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Black in Blue: Atlanta’s first African American police officers were vanguards of the civil rights movement

Atlanta Police Department first African American officers
The city’s first eight African American officers. From left, front: Henry Hooks, Claude Dixon, Ernest H. Lyons; back: Robert McKibbens, Willard Strickland, Willie T. Elkins, Johnnie P. Jones, and John Sanders.

Photograph courtesy of Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center

By the mid-1900s, the Butler Street YMCA had earned the nickname “black city hall.” Situated in Sweet Auburn, then Atlanta’s most vibrant and commercially successful black neighborhood, the Y functioned not just as a gym and rooming house but as a favored meeting place for political discussions among the city’s black leaders and as the de facto headquarters of the Atlanta Negro Voters League.

On April 3, 1948, the Y took on yet another role: Its basement became a police precinct.

That afternoon, Mayor William Hartsfield and Police Chief Herbert Jenkins, both white, stood before Atlanta’s first eight African American police officers as they prepared for active duty. They ranged in age from 21 to 32. All but one were World War II veterans. Hartsfield gave a rallying speech, warning that though 95 percent of the white cops didn’t want them, they were here to do what Jackie Robinson had done for baseball the year before.

When the officers stepped outside, they faced a festive crowd of 400. An elderly woman handed them flowers. They split into pairs and began walking their beats, and many in the crowd followed them, an impromptu parade down Auburn Avenue. One of the officers, Ernest Lyons, later said he felt like a god.

Despite Hartsfield’s encouraging comparison to Jackie Robinson, the Atlanta Police Department technically wasn’t being integrated at all. The reason a YMCA basement served as their precinct was because they weren’t allowed to use police headquarters. Hartsfield and Jenkins were afraid that white cops, many of them Klansmen, would riot at the mere sight of them. (Bear in mind that, back then, the phrase race riot had usually meant white people attacking nonwhites.)

The new black officers also were not permitted to drive squad cars, patrol white neighborhoods, or wear their uniforms to or from work, and they absolutely could not arrest white people.

I learned of these officers when I read former Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Gary Pomerantz’s 1996 history of Atlanta, Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn. He devotes just four pages of his 545-page epic to the city’s first black cops, whose swearing-in prefaced the coming victories of the civil rights movement. But I wanted to know more. As black people in the Jim Crow South, they were second-class citizens, barred from the front of buses, most restaurants, and public parks, and constantly at risk of state-sanctioned or mob-rule violence. Yet they were also authority figures, charged with enforcing laws that often oppressed them and their families.

“Let me tell you, it was not easy for me to raise my right hand and say, ‘I, Willard Strickland, a Negro, do solemnly swear to perform the duties of a Negro Policeman,’” one of the barrier-breaking rookies noted in a speech years later.

What was it like to inhabit this strange dual role? As a novelist, I’m always on the lookout for remarkable stories, distinctive settings, and characters whose struggles reflect a larger social conflict, and I felt that I had stumbled upon the makings of a fascinating mystery novel. (You can read an excerpt of my novel, Darktown, at the end of this article.)

It was fortuitous timing, as I had been interested in delving into Southern history. Although born and raised in Rhode Island, I’ve lived south of the Mason-Dixon for 16 years. Back in 2008, my wife and I moved from Washington, D.C., to Decatur. Like many transplants, we had come for a combination of affordability, work opportunities, family (my in-laws live in Gwinnett), and fabulous weather.

Still, moving had been a long and difficult decision. One thing I had not thought about during our deliberations, though, was what the move meant for me as a writer. I can live as a writer anywhere, I’d figured. It doesn’t matter. A month later, standing among the shelves of A Cappella Books near Little Five Points, I saw an entire section dedicated to “Southern writers” and worried for the first time whether I belonged. I had lived and worked in the South for years, sure, but my first three books were set in Washington State, Ohio, and Washington, D.C.

A marketing executive or IT programmer who relocates to Atlanta probably doesn’t wrestle with whether they’ll be considered a Southern marketing exec or a Southern programmer. Yet as a writer it felt freighted with meaning. There was a club, with a long and esteemed lineage from Flannery O’Connor, Robert Penn Warren, and Zora Neale Hurston to Pat Conroy, Alice Walker, and Charles Frazier, and I was wearing the wrong baseball cap. Still, I quickly came to love living in Atlanta, raising boys who get orange clay stains on their clothes, watching the sunset from our porch on impossibly hot nights, and connecting with other writers and artists in this vibrantly creative community.

Then, in the summer of 2012, I read Pomerantz’s book and discovered the story of Atlanta’s first black cops. This was before the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, and so many related tragedies, from Staten Island to Cleveland to Baton Rouge to Dallas, that thrust the issue of race and policing into the national spotlight. Yet it was already a time of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, a time of dog-whistle criticism of our nation’s first black president. My past work has wrestled with what it means to be American and how the various tangled threads of our past have combined to weave us into who we are today. To write about American identity in the South means writing about race.

I began tracking down out-of-print books and combing through Emory University’s digital archives of the Atlanta Daily World, which—as the city’s oldest black newspaper—covered the story closely. At the Auburn Avenue Research Library, I found Officer Strickland’s hand-written speech. At the Atlanta History Center, I listened to recorded 1979 interviews with some of the original (all now deceased) officers themselves.

Atlanta Police Department first African American officers
The original eight officers at an NAACP-sponsored program honoring them at Greater Mount Calvary Baptist Church, April 30, 1948

Photograph by Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

The story begins more than a decade before that historic day in 1948. As early as the 1930s, black community leaders were asking for black officers. Not only would black policemen break a racial barrier, leaders argued, but their inherent understanding of the black community and the problems its citizens faced would help them police the neighbors better than white cops did.

The mayor at the time, James L. Key, refused, but he later took aside young Herbert Jenkins, then an officer assigned as Key’s driver, and predicted that the force would integrate within Jenkins’s lifetime.

Atlanta Police Department first African American officers
Atlanta Police Chief Herbert Jenkins in 1950

Photograph courtesy of Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center

This was impossible for Jenkins to imagine, considering that an estimated quarter of Atlanta cops, including Jenkins, owned a second uniform: the white robe of the Ku Klux Klan. The police union itself was a thinly veiled cover for the Klan.

Not surprisingly, white officers were routinely accused of brutality against black people. Late one August night in 1940, a white woman, Marian Doom, heard the sounds of a struggle outside her apartment at 1302 West Peachtree Street. She called the police and then stepped outside, where she saw a black man she recognized as Earl Sands, a 22-year-old janitor who lived and worked nearby. He was “a little man,” according to a statement she gave. He was being beaten by two men who she soon realized were cops.

According to another witness, the officers repeatedly struck Sands with a blackjack and also wrapped a chain around his neck, dragging him by it to the squad car. A second witness also claimed the officers slammed their car door on Sands’s legs with near bone-breaking force. “They decided they were going to have some fun with him,” said Doom, a 29-year-old bookkeeper. “They just beat him unmercifully, for nothing.” She went back inside to call the police a second time, and the officer who answered laughed at her.

After the assault, Sands was charged with drunkenness and resisting arrest, and fined $34.

The incident may well have gone unreported if not for Doom and a large number of other outraged witnesses. One of them, William C. Henson, was also an attorney, and later that week he filed a warrant in Fulton County court charging one of the cops, patrolman G.S. Robertson, with assault and battery. “This was the most inhuman act of brutality ever witnessed by any man wearing a blue coat,” Henson wrote in a letter to the chairman of the Police Committee. He claimed he had 20 witnesses who agreed.

In his defense, Robertson said that Sands was intoxicated and had attempted to run away, so he and Officer W.E. Whitten had given chase. He stated that Sands had grabbed an iron guard chain that ran along an apartment building’s walkway, and the chain broke and became entwined with Sands during the scuffle.

After a seven-hour hearing, which was page one news in the Atlanta Daily World, Judge Robert Carpenter agreed with the officers. “Being a police officer in Atlanta is no easy job,” he opined.

Atlanta Police Department first African American officers
African Americans outside City Hall demanding police integration, 1946

Photograph by Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

The push for black policemen intensified. By 1947 black leaders knew they had a potential ally in new mayor William Hartsfield, who was known for being a moderate, relatively speaking, on “the race issue.” He’d even been photographed shaking black people’s hands, a risky move at the time. But Hartsfield was a consummate politician. Three years before, the Supreme Court had ruled that the all-white primaries, which had shut black people out of elections across the Jim Crow South, were unconstitutional. The impact of that decision was monumental: Black community leaders spearheaded a massive registration effort, adding nearly 18,000 black voters to the rolls. Here were voters who could help Hartsfield win reelection.

Hartsfield discussed the matter with Chief Jenkins and black leaders, including the Reverend Martin Luther King Sr., Morehouse College President B.E. Mays, and C.A. Scott, editor and owner of the Atlanta Daily World. By then 44 other Southern cities—including Miami, Charlotte, Raleigh, and Durham—had integrated their police forces. Armed with testimony from officials in those cities, they made a savvy appeal to Atlanta’s exalted sense of pride. Shouldn’t we be leading the charge, rather than falling behind? Even Chief Jenkins, a former Klansman, saw the logic in such a move. (He would later claim his youthful Klan initiation had merely been a formality necessary for promotion within the department.)

At a “heated, rip-roaring” hearing before the Police Committee of the Atlanta City Council, opponents argued that foolish politicians were bowing down before “the bloc vote of the Negro,” while the Reverend King countered that “the time and the hour” had arrived for the council to “give the Negro a chance.” Five days later, the headline “COUNCIL, HARTSFIELD GIVE OKAY TO NEGRO POLICE” ran across every column on the Daily World’s front page.

Who were the brave torchbearers? Ernest H. Lyons had wanted to be a cop since he was seven, when he saw a man chase down a woman and stab her, and wondered why no police had arrived to help. John H. Sanders was a former salutatorian of Booker T. Washington High School, but the only work he could find was as a janitor. They and six others—Claude Dixon, Willie T. Elkins, Johnnie P. Jones, Henry Hooks, Robert McKibbens, and Willard Strickland—were sworn in on March 8, 1948, and began active duty April 3.

They were derisively called “YMCA cops” by some black people who resented their authority. Lyons estimated that a quarter of Atlanta’s black population didn’t want them, and another quarter would accept them only “as long as we didn’t arrest them.”

That was nothing compared to the reaction of white cops. They falsely reported the black officers for drinking (consumption of alcohol was forbidden for policemen) and routinely tried to run over black cops as they crossed the street. One brazen white officer even offered a $200 bounty to anyone who would kill a black cop.

“We had to fight those we arrested and fight the rest of the force as well,” explained Clarence Perry, who was hired in 1950. “It was us against the world.”

The constant harassment, Jim Crow restrictions, and hypocrisy were too much for some. Elkins resigned on June 16, 1948, just a couple of months into the job. Sanders also quit within a year. Those who continued to serve “each had an inner strength,” said attorney Larry Dingle, who became an Atlanta police officer in 1969 and worked with four of the original eight.

Some of their first jobs involved cracking down on bootleggers who brought illegal whiskey into the black community and arresting drunks who hit wine houses in the morning and would be staggering across the street by afternoon. One day they handed out 75 jaywalking tickets—so many that the drunks started telling each other where best to cross.

The officers made a point of getting to know the people they served. Sometimes they talked grocery stores into selling food to hungry families at a discount. “By going in, not with a blackjack in your hand or a .38, but by trying to talk to people, just sitting down and listening—that’s something no one else had tried before,” McKibbens said in the 1979 interview. It was community policing before the term was invented.

The cops lived in the same neighborhoods they policed. But the community focus was also partly due to the tight restrictions imposed on them. Since they weren’t allowed to drive squad cars, for example, they found themselves face-to-face with citizens.

McKibbens saw how powerful it was simply to call a black woman “ma’am” or a black man “sir.” And Dingle noted that community policing was the best way to develop trust, to show that police—some police, at least—could be relied on to help.

One of the originals, Lyons, often told young officers that their gun was the least important tool in their belt, and that they needed to get to know the people they served and protected. One of Dingle’s first assignments in August 1969 was driving with Lyons in a car equipped with a record player and speakers. They would open fire hydrants, hook up sprinklers, and play James Brown records. “There wasn’t a more decent human being in the Atlanta Police Department than Lyons,” Dingle said.

It wasn’t until 1953 that the city finally closed the Auburn Avenue precinct and allowed black officers to use the main headquarters, though here, too, they were initially confined to the basement. The city didn’t promote a black officer until 1961, when Howard Baugh got the nod (he would go on to retire a major). On that same day, Eldrin Bell, who 13 years earlier had watched the officers’ first day as a schoolboy, joined the force himself. (He rose through the ranks and became police chief in 1990.) Bell was shocked to find that, years after civil rights victories like the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Atlanta’s black cops were still treated as second class. “There was no written rule that we could not arrest white citizens,” he told me. “We were told that. By the [older] black officers.” During his first arrest of a white man, he had to call white officers to actually make the arrest. “I was infuriated,” he said.

Atlanta Police Department first African American officers
Officer Claude Mundy (far right), the first black officer killed in the line of duty, in front of the Butler Street YMCA

Photograph by Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

In January 1961, two months before Bell donned his badge, Officer Claude Mundy—who’d been the 12th black cop hired, in 1950—was shot and killed in the line of duty. That tragedy finally caused some white officers to appreciate the sacrifice their black colleagues were making. “Before it was like we were getting something we hadn’t earned,” explained Baugh. “But when he shed his blood, it was like: They’re here.”

The following year, Chief Jenkins formally allowed black cops to arrest white perpetrators. And as the black community grew, white detectives frequently needed black officers’ help finding suspects or witnesses. Still, when Dingle started in 1969, it was still rare for a black officer to be assigned to a nonblack area. Caesar Mitchell Sr.—who joined the force in the 1960s and is the father of current Atlanta City Council President Ceasar C. Mitchell—and another officer, Floyd Reeves, founded the Afro-American Patrolmen’s League, which advocated racial equity in promotions and assignments for officers. 
Mitchell Sr.’s outspokenness would sometimes earn him unsavory assignments like jail duty or foot patrols in dangerous areas. “He took that and turned it into something beautiful,” his son told me, using the opportunity to get to know his community better. Decades later, the younger Mitchell wrote legislation mandating that new officers walk a certain amount of foot patrols to maintain their connection to the community.

When I started my research, I’d initially hoped I might stumble upon some amazing crime the officers had solved, some scandalous murder investigation I could use for a true crime book. I didn’t find one. Those eight men were barely given the opportunity to become beat cops, much less homicide detectives. But they were pioneers who were issued badges and guns to enforce the laws justly in their own communities. They really did weather death threats from their fellow officers. They walked streets that white officers had seldom ventured down, and they brought community policing to Atlanta. They pushed back at Jim Crow, and they inspired the next generation of cops to push back even harder.

One of the qualities that defines Americans is our unrelenting focus on where we’re going, not where we’re from. The American Dream is that we can have anything if we work hard enough, regardless of the circumstances we were born into. Whether you believe that is truth or myth, you can’t discount the importance of our shared past—the battles we’ve fought, the tragedies we’ve endured, the crimes we’ve committed. I hope Darktown sheds new light on an issue that continues to challenge us, and that readers find inspiration in the silent victories that those eight officers achieved every day they donned their uniforms.

An Excerpt from Darktown by Thomas Mullen

Late one night on Auburn Avenue, two of the city’s new black officers, Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith, have flagged down a Buick that crashed into a light pole. The driver is white, and in the passenger seat is a black woman with what appears to be a bruise on her face:

Normally you weren’t supposed to look white folks in the eye. But Boggs was the police. This was only the third time he and Smith had dealt with a white perpetrator. Colored officers only patrolled the colored parts of town, where whites were infrequent visitors.

“I need to see your license and registration, sir.”

“You don’t need to see anything, boy.”

Boggs felt his heart rate spike and he told himself to stay calm. “Please turn your car off, sir,” he said, realizing he should have started with that.

“You don’t have the power to arrest me and you know it.”

On the other side, Smith aimed his flashlight at the front seat, where the woman had been staring ahead, her hair blocking his view. He had hoped the light would startle her into looking at him, so he could better study her injury and look for others, but she turned further away. Unlike Boggs, he had a good view of the space between driver and passenger. He saw that the man’s right hand was resting protectively atop a large brown envelope.

“I do have the authority to issue you a traffic citation, sir, and I intend to do that,” Boggs said. “I also have the ability to call white officers here, should your arrest be required. I wouldn’t have thought that necessary for something as minor as a traffic violation, but if you want to push things up the ladder with your tone then I can oblige you.”

The white man smiled, entertained.

“Oh, you’re one of the smart ones, huh?” He looked Boggs up and down as though finally laying eyes on a new kind of jungle cat the zoo had imported. “I’m very impressed. Y’all certainly have come a long way.”

On the other side of the car, Smith asked, “What’s your name, miss?”

“Don’t you talk to her,” the white man snapped, turning to the side. All he could have seen from his vantage was Smith’s midsection, his badge (yes, we really are cops, sorry for the inconvenience), and perhaps the handle of Smith’s holstered gun (yes, it’s real).

“Are you all right, miss?” Smith asked. Let’s see how the white man likes being ignored. Her face he still couldn’t see, though her breaths occasionally made her hair move just enough for him to see the right, bruised side of her lips. Yet she refused to turn.

Smith glanced up at his partner over the car roof. Both of them would have loved to see this blowhard arrested, but they weren’t sure if Dispatch would bother sending a white squad car for an auto accident whose only victim was an inanimate object. And Atlanta’s eight colored officers hated calling in the white cops for any reason whatsoever. They did not appreciate the reminder that they had only so much power.

The white man said, “I told you not to talk to her, boy.”

Sir,” Boggs said to the back of the man’s hat, trying to regain control (had he ever had it?), and annoyed at his partner for escalating the situation, “if you do not show me your license and registration, then I will call in—”

He didn’t get to finish his pathetic threat, the threat he was ashamed to need and far more ashamed to use, because in the middle of his sentence the white man turned back to face the road, shifted into gear with his right hand, and the Buick lurched forward.

Both cops stepped back so their feet wouldn’t be run over.

The Buick drove off, but it didn’t even have the decency to speed. The white man wasn’t fleeing, he simply had tired of pretending that their existence mattered.

“‘Stop or I’ll call the real cops?’” Smith shook his head. “Funny how that don’t work.”

Copyright © 2016 by Thomas Mullen. Reprinted by permission of 37 Ink/Atria Books.

This article originally appeared in our September 2016 issue.

Can Dan Quinn do for the Atlanta Falcons what Mike Smith couldn’t?

Dan Quinn
Dan Quinn’s first regular season game as Falcons head coach is Monday, September 14, against the Eagles.

Photograph by Ryan Gibson

Moments after the Falcons wrapped up day one of training camp, Dan Quinn faced his morning’s biggest challenge: parting the sea of reporters and cameras on hand to hear the rookie head coach’s thoughts. After praising one immovable cameraman for setting a “great block,” Quinn found his chair and smiled with the friendly intensity of a coach who hasn’t been around long enough to hate the media.

Quinn stayed faithfully on message—no, the Falcons are not rebuilding; yes, the team will outhit its opponents—and compared the first day of training camp to Christmas morning as a child, when he finally got to see what his toys could do.

Quinn is just 44, and with his goatee, shaved head, and focused stare, he gives off the vibe of a career bouncer. His hiring comes at a crucial time for the Falcons, now just two years away from relocating to their new home—a $1.5 billion stadium whose bill will be paid partially by selling personal seat licenses, some of which cost as much as $45,000. But nobody wants to sell PSLs on the backs of a losing franchise, and that’s what Falcons owner Arthur Blank was faced with. After the team’s 6–10 finish last season, on the heels of a 4–12 record the year before, Blank fired Coach Mike Smith, calling it the “hardest decision” he’d ever made.

Smith left big shoes for Quinn to fill. Before Smith’s arrival in 2008, the franchise had never enjoyed consecutive winning seasons. Under him, the team went to the playoffs four times. But he couldn’t get them to the Super Bowl; an epic collapse in the second half of the 2013 NFC title game was the precursor to the last two dismal seasons. Undoubtedly, the blame was not Smith’s alone: There were injuries and draft decisions that contributed to the league’s worst defense last season. (General Manager Thomas Dmitroff traded away five draft picks for the rights to receiver Julio Jones, who sells a lot of jerseys but cannot play defense.)

Quinn, not coincidentally, is something of a defensive genius. As defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks, he oversaw the top-rated defense in the NFL the past two seasons. The team won the Super Bowl in 2014, and came within a yard of repeating this year. Given the Falcons’ travails, it’s also not a coincidence that the word heard more than any other at camp was energy. Running back Devonta Freeman spoke of the energy Quinn brought. Wide receiver Roddy White noted the speed of practice. Rookie linebacker Vic Beasley was impressed by how hands-on (literally) the coach had been.
A few hundred fans were in attendance. They saw Freeman, who at 5 foot 8 and 206 pounds would be an amazing physical specimen in any other environment but looked almost worryingly fragile surrounded by his behemoth teammates. They saw vets competing against rookies, some of whom we’ll never hear from again. They saw team camera operators on hydraulic lifts take aerial shots of formations, and employ a complex pulley system to fetch themselves water bottles to ward off sunstroke.

Dan Quinn
Photograph by Ryan Gibson

In contrast to the sometimes somnambulant Georgia Dome, loud music blasted throughout practice, a trademark of the new coach. The playlist ranged from Jay Z’s “Who Gon Stop Me” and L’il Wayne’s “Right Above It” to Kenny Chesney’s “Beer in Mexico” and the Raconteurs’ “Salute Your Solution.” It’s hard to overstate the music, because the volume made it impossible to overhear anything the players or coaches were saying, and because it did, undeniably, add energy to what might otherwise seem boring and workaday.

Quinn, who’s tweeted memorials to Tupac Shakur, said he’s excited to coach in the hip-hop capital of America. Hip-hop is about competition and hustle, he said. Quinn wants that same attitude on his team.

Coming from Seattle, with its deafening fans, to Atlanta, where a now-former employee piped in artificial crowd noise (costing the team a draft pick for the infraction), may seem like a trade down. But Quinn insists the Dome will come around. “The reason I know it,” he said, “is because football is so important to this area.”

Indeed, he disputes the notion that he’s now coaching in simply college football country. “It’s football country,” he emphasized. He loves how Southern towns rally around high school football and even Pop Warner. “I’ve got a lot of pride in being a part of Southern football,” he said. “There’s a toughness that goes along with playing football down here.”

This article originally appeared in our September 2015 issue under the headline “In with the new.”

We’re No. 1! According to us!

A serious question for the long-suffering Atlanta sports fan:

Let’s say that the goddess of victory, Nike, descended from Mount Olympus to offer you one of two ten-year plans. Plan A would mean your favorite team won that elusive championship—but only compiled a single other winning season during that decade, enduring eight miserably unwatchable years (call it the Florida Marlins plan).

Plan B would mean your team had a winning record for all ten years, even making the playoffs nine times, but would fail to reach the promised land (the Charles Barkley plan). The team would consistently supply you with hours of entertainment but no parades down Peachtree.

Which would you choose?

Because here’s the thing: this is actually a good time to be an Atlanta sports fan. As was proudly and repeatedly noted at last night’s Atlanta Sports Awards ceremony, our teams are consistently competitive and entertaining. In the past year, all four of our local pro teams not only played in but hosted postseason games: the Braves played an unfortunately controversial wild card game one year after narrowly missing the playoffs; the perennially playoff-bound Hawks again battled the Celtics and were so excited about their Game 1 victory that they embarrassingly released streamers at the final buzzer; the Falcons rose up to host the NFC championship for the first time ever; and the Bulldogs lost a heartbreaker to eventual champs Alabama in an SEC title match that was, for all intents and purposes, the national championship game. (What’s that, you don’t consider the Bulldogs a pro team? Hey, Mark Richt and his massive coaching staff weren’t volunteering their hours in Athens last time I checked.)

But we’ve gone eighteen years without a title, which rankles the true sports fans, as well it should. Tickets to most of those aforementioned playoff games were sadly easy to get, as our teams typically play before un-packed houses, their accomplishments greeted with a collective yawn. (Unless we’re talking the Bulldogs.) Blame the usual reasons: the city full of transplants, the Southern preference for college sports over the “new” pro teams that came to town in the 1960s, the bad economy, the years of Braves narrow misses, the years of Falcons irrelevance.

It is this lack of feverish sports passion that the Atlanta Sports Awards are perhaps intended to compensate for. Last night’s ceremony—the eighth annual edition—was MCed by radio man Wes Dunham, who was occasionally joined onstage by local players like Hawks center and Georgia native Lou Williams, six-time Olympic medalist Allison Schmitt, and former Steeler QB (and now local radio DJ and sometime Real Housewives of Atlanta cast member) Kordell Stewart. All our local corporate behemoths (Atlanta’s true champions?) were in the house, their executive VPs duly distributing awards: the Delta-sponsored this, the Home Deport-sponsored that, the SunTrust Memorial this. (Where the hell was UPS? Haters.)

Hosted in the Fox Theatre’s Egyptian Ballroom, the gala was a grand night out for local high schoolers, who got to rub shoulders with their heroes. Norcross High’s Alvin Kamara was named high school athlete of the year, and Jacob Wieczorek of West Forsyth High and Victoria Weprinsky of North Springs Charter High were named Scholar Athletes of the Year.

Yet to those who root for pro sports (and, I hope, those who play them) the night felt unmistakably like a consolation prize. We were told repeatedly how lucky we are to be here in this world-class sports town. We were reminded that the New York media was against us. We were so showered with love and self-serving praise that you almost expected, say, a Boston sports fan to leave behind his seven titles in the last twelve years so he could come down and buy season tickets to half-empty Turner Field.

The athletes were dressed the way they only are at post-game press conferences— it was as if every team from every sport had just finished a game and the players were psyched to show off their new pocket squares. Had there been a Best Dressed Award, I would have named Orson Charles—the UGA tight end who left school for the NFL draft as a junior but has returned to classes during the off-season. He wore an excellent red blazer with white piping that came dangerously close to looking like a bellhop’s uniform, but was stylin’ nonetheless.

The night’s silent auction provided a helpful opportunity to see how the different Atlanta teams—and their fans—value their players: an autographed Josh Smith jersey was considered a $150 value but received a lone, $75 bid; a signed Julio Jones jersey was valued at $450 but started with a lone but respectable $225 bid; and a signed Dan Uggla jersey was offered at $150 and received zero takers. After the auction, we—wait, Dan Uggla? Seriously, Braves? Did Heyward, the Upton Brothers, and Kimbrel have hand cramps?

In case anyone is wondering, Mike Smith’s hair is even whiter and his skin even redder in person than on TV (he was named Coach of the Year). Baseball caps have long disguised the fact that Chipper Jones, God love him, looks slightly demented when he smiles, with those playfully devilish eyebrows curling around his narrow eyes (he was given the Lifetime Achievement Award). Matt Bryant likes his suits very shiny (he was awardless, but co-host and radio personality Sandra Golden got him to repeat on stage some smack-talk he’d aimed at the Panthers, after a game the Falcons had lost. Panthers players are no doubt outraged by the repeated smacktalk and will fight back at their upcoming Charlotte Metro Area Sports Awards Night).

The award for Best Team was won by the Falcons (the crowd duly rose up) and was graciously accepted by Arthur Blank, his red tie, and his mustache. The man knows how to run a team, and he vowed to win more impressive hardware soon.

That’s the thing: no offense to the Atlanta Sport Council, but there’s really only one trophy our pro teams and their players should care about, and it isn’t the one with the big A whose design bears an unfortunate resemblance to the 85/75 split. If Matt Ryan proudly displays his second Atlanta Athlete of the Year Award on his mantle, Falcons fans are in trouble.

To his credit, Ryan joked that the award should have gone to Tony Gonzalez, as a way of coaxing him to stay in Atlanta. Also to his credit, Ryan wore a very cool tie, narrow as a typical Falcons margin of victory.

My choice for coolest moment of the night goes to the Community Spirit Award, won by Georgia State University men’s basketball coach Ron Hunter. He runs a nonprofit that provides shoes to poor children, and he coaches one day a year barefoot to raise awareness. Next month Atlanta will host the seventy-fifth Final Four, and Hunter announced that in the next three weeks, his group will distribute 75,000 shoes to Atlanta kids.

Who are very, very fortunate to be Atlanta sports fans.

Spellbinder

This story originally appeared in our October 2012 issue.

At 7:15 on a Thursday morning last October, IRS agents arrived at a brick house in a cul de sac off Sandy Plains Road in Marietta, around the corner from a commercial strip with a Chick-fil-A and an Edward Jones branch whose sign warned, “Prepare for the Unexpected.” The man who answered the door was named Mitchell Gross. He was sixty-one years old and dressed in a T-shirt and shorts. The agents explained they had a warrant for his arrest but allowed him to first get dressed and take his medicine. He appeared lucid and calm, and on the way out he told his fiancee, who owned the house, to call his attorney and his son.

En route to the U.S. Marshals office, with Gross handcuffed in the backseat, agents asked him if he had any medical conditions. He explained he suffered from dissociative identity disorder and schizophrenia. As if to demonstrate, Gross began mumbling and shaking his head. He said he was hearing a voice: A man named Michael Johnson, he said, was warning him not to talk.

“People need to be protected,” Gross explained to the agents. He said a voice told him to go to a “safe location”—a storage facility on Shallowford Road. Within those walls, he claimed, his thoughts couldn’t be read. As the car made its way toward Downtown Atlanta, Gross looked at the road signs passing by. They often sent him secret messages, he said.

One of the arresting officers, Ken Roberts, had never seen such a performance. The next day at Gross’s arraignment in federal court, prosecutors dismissed his ramblings as just that—a performance meant to lay the foundation for a possible insanity defense. Gross, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Grimberg, “is a very smart man and is very competent, and he is a little too smart for his own good.”

Magistrate Judge Christopher Hagy agreed. Gross was denied bail. He was taken into federal custody to await trial on twenty-two charges of fraud and money laundering.

Gross’s arrest brought to an end an astonishing run of multilayered cons perpetrated by a novelist whose prose could not match his real-life deceptions. Over the last two decades, this affable and brilliant man talked his way into the offices of New York publishers and the lairs of Hollywood players, into the beds of lonely women and the homes of fractured families. A storyteller who couldn’t write and a lover who couldn’t love, Gross stole at least $6 million from the people whose lives he shattered. And they’re still asking why.

Something in Jane Schlachter’s Mercedes smelled funny.

It was an early morning in 1995, and she had to drive her seven-year-old son to school in East Cobb. Before she could even get into her car and head down the long, oak-canopied driveway of her Marietta home, Schlachter smelled something foul, almost like pesticide. Another person might have assumed that there was a problem with the engine, or suspected a leak in the garage. But Schlachter knew what it was: poison.

Someone was trying to kill her.

She rolled down the Mercedes’s windows. She and her son leaned their heads out of the car while she drove past the security gate and onto the road. After she dropped off her son, she called her boyfriend, Mitchell Gross.

Schlachter had met Gross five years earlier, in May of 1990, on an East Cobb soccer field while they watched their sons practice together. He was an amiable man with whom she had much in common: They were both attorneys with New York accents, young children, and dying marriages. Within four years, they’d both be divorced. But Schlachter’s split from her husband was traumatic. She was scared at the prospect of being a single parent and had little experience in handling her own finances.

Gross, who told her he specialized in family law, had witnessed plenty of divorces. With Schlachter separated, he stepped in to fill the void. Gross and his young son, Doug, grew close to her three children. Gross himself would perform magic tricks to entertain them.

As Schlachter’s divorce proceedings grew acrimonious, Gross was there—as confidant, emissary, even financial adviser. The final divorce settlement left Schlachter with joint custody of her children, and property and alimony totaling more than $2 million. As it turned out, Gross’s best friend, Michael Johnson, was an investment adviser in La Jolla, California. A throat cancer survivor, Johnson used an electronic voice modifier when he talked to Schlachter on the phone. They spoke so often that he became a friend, to whom she’d even send birthday gifts. She would one day bring her family to La Jolla to meet him in person, only to find he’d been called away on business.

Schlachter invested her alimony and retirement accounts with Johnson’s firm and would one day, at his prodding, sell a plot of land adjacent to her home for three quarters of a million dollars, which she also invested with him. He was oddly prescient: Whenever he called her with an investment opportunity, it usually required the exact amount of money that she had available at the time.

But now, as she phoned Gross after dropping off her son, Schlachter wasn’t thinking about finances; she was thinking about survival. Gross had befriended Schlachter’s ex, and the information he relayed back to Schlachter suggested the man was increasingly unhinged. So convinced was she that her ex wanted to harm her, she devised a series of secret safety codes to communicate with her children.

Gross reassured her. After all, he had recently made a startling admission, the enormity of which dawned on her slowly during that stressful time. He had confided that he was the Southeast director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He had a number of men under his command, and they would keep her family safe.

Later that morning, Gross took Schlachter’s car and explained he was going to get it tested. The next day, he confirmed her fears: It was a neurological agent. If she hadn’t rolled down the windows, she or her son might have died.

We should go to the police, Schlachter said. No, Gross replied. Let my people look into it instead. Trust me.

Disentangling truth from invention in Mitchell Gross’s life story is a daunting task. Over the years, he has been—or has claimed to be—an attorney, an author, a neuropsychologist, a secret agent, a Hollywood deal maker, a businessman, and a champion fencer. As a local novelist myself, I was compelled to learn more about Gross when I first heard about this writer/con man from the Atlanta suburbs. Here was a man who had lived on the electrified third rail of reality and imagination; one of his novels was even called Circle of Lies.

A basic challenge for a fiction writer is how to get readers to suspend disbelief—how to make your tale unusual enough to intrigue them but not so extreme as to cause them to roll their eyes. This tightrope has only become narrower as “reality” TV has supplanted scripted shows, documentaries or mockumentaries exploit the borderlands of real and fake, and people spend more time reading blogs, memoirs, and other so-called “true” stories, showing less patience for yarns that are purely invented. People want reality, but a wildly interesting, skewed reality. One that isn’t actually real.

If Mitchell Gross were a character in one of my novels, you wouldn’t find him believable. No way could someone possibly pull off those stunts, you’d say. But because Gross is a real person, and because these things actually happened, you have to believe me. The elastic rules about a story’s veracity apply very differently in real life than they do in fiction.

“He sells unbelievable stories,” says Richard Garbarini, the attorney for one of Gross’s victims. “Everyone else is going about their business, and only when you shine a light on it do they say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I believed that.’”

Gross seemed to realize that people might not buy his novels, but they’d buy his lies.

During their years together, Gross would disappear from Schlachter for days, telling her only that he was on assignment for the Agency (he explained that he was “a white card” with full impunity to kill). He was indeed leading a separate life, but not in the way she thought.

When he was away from Schlachter, Gross lived in a condo in Aventura, Florida. Around 2000 he met two real estate agents, Rubin Wites and his fiancee, Lea Plotkin. Gross introduced himself as an attorney who also held a Ph.D. in psychology and who had made a tidy sum selling a CD-ROM company a decade earlier. Little of what Gross said was true. Yes, he had been an attorney, but he’d been disbarred by the state of Georgia in 1991 for commingling client funds with his own. Yes, he’d been in the CD-ROM business—scanning legal decisions from another publishing company’s bound volumes—but what he didn’t say is that the publisher sued him in 1993 for copyright infringement, winning an injunction against Gross. And no, Gross was not a Ph.D.

Wites wanted to sell his firm and hired Gross to handle the deal. But when Wites felt that real estate conglomerate WCI wasn’t paying him as the sale agreement stipulated, he hired Gross again.

Before long, Gross told Wites and Plotkin that a federal judge had imposed a gag order on the case. If they broke their silence, they could go to prison and be fined thousands of dollars. Moreover, Gross warned them that WCI employed “dirty-tricks squads” that bugged houses, rigged cars, and killed people. These assassins were veterans of corrupt South American regimes. Wites, the son of Holocaust survivors, found these stories of international villains chilling. Gross supposedly tailed the assassins to Argentina and Brazil and succeeded in getting some of them jailed in their home countries.

Like a writer using well-chosen details to build a convincing fictional world, Gross showed his clients troves of realistic-looking legal documents, including a decision, purportedly issued by an appeals court, in which the judge marveled at the extraordinary nature of the case.

Investigating WCI’s sinister finances, Gross took trips to Europe “to chase the money trail,” billing the couple for his expenses. He was working with agents of the FBI and Interpol, he explained, and the case had become part of a massive class action. When the stress of the case threatened to split the couple apart, Gross played counselor, encouraging them to stay together, to be strong. Indeed, Wites felt that Gross had become his best friend.

By 2003 Gross had billed them $2.6 million.

Years after Gross was finally out of her life, some of Jane Schlachter’s friends would tell her she had seemed to disappear during her time with him. They would admit they had never liked him but had figured he must have some redeeming qualities if the two were together. One by one, her friends faded away. Gross himself didn’t seem to have any. Instead, when he wasn’t out of town “on assignment,” he was writing.

He’d been inspired to tackle fantasy after reading one of his son’s favorites and deciding he could do better himself. An imprint of HarperCollins published his first novel, The Fifth Ring, in 2003. Written under the pen name Mitchell Graham, it bore the dedication “To Jane, who is all my reasons.” He gave readings at conferences, book stores, and a Marietta synagogue.

The Fifth Ring was the first in a fantasy trilogy, a Tolkien-esque tale of magical rings and knights. It has sold 22,000 copies, according to Nielsen BookScan. That’s not quite a disaster (plenty of books sell worse), but it’s hardly a smash. At the standard author royalty rate of 8 percent of paperbacks, that would amount to $14,000 in earnings for Gross.

His books weren’t critical darlings, either. Only Publishers Weekly and Booklist, which review most books issued by major publishers, bothered to weigh in on his debut. Publishers Weekly called it “a brisk adventure” and “an enjoyable diversion,” though it criticized his “few fully developed characters.” The sequel received less flattering reviews and less than half the sales, a slide that would continue with the final installment. Still, The Fifth Ring won the Delmont-Ross Award, earning the author $5,000. But what was the Delmont-Ross Award, anyway? As it turned out, just another Mitchell Gross invention.

It was likely while Gross was writing The Fifth Ring that Schlachter realized the money she’d invested through Michael Johnson—as much as $4 million—had disappeared. She was stunned and terrified. When she told Gross, he responded with grave news: She was the victim of a massive international fraud. When she insisted on going to the authorities, he warned her that involving the police could get her killed. Only he and his agents could help her.

Gross led her to believe that her children were in danger as well. She practiced law less frequently, finding it difficult to concentrate. She didn’t want to scare her family with the truth, so she appeared happy and carefree. This isolated her from her children, who couldn’t understand why she was acting so strangely.

By 2004 a steady accretion of suspicions led Schlachter to the awful realization that it was Gross who had been stealing from her. That her ex-husband had never been trying to harm her. She tried to get some of her dwindling funds back from Michael Johnson but was told it would take awhile, as the money was “offshore.” She also had found bank statements from Gross showing that he had spent more than $13,000 in a single month. Yet it took time for the truth to register. This is how it was with Gross: He made people believe the most preposterous stories, whereas the idea that he might be deceiving them was so horrible it was almost unimaginable.

She tried to kick him out, but even after she changed the locks, he kept finding his way into her house. He had an odd lack of emotion, something that had chilled her at the funeral of his father some years before, during which Gross had seemed to fake sadness. (He’d explained this to her by saying that the CIA had people watching him, to make sure he didn’t break in public—he even pointed out the burgundy car from which he was being monitored.)

She believes he tapped her phones and marked her car with a GPS device, since he always knew where she’d been and with whom she’d spoken. One day after Gross stepped out, she checked his computer and saw that he had just Googled “pharmacological suicide.” She searched the house and found two medical droppers by his bedside table. Was he going to poison her?

In 2005 she bought a gun and kept it close by. Searching the house again, she found a birth certificate for a man born the same year as Gross, along with paperwork detailing how to create new identities.

Police records show that Schlachter gave Gross a verbal criminal trespass warning in December of 2005. In early 2006, after she had lost hope of ever recovering her money and just wanted him out of her life, he finally complied. Though she realized that much of what he’d told her was a lie, she was still “brainwashed” by him, she says now. She was unsure what—if anything—he’d said was true, but she firmly believed he was capable of violence. This was a man who’d told her his favorite sensation was breaking someone’s neck. She remained too afraid to go to the authorities.

On his way out, he stopped at the door and told her that “a big thud is going to hit your back in two days.” He predicted that one year from then, he would be the one living in her house.

Even in our jaded modern world, we don’t expect people to lie to our faces. Sure, we expect politicians to lie, and used car salesmen, but there’s a valid social compact there. The candidate wants our vote and the salesman is trying to hawk his product, and we get that, even if it’s annoying. We do not expect that someone who befriends us, who does kind things for us, who tells entertaining stories and seems like our kind of guy, we don’t expect that he will look us in the eye and lie to us.

British-born literary agent Peter Rubie was one of the first to catch Gross in a con. A former journalist who had worked for BBC Radio and on Fleet Street in London, Rubie is well versed in the colorful annals of literary fraudsters. Yet Gross, who was briefly Rubie’s client, still managed to string him along for a while.

One day about six years ago, Rubie was in his Manhattan office, working out a major deal for one of his new clients, Mitchell Gross. After his fantasy trilogy, Gross, under his pen name Mitchell Graham, had moved on to legal thrillers. A wise move: The manuscript for his first thriller, Majestic Descending, had already caught the eye of Bruce Willis’s production company, Cherokee Productions, which wanted to buy the film rights. Rubie learned this from Gross himself, who had left his last agent and wanted Rubie to represent him in negotiations.

Majestic was going to be “Die Hard on a cruise ship,” Rubie says. As due diligence, Rubie called actress Sondra Locke, who Gross said would vouch for him. It may sound unusual for a book by a little-known writer to be incorporated into an existing movie franchise, but Rubie remembered that Die Hard 2 had been based on a book that had nothing to do with the original Die Hard. “Hollywood does all kinds of crazy things,” he says.

When Rubie spoke with the production company to double-check Gross’s assertions, it was even better than he’d hoped. He talked to an executive at Cherokee named Justin Harbin, who said that, because it was in the company’s best interest for the book to be a success, Cherokee would pay as much as $100,000 toward marketing costs to whichever publisher took on the novel. (Harbin, as it turned out, was a throat cancer survivor and had to speak with an electronic voice modifier.)

Rubie had never heard of a production company paying a publisher like that, but he figured such an amount was probably just a movie’s catering budget these days. He worked the phones and soon landed a six-figure book contract for Gross—quite a score for an author whose first three books had tanked. (And it must be said: Majestic Descending is awful.)

That’s when the publisher called Rubie to ask an unexpected question: Why was it that when Mr. Harbin from Hollywood called the publisher to check on the book’s status, it registered on caller ID as “Mitchell Gross” from Atlanta, Georgia?

Authors using pen names is common, but authors impersonating Hollywood executives is not. Rubie immediately called Gross for an explanation. Oh yeah, funny story, Gross said. He claimed he and Harbin had been talking business in the Los Angeles airport, where the exec was awaiting a flight to Toronto, when Harbin’s cell phone had died. Being a deal-making Hollywood exec, Harbin needed his phone at all times, so Gross had exchanged SIM cards with him. Really, it was Harbin. Don’t worry about it.

Rubie worried about it. He relayed the unlikely story to the publisher, who asked Rubie what he thought about this Gross/Graham guy—was he legit? Was he pulling something?

Rubie wasn’t sure. After all, Gross was clearly a published author. Rubie had spoken to Locke’s attorney, who’d vouched for Gross and confirmed that Locke was interested in the project. Gross had even paid Rubie a $5,000 commission on a film option that Gross had supposedly received from Cherokee.

“You don’t automatically think ‘I’m being conned’ when there are all these other things that allay those fears,” Rubie says now. Gross had in fact found the perfect setting for his schemes. “Everybody in publishing—agents, editors, writers—is a bit nuts,” Rubie says. Gross knew that in an age of dwindling book sales, every publisher and agent wants to work with a book that becomes a Hollywood smash. So that’s what he offered to Rubie and to intrigued publishers. Of course, this Cherokee Productions was a mirage. And there was no option on Majestic Descending. Correspondence later sent on the company letterhead listed its address as 9107 Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, right down the road from major film agencies, but this was nothing more than a desirable “virtual address” whose location can be rented by small businesses.

Rubie managed to negotiate a far more modest book deal with Forge Books, an imprint of Macmillan. He and Gross then parted ways.

Forge published Majestic Descending in 2007, Dead Docket in 2009, and Circle of Lies (written under a new pseudonym, Douglas Alan) in 2010. As of early September, the publisher’s website still described Majestic Descending as “soon to be a major motion picture.”

By 2006 Gross had successfully stolen millions from Schlachter and Wites without any legal repercussions. No one but publishing insiders knew that his books were failures. So while he worked his movie con by phone with publishers in New York, he worked the Hollywood angle in person, flying to Los Angeles in pursuit of another target, the actress Sondra Locke.

Locke had been nominated for an Oscar for 1968’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Though she hasn’t been involved in many recent films, her connections make her a desirable associate for the many writers, directors, and sundry players hoping to get a project green-lit. As such, she’s a cautious person with a good radar for poseurs and flimflam men.

Gross sent her a copy of Majestic Descending, and they spoke on the phone. Locke was intrigued by the book’s film potential, so the two arranged to meet in Hollywood.

Gross picked her up at her house, and they drove to the Little Door in West Hollywood. They ate dinner on the patio. Gross admitted he didn’t know much about wine, so he let her choose. He seemed comfortable and had known enough not to wear a tie in L.A., going for a jacket, shirt, and slacks. Gross would eventually say that he’d just ended a long relationship with a woman, to whom he’d left his “mansion and grounds.”

Gross seemed to own a number of properties and was well traveled. He was a Renaissance man, a golfer and a pianist, a lawyer and a doctor. He talked about “doing rounds” and detailed his patients’ fascinating conditions, like extreme delusions.

Gross spun complicated yarns about the intrigue surrounding Majestic’s book-to-film process. He told her that none other than Rupert Murdoch wanted in on the movie, but they disagreed on a vision for the film. Indeed, Gross explained, Murdoch had once so offended him during a dinner meeting that Gross had leaped over the table to punch him, but the billionaire’s bodyguard had intervened, taking the blow. The bodyguard later sued Gross, but Gross won the case.

A crazy story? Sure. But Gross seemed free of braggadocio; he told his amazing tales with great subtlety, and his matter-of-fact conveyance of the details won Locke over. At one point she felt he was trying to flirt with her, but the one-time Hollywood starlet is used to this, so she deflected it and focused on business. After dinner, Gross drove her home. It turned out he didn’t know anyone else in L.A., so over the next few days, she showed him around town.

Soon afterward, she received a call from Justin Harbin, the fictional movie executive. Harbin told her that Gross was “giddy as a schoolboy” about her—she could tell that Harbin, like a teen gossip, was trying to assess whether she felt the same way.

She ignored the comment and asked when she’d get to meet with Bruce Willis. Oh, not this week, Harbin said. I have to be in New Zealand. Over the following weeks, there was always an excuse why the meeting couldn’t happen: Willis was shooting a new film, or Harbin was in New York, or Gross was finishing a manuscript, etc.

Over time, Gross’s stories became less believable. He sent Locke a necklace and told her it had been worn by Ingrid Bergman in Anastasia. When Locke’s Mercedes was damaged, he offered to get her a new one (she declined) and, in a later conversation, asked if she’d received it yet. No? Hmm, there must have been some shipping problem.

Gross once explained a complicated movie-financing arrangement in which potential producers could put money into an escrow account; it struck Locke as so odd that she advised him not to take part. She wonders if perhaps he’d been hoping to get some of her money in the account, which he might have controlled. To Locke, though, Gross didn’t seem to understand Hollywood at all. She eventually lost touch with him after interest in the film failed to materialize.

She didn’t learn of his crimes until I contacted her months after his arrest. She was shocked by the news, and chastened that he had managed to get so close to her. “He was very convincing for a very long time,”
she says.

The same year that author Mitchell Graham was working his movie deal, Mitchell Gross was writing his way into Robbie Johnson’s life. At fifty-five, Johnson was a real estate agent living in Wellington, Florida, and had recently divorced after a twenty-year marriage. Sitting at home on a rainy Sunday, she logged onto the Jewish dating site JDate and saw a posting for an author. She wound up chatting online with Gross for hours; within days she invited him to visit.

They were soon taking lavish vacations to Japan, Brazil, and Panama. Gross told her that Steven Spielberg was planning to film his fantasy trilogy, with stars like Kirsten Dunst and Pierce Brosnan attached. She renovated her house, turning her son’s bedroom into a writer’s office.

Johnson realizes now that she missed some warning signs. The first time she cried in his presence, his reaction struck her as odd. Rather than embracing or consoling her, he looked at her quizzically. Then he said, “You look funny when you cry.”

Gross quickly ensnared her in the same financial scam he’d used on Schlachter, telling her that his friend Michael Johnson worked for “The Merrill Company,” a savvy name choice that evoked the real investment company Merrill Lynch. Within months of meeting Gross, she invested more than $2.5 million into the adviser’s account.

In March of 2008, by which time Robbie Johnson had been with Gross for almost two years, she saw his name listed on a money transfer and realized she’d been duped. She confronted Gross, but what he told her next was equally surprising. He explained that he had been diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, or what’s commonly referred to as having multiple personalities. That’s why he was pretending to be Michael Johnson.

A spiritual person, Robbie Johnson wanted to believe she could save Gross—she also didn’t want to believe she was being conned and was now penniless—so she took him to a forensic psychiatrist for an assessment. When Gross left the room, the psychiatrist pointed at his office door. You know that the door can’t feel human emotion, right? Your sociopath boyfriend is like that door. He’s toxic. Run away from him.

Johnson kicked Gross out and, in March of 2008, sued him, beginning an arduous legal saga. Gross initially settled with her, agreeing to pay her back in full, but that deal was “toilet paper” to him, she said; four years later, he’d repaid only $12,000. He stalled by saying he’d pay her when he received his checks from Hollywood, or once the WCI suit settled. Yet he continued to live large, driving a Corvette, traveling internationally, loaning his son $10,000 to invest in an Atlanta restaurant, paying Forge to market his books (so she sued Macmillan, which settled with her out of court), and relaxing at the Golf Club of Georgia (which she also sued, and which also settled with her).

To Johnson, it appeared that Schlachter was in on Gross’s crimes. After all, Schlachter had lived with him for years and had to know he was bad news. Moreover, Schlachter had accepted small payments from Gross as late as 2007, during the time he’d been romancing Johnson. So she sued Schlachter. (In truth, those payments were Gross’s token attempts to repay Schlachter.)

After uncovering a paper trail of money between Wites and Gross, attorneys for Johnson deposed Wites in April of 2009. They asked Wites how he knew Gross, and why he had sent money to him. But Wites was still under Gross’s spell: Gross had told him beforehand that this deposition was actually part of the WCI case. The attorneys asking Wites questions, Gross warned, were unethical legal guns hired by WCI and were trying to discredit Gross and harm Wites’s lawsuit. Whatever you do, don’t tell them anything about our case.

So counseled, Wites did what he could to stall the lawyers, bickering with them frequently. That day Gross’s fictional world was superimposed upon the real one, completely blotting it out. As a result of Wites’s combative behavior and his frequent contradictions during his testimony, he was held in contempt of court.

Now it looked clearer than ever to Johnson: Wites must be in on the scam with Gross. So she set her legal sights on
Wites too.

In an attempt to recoup Johnson’s losses, a court-appointed receiver took possession of Gross’s belongings in March 2008. Items taken from his house in Marietta included a Corvette and a BMW convertible, a leather massage chair, an elliptical machine, clothing from Neiman Marcus and Burberry, multiple sets of golf clubs, a Big Green Egg smoker, and numerous pieces of art, including a bronze Buddha statue.

Throughout this process, Gross sent Johnson a litany of texts trying to repair the relationship. “I’m obviously not without my problems,” he admitted on December 15, 2010. “Lord knows that’s true. But I NEVER lied about my feelings for you. Not once.”

There remained a larger question: Where was the money? Despite the millions Gross had stolen, he hadn’t seemed to buy any mansions or yachts, and he’d usually lived in houses his girlfriends owned or rented. He’d lived comfortably, yes, but those Burberry ties and golf clubs hadn’t cost millions.

Robbie Johnson’s attorney, Richard Garbarini, has been studying Gross’s methods for two years. He notes that Gross’s legal experience helped him construct a dizzyingly complex maze of shell companies, which he established to acquire employer identification numbers in order to open bank accounts for each. One was nominally a nonprofit, the Literacy Ladder, which Gross stated in a deposition was an organization that donated books to women’s shelters. He was unable to name a single shelter the books had been given to. One thing the Literary Ladder did do, however, was pay for Gross’s membership to the Golf Club
of Georgia.

The receiver passed details about Gross on to the federal government, and the Department of Justice began laying the groundwork for a criminal case. Gross’s winding trail of cons was finally coming to an end.

This June, twenty-two years after meeting Gross on a Cobb County soccer field, Jane Schlachter entered the Richard B. Russell Federal Courthouse to give a statement at his sentencing. She has long, lightened hair, and her pearl necklace and smart white jacket made her appear every bit the successful Marietta lawyer, but in fact Gross had taken nearly every cent she’d once had.

Four months earlier, Gross had pleaded guilty to three counts of fraud and money laundering. Perhaps tellingly, Gross did not use insanity as a defense. His attorney, Jerry Froelich, felt that although Gross may have psychological problems, they don’t cross the legal threshold of insanity, which requires, among other things, that the person not understand the difference between right and wrong.

A victims counselor passed out tissues to Schlachter, Wites, and Johnson, all of them sitting on the left side of the courtroom. In front of them and to the right, Mitchell Gross sat wearing a bright orange jumpsuit. His expression was glum, his hair visibly whiter than when he’d been arrested, and he glanced at Robbie Johnson several times. A few rows behind him sat his thirty-two-year-old son, Doug.

In conversation Schlachter is friendly, if cautious and poised. Once she gets to talking about her years with Gross, however, the anecdotes flood out, one crashing into the next, and despite this, the shine in her eyes shows that she’s just barely holding herself back. Her victim statement was forty-five minutes long, and Judge Julie Carnes never broke eye contact.

Schlachter, Johnson, and Wites described the financial, psychological, and physical toll of Gross’s crimes. They reported hair loss, extreme anxiety, kidney stones. Schlachter said she has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, severe asthma, and other ailments that were caused by years of living in terror. She believes her children have shut her out as their way of coping with the nightmare that enveloped their family; none of them came to Gross’s sentencing.

Both Johnson and Wites are afraid of losing their homes, and Johnson broke down when she admitted to her fears that she would become a burden on her child. Wites, who paid Gross more than $2 million for the decade-long, fake WCI case, said that a finance company recently called him. It was repossessing a car he never even knew about—Gross had bought it using Wites’s name.

“I don’t understand how someone could come across the way he did,” Wites said, marveling at the fact that he never caught Gross in a lie. The old adage that telling a lie is difficult because it begets another lie, and another, creating an entire complicated plotline of lies that the liar could never hope to remember well enough to re-create in subsequent conversations—that turns out not to be true. Gross spun the most complex, detailed stories, yet Wites and Plotkin never heard him contradict himself. The WCI case wasn’t so much a lie as a sprawling, postmodern novel, and Gross, as its author, knew every last line.

Asking Judge Carnes to put Gross away for a long time (“and not in one of those country club” prisons), Wites said that he hoped Gross was sent to a rougher place where he could “be someone’s bitch.” Only then would Gross understand how his victims felt.

Carnes sentenced Gross to twelve years and seven months, with no possibility of parole. “Mr. Gross is a sociopath. He is evil,” she said. “He will always be evil and will never change.”

After Gross was led away, Johnson and Schlachter embraced. They were scheduled to square off the following day in their year-long dispute. Instead they released a statement saying they’d resolved their differences.

Grimberg says the government is pursuing all avenues to find Gross’s money, but his victims aren’t holding their breath. They believe Gross has millions hidden away, possibly abroad, and that, if he’s still alive when his prison term ends, he’ll disappear.

Schlachter has returned to her law practice, and she feels that her experiences have made her a better attorney and a cagier judge of character. Before meeting Gross, she was happy and social, involved in her community; she hopes to start volunteering at a children’s home again.

She fears that Gross, when he’s released, will find new victims. But she hopes that with him behind bars, she and her children will be able to repair their relationship. The worst thing is all the years lost that could have been spent with her family. “I am the best book he ever wrote,” she says.

Mitchell Gross’s sentencing failed to answer some of the greatest mysteries about him. A smart man, he could have had the life he wanted. He had the rich girlfriend and the grand house and the fun vacations. (Twice, in fact.) She was sharing her money, so why steal from her? Is he a sadistic sociopath who enjoys trapping his victims, or is he himself a victim of his own pathological need to tell stories, even if it sabotages him?

This is what I found to be true about Mitchell Gross: He and his younger sister were raised in the Bronx by a salesman father and a bookkeeper mother. Gross graduated in 1972 from Ohio State University, where he majored in education and was warned by the dean for low grades his freshman year. At South Texas College of Law, he “resigned with prejudice” in 1974 after being caught trying to alter his transcript.

He earned his J.D. from John Marshall Law School and married Deborah Gross, whom he’d known since they were teenagers. He soon appeared to be a successful attorney, owning a large Marietta home and two BMWs. And he was an active and engaged father to their only child, Doug, taking him to Boy Scouts and teaching him soccer, golf, and fencing.

(Despite my numerous attempts, Doug Gross refused to comment. His mother could not be reached.)

As Gross and his wife went through divorce proceedings in 1993, financial truths that he’d tried to conceal were revealed: He had several liens against him, and he’d been disbarred two years earlier. The Grosses sold their home, and each rented a house in Marietta. They no longer drove BMWs.

But even after Gross had moved on to Schlachter and accessed her millions, he was still dodging debts and launching petty schemes. In the winter of 2000, he pleaded guilty to insurance fraud after claiming to have been in a car accident with his father, who in fact was deceased. Which means that at one of the times when Schlachter believed Gross was traveling for the CIA, he was in police custody in Cobb County.

But questions remain: If Gross is the criminal mastermind his victims think he is, with hidden funds and fake passports, why didn’t he vanish during the three and a half years between the start of Johnson’s lawsuit and his arrest? Dodging her for so long made him appear to be a brilliant schemer, but it also argues against his mental competence: Rather than fleeing, he just moved on to the next woman.

The protagonist of my most recent novel, The Revisionists, is either a time traveler trying to save post-9/11 America or a paranoid schizophrenic. But neither the writing of that book nor the months I’d spent studying Gross had quite prepared me for the experience of speaking with him on the phone and hearing him spin more tales.

I had all but given up on ever talking to him, despite weeks of trying to track him down in the limbo of federal penitentiary transfers. Then, one August morning, I received an unexpected call from the Robert A. Deyton Detention Facility in Lovejoy, Georgia.

When I asked Gross how he was doing, he laughed. “Oh, living the dream.”

The story he offered me was similar to what he’d told the arresting IRS officers. He is “a high-functioning schizophrenic” and has been since he was a teenager. Though he’s never been institutionalized, he said, he has been receiving treatment for years, and he kept his condition secret from his loved ones because of the stigma. Part of me wanted to believe this—it jibes with a presentencing hearing in which he told a judge he was taking anti-schizophrenia medications risperidone and aripiprazole while in custody—but Gross has long offered contradictory information about his mental history to suit his needs.

He warned me that when the Michael Johnson persona kicks in, his voice changes without his control. He said he couldn’t do this for me on cue, but it could happen at any time, and he apologized in advance if it did. In our forty-five-minute conversation, it did not, and none of the people I’ve spoken with said they have ever witnessed such an occurrence. People who have known him for years cite this as only one of the reasons they discount the idea that he’s schizophrenic.

He had a restrained sort of warmth, a friendly directness, as if he were only too happy to assist in my reporting. (He ended our first call by wishing me luck with my writing, saying, “Go get that Nobel.”) He never sounded defensive or argumentative. This was a man, one person had told me, who could look at a maple coffee table and tell you it wasn’t actually wood, that it was in fact a rare polymer invented in Italy in 1975, etc., marshaling realistic-sounding evidence for his methodical assault on reason. He would lie even when there was no need to.

Gross still has surprising access to the outside world: He called me three times that Friday, twice more the next Monday, and somehow arranged to have his “secretary” send me numerous emails. The emails (which he’d dictated to her) promised me access to his medical records and to documents that would implicate some of his victims in crimes of their own. For example, he argued the real reason Schlachter never went to the authorities was because she had been involved in a complicated insurance fraud involving $60 million of cash payouts in hollowed-out books. When I told him this sounded an awful lot like another torn-from-a-thriller subplot, he assured me he had proof.

My heart had pounded when I’d first received the call, but as he went on and on, his soothing voice and vast distance from anything resembling credibility lulled me into a kind of trance, like when I tune out a telemarketer’s pitch. Whether I was listening to a sick man, or a diabolical genius, or a door, all I really wanted was for him to stop talking. Sometimes I realize I simply don’t understand a certain book, and I just have to put it down.

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