masters badges, then as now, have a hologram and look nothing like the ones Davis sold them. Within a day the duo realized they'd been duped. They called in the law. Davis, who hadn't bothered to use an alias, was promptly arrested and hasn't spent a day as a free man since.

For a while Davis was doing all right at the Bulloch County lockup, where he is known as Captain Football because he ran the intraprison football pool, in which inmates gambled with stamps, cigarettes and change. But then trouble came--three rules violations, two for cellphone possession, one for insubordination--that got his wife banned from the prison and put him in isolation for two two-week periods.

Davis is a classic recidivist. His conviction in Mulherin's court activated Georgia's repeat offender statute, which in this case required the judge to impose at least a 20-year sentence. Bowman, seeking leniency, noted in court that Davis's lengthy record included no history of violence (although drunken driving, for which Davis has been convicted, is fraught with potential violence). Mulherin was unmoved. He rejected Bowman's eight motions for a mistrial and gave the defendant the additional 10 years he was able to give him. Davis has been working on his Augusta National conspiracy theory ever since.

The problem is, Davis says so many preposterous things, it's hard to know when to believe him. In the interview he said the Avis location at the Augusta airport charged him $1,500 to rent the Cadillac that he and Ethel drove to Long Island to deliver the Masters badges to Caruso and Simon. (His wife, not charged in any way, said the rental was about $300, far closer to the going rate.) He said Augusta National makes outrageous sums by charging $4.50 for pimento cheese sandwiches at the Masters. (Actually the club charges $1.50.) He said the cellphone he was caught with in prison belonged to another inmate. (His wife admitted in an interview that she smuggled in the cellphone, using a prison trash can as a drop location.)

Was he really a linebacker on his high school football team? Did he really run up to Ben Crenshaw on the practice tee at the Masters one year and get his autograph? Was he really, as he claimed in the recent interview, given the bogus Masters badges by a man named Steve, who has since fled to Michigan? Were there ever really meetings about him on Washington Road, and is Augusta National behind his conviction and long sentence, as it would be in a Grisham story?

So was there a conspiracy to get Davis? In a word, says the Richmond County D.A., no.

Danny Craig, who has 17 assistant district attorneys working under him, said he took the case not because it involved Augusta National but because it had a racketeering charge in it, and Craig, a former accountant, has handled every racketeering case in his office since 1993. He said the sheriff's department, which is run by Ronnie Strength, investigated the case because the two New York men filed a complaint and investigating complaints is what the sheriff's department does. He said Buzzy Johnson, the Masters' tournament director, was not even aware of the case until the district attorney's office asked him to testify, during which he did nothing more than distinguish the differences between real and fake Masters badges. (Augusta National does not allow its employees to talk to reporters.) Craig said the two duped New Yorkers did threaten not to come to the trial, which would have resulted in an acquittal, until Craig compelled their appearances with subpoenas. He said Judge Mulherin threw the book at Davis because eight felony convictions "tries the patience of the community."

The judge would not discuss the case, except to say, "What he's telling makes for a good story, but that's not the way it really goes."

Except maybe it is more than a good story. Jack Batson is a respected Augusta lawyer and one of the city's free spirits, a soccer coach, a board member of the Georgia chapter of the ACLU, a person who often represents the underserved. In other words, he's a liberal. He thinks Mulherin is a fair judge, out of the law-and-order mold, who knew what he was doing when he gave Davis the 30-year sentence: sending a message.

After all, the Masters is simply too important to the Augusta economy to have it undermined by forged tickets. Mulherin, Batson suspects, knew that the Sentence Review Panel was likely to reduce the sentence, and Batson, even with his built-in liberal bent, has no problem with Davis getting 15 years. "How many chances are you going to give him?" he says. "He could have burned a lot of people. Forgery of commercial documents undermines the whole free-trade system."

But when it comes to Augusta National's clout, Davis is on to something, Batson says. "There's no way the district attorney is not going to take a case like that," Batson says. "Augusta National is simply too big. The Masters is the circus that comes to town one week a year, and everybody's trying to make money from it. Plus seven previous convictions? The D.A. has to be all over it.

"But this business of the club granting elected officials a chance to buy tickets that are just about impossible to get, it's clear what the club is doing," Batson says. "They want to make sure they're going to get at least fair treatment and then some. It doesn't look right. Sooner or later, a public official is going to have to make a decision that involves the club."

That's why a classic recidivist and known liar such as James Lee Davis can have a smidgen of credibility. Much of what he says fails the smell test. Part of it passes. When you mess with Augusta National in Augusta, Ga., you're messing with the wrong people.

Every day this time of year, in the sports pages of the Chronicle, there's at least one ad placed by someone looking for tickets to a certain April sporting event. You get the feeling--based on the outcome of the James Lee Davis case--that it'll be a while before someone tries to sell bogus Masters badges again. Or the next forger, you would think, will at least get the club's name right.

"There's no way the district attorney is NOT GOING TO TAKE a case like that," Batson says. "Augusta National is simply too big."

The judge would NOT DISCUSS THE CASE except to say, "What [Davis] is telling makes for a good story, but that's not the way it really goes."

COLOR PHOTOFRED VUICH Wrong Crime, Wrong Place Davis has been locked up since his 2002 conviction for selling knockoff Masters badges (opposite) to ticket brokers. COLOR PHOTOFRED VUICH [see caption above] COLOR PHOTOFRED VUICH The Good Wife For almost half of her married life Ethel Davis has had to visit jail to see her husband. COLOR PHOTOFRED VUICH Case Worker Richmond County D.A. Danny Craig personally handled the case against Davis. COLOR PHOTODAVID J. PHILLIP/AP Double Take Davis's obvious fakes (far right) look nothing like the real 2001 Masters badge.
DAVID J. PHILLIP/AP Double Take   [see caption above]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)