Evil Among Us
by Ken Driggs
[p.63] Kleasen had no intention of being convicted of or sentenced for the Wayne County shooting. He had a passport in his own name. But Kleasen had also obtained records on a dead cousin, John Townstead Williamson, and made a fake passport under that name. Williamson had died in 1951 and Kleasen had secured many of his identity papers. It would become his favorite alias.
Either as Kleasen or Williamson, he made his way to Europe. In April 1972 he surfaced in Copenhagen. He first tried to get into Sweden to get at his ex-wife Irene Frederiksson, but the Swedish government apparently spotted him and wanted no part of him on their soil.
Kleasen also began attending a Copenhagen branch of the LDS church. Mormon missionaries first arrived in Denmark in 1850 and thousands of converts immigrated to Utah in the next half century. Copenhagen had been the headquarters of the Denmark Mission of the LDS church since 1970, and in 1974 the Denmark Copenhagen Mission was organized as a separate district. When Kleasen arrived, there were about 4,300 Mormons in Denmark in two stakes.
As Williamson, Kleasen told the branch president he was already a baptized member ordained to the church’s lay priesthood. He sometimes passed the sacrament of bread and water with other priesthood-bearing men. He liked to hang around the young missionaries who listened to and seemed to believe his fantastic stories of CIA spying and fighter pilot combat. In April 1972 one young missionary assigned to Copenhagen inscribed Kleasen’s copy of the Book of Mormon: “It’s been really really interesting getting to know you and hearing about your life!”
But the local branch could not secure membership records for a John T. Williamson from Salt Lake City. Mormons are meticulous [p.64] records keepers and every baptized member can be found in centralized listings in Utah. These include birth and ordination dates, marriages and children, and previous congregations. When members move, their new congregation will secure those records from church headquarters.
Faced with this lack of records, Kleasen began telling friends he was really a member of a small Mormon splinter group but was never very clear on the details. At first he claimed to be a member of the “Reformed Mormon Group,” then backed away from that story when LDS members took this to mean he was part of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. (When Joseph Smith Jr., founder of Mormonism, was murdered in 1844, his followers broke up into several groups, some of them gathering in the 1860s around his son Joseph Smith III as the Reorganized Church.)
As Kleasen rationalized in one letter to Mormon friends, his group of Mormons was “a growing group of men and women who because we can not support the existing Government of the United States can not be Baptized under the ‘Articles of Faith.’ We go to the same Church … and we pay tith [sic] and participate in everything except ‘priesthood’ things within the Church.” He claimed there was a formal church organization and he could call upon its leaders to verify his claims. In another letter Kleasen claimed his group was small and did not even exist in Denmark. He assured his Mormon friends that as soon as the Vietnam War was over, his little group of independent Mormons would merge into the regular church.
Trying to avoid returning to the United States, Kleasen had his Austin friend Lem Rathbone order some rubber stamps he used to alter his bogus passport. He wanted it to reflect permanent resident status in Denmark.
For a time Kleasen apparently stayed with an English-speaking Danish family from the LDS branch he had attended, Elise and Frederick Jensen (not their real names). He sometimes was their dinner guest and got to know their two young children.
Kleasen also had some sort of relationship with a young LDS woman named Christine Madsen (not her real name). She was an [p.65] English-speaking friend of the Jensens and may have been a university student in Copenhagen. Some of Kleasen’s letters suggest she was from London.
At one point Kleasen wrote the Jensens, proudly announcing Christine and he were engaged and she was wearing his ring, but marriage had to wait. “Christine & I are now officially Engaged. She will be wearing the ring all the time now. We have not told her parents yet must wait on that ‘proper length Engagement’—you know.” Kleasen’s letters hint that she later returned the ring and broke off the relationship, if a relationship ever truly existed.
While Christine was away for several days, apparently to England, he moved into her apartment, told people they were married, and began selling her clothes and belongings. When she returned and protested, they began to argue. Kleasen exploded. He choked her, pinning her on her bed by sitting on her chest and beating her in the face. She was a mess afterwards, her throat bruised from the choking and her face bloody from his fists.
Kleasen was arrested on August 20, 1972, jailed, and prosecuted. The local Mormon leadership assisted the police with their efforts in determining who John T. Williamson really was.
Within a month Danish prosecutors indicted “American Citizen Robert Elmer Kleasen” in the City of Copenhagen Court. The charges were for attempted forgery in trying to alter his passport; two counts of stealing motor-assisted bicycles in late July and August; and assault and battery of Christine. He told the Jensens that he bought the bicycles in good faith from a shady character whom he did not know was selling stolen goods.
The third count described the assault as by “pressing one hand against her throat and pushing her down on to a bed, where she came to lie on her back, whereupon he sat down on her chest and hit her several times in her head with the flat of his hand and with his fist, took stranglehold on her, and again hit her in the face, by which time the person assaulted contracted several marks from strangling on the front of her throat, spot hemorrhages in her eyes, and a wound at the left-hand corner of her mouth.”
[p.66] From jail Kleasen tried to write his “Dearest Darling Christine,” but the letter was intercepted by censors and returned to him. Communication with the victim in such a crime was prohibited. He had written her that “the police are doing everything possible to prevent our meeting and talking things over,” that they were spreading “damn lies,” and that “I love you with all my heart and soul dearest and I will keep the vows I made to you and God and I expect you to do the same.”
While Kleasen was in jail, he regularly wrote the Jensens in English, at first by hand and later on a typewriter. Apparently the couple at first gave his stories some credence, wrote him back, and sometimes visited him. Kleasen believed his letters were read by jailers so he was careful and was not allowed to discuss the details of his offense. He always wrote as John T. Williamson.
The letters are a mixture of self-righteousness, of self-pity, of obvious attempts to manipulate the Jensens, of inflated ego—he liked to compare his trials to those of Mormon prophets Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, writing in one letter “I feel very much as our Founders J.S. [sic] felt when he cried out from his cell”—and of a complete refusal to admit he had done anything wrong. They read like bad acting and are filled with the terrible spelling that is inconsistent with Kleasen’s claims of graduate level education. “I am lost in a foreign world I don’t even understand,” he lamented in an August 24, 1972, letter. He often recited the number of days he had been in “solitary confinement”—the 11th, 32nd, 46th, 51st, 55th, or 62nd such day. He complained bitterly about his treatment by jailers and the poor food he was given, persuading the Jensens to bring him oranges when they visited.
Kleasen was jailed several times in his life and always complained about how he was being abused and starved. “I am caught in a trap & only truth can save me. I have done nothing I am ashamed of,” he wrote in the next letter. He was certain that the members of the branch believed him and not Christine. “They all know & love me & I am sure they are ‘sticking up’ for me.”
He always spoke of Christine as his wife whom he loved, but said she was making up the whole matter of his violence. He knew he was [p.67] forbidden from contacting Christine, but in a September 22, 1972, letter, he pleaded with the Jensens to buy a “cheap” birthday card and mail it to her signed with “All my Love & XXXXXXX,” even though “Christine does not deserve it.” On October 5 he wrote, “I will of course try to save the marriage but that too is beyond my power.”
At the same time he increasingly attacked her in his letters as dishonest and treacherous. At first he hinted that there were rumors about her—“You will remember the rumors as to Christine … Well I thought they were lies—now I do not think so,” he wrote on August 30, 1972. He wanted the Jensens to start investigating her. After Christine’s testimony against Kleasen at an October 27, 1972, trial he dismissed her as mentally sick. “This was as I tried to explain in the split personality syndrome. I feel bad to see her this way,” he wrote on October 28, 1972. Within a month of the trial, he began writing that Christine was really “a Call Girl” and a lesbian, and that she had recently had an abortion. A few years later Kleasen was claiming she often went to England to receive instructions from a “Whore Master” who was outraged that she could not “work” because of her relationship with him. The “Whore Master” beat her as retribution for her love of this noble man Robert Kleasen, he claimed.
Another recurring theme of Kleasen’s life is played out in his letters, that of being an honest man railroaded and tormented by a corrupt system.
As his trial date approached, he wrote the Jensens that “they are now trying to ram-rod me thru court,” that he would not get a jury trial which “is absolutely shameful,” and that his supposedly incompetent lawyer was “a gift from the police.” On October 10, 1972, he wrote that the Danish courts, which he characterized as “a real Monster you have in your mist [sic] here in Denmark,” had engaged in an “extremely serious violation of my Civil Rights … In the U.S. as bad as conditions are [such things would never happen].”
After Kleasen had been in the Copenhagen jail for almost two months, he wrote to the president of the LDS mission in Denmark. On October 14, 1972, he wrote to “humbly ask that a bi-lingual representatives [sic] of the Church come [to his] trial and when it is over decide [p.68] what Church Action should be taken.” He also asked for a visit, insisting that he and Christine were married, that “We were not married in the church. But we did or at least I did solumnly [sic] take our vows before our Heavenly father.” He said they lived together in her college apartment until his arrest. He stressed his innocence. “I have been falsly [sic] arrested for beating my Wife who is a member Baptized in the Kobenhavn Branch,” he wrote. Kleasen signed the letter John T. Williamson.
The mission president, Grant R. Ipsen, was not persuaded and on October 18, 1972, wrote Kleasen a stinging one paragraph response. “At an earlier request of the Police Department, I wrote to our record section in Salt Lake City, Utah to see if you are, or have been a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day [sic] Saints,” Ipsen replied. “According to the records there, you have never been a member of the Church, and are not now a member. We believe in fully sustaining the laws of the land in which we are guests. Judicial systems are designed and established to bring about righteous judgments based upon the facts of the case. We are willing to assist and have been assisting in helping the police to establish any facts that they desire.” Ipsen followed through, offering Danish authorities any help he could provide.
At Kleasen’s urging, the Jensens did attend his court dates. Instead of being converted to his paranoid view, they began to see him as less than honest.
Kleasen’s letters grew panicky. On October 20, with the trial a week away, he wrote that “no one can win in a trial like this” and “I want to prepare you for the worse [sic]. I am innocent but that does little when you face a situation like this.” After the trial he tried to dismiss Christine’s testimony as both a lie and the product of her “split personality syndrome.” He wrote of the guilty verdict, “My heart is sad. I too must shoulder much of the moral blame but I did not lie or bare falsely [sic] and I hope Our Heavenly Father takes pitty [sic] on me.”
The Jensens confronted him about his real identity, feeling betrayed. To that, Kleasen offered a “Cassus Clay” [sic] defense, writing [p.69] on November 15 that having two “legal names” was “so common in the U.S.A. and in my case I explained in court how mine came to be.” He claimed “most of my papers and diplomas are under the name Kleasen although my true name is Williamson. However, this is just a little thing.”
In the same letter he wrote that he would soon leave Denmark for Lebanon, giving the Jensens an address for Robert E. Kleasen in Zahle, Lebanon. He was staying with the family of a Lebanese man he met in the Copenhagen jail. He said he would soon be teaching there and did not write again for some weeks. “I knew that direct return to the U.S. would be far worse,” he later wrote the Jensens, without mentioning that it was a New York felony assault prosecution that he really feared.
Kleasen did go to Lebanon from Copenhagen but didn’t stay long. He had convinced his Lebanese fellow prisoner that he could supply guns for him and his comrades. Once in Lebanon it became obvious that Kleasen was not a gun runner but an unstable con man.
The Lebanese quickly grew weary of him and dropped him off on the embassy doorstep. On November 24, 1972, he showed up at the United States Embassy in Beirut trying to get home. An embassy cable to the State Department said he was “completely without funds, apparently emotionally disturbed, and acted in uncooperative and occasionally truculent manner.” He identified himself as Kleasen and carried a Boston issued passport under that name, but admitted traveling under a false passport as John T. Williamson. This was necessitated, he explained, by a “conspiracy on the part of federal agents involving the illegal possession of machine guns and other violations of federal firearms and tax regulations.”
Admitting the obvious, Kleasen confessed he was suffering a nervous breakdown. In a rare confession he told embassy staff he was friendless “except for an ex-wife in Denmark who was definitely not inclined to assist him.” The State Department tried to contact Kleasen’s mother, who he said was senile and on welfare, to assist in his repatriation. Failing that, they tried to contact a Mormon bishop in Williamsville, New York, whom Kleasen said would help him. No [p.70] one would accept his collect overseas calls. Finally the embassy loaned him $465 for a ticket home and $50 to live on until takeoff.
Kleasen later recalled that he landed in Washington, D.C., and immediately made his way to Lem Rathbone’s place. “He told me he went over there to teach school or do something at one time or another,” Rathbone would later testify.
Kleasen continued writing his letters. On Christmas Eve 1972 he wrote to a Mormon family from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He signed the letter “Jack” but gave a return address for Robert E. Kleasen. Once again his 007 fantasies got the better of him. He explained that the teaching job he had been offered in Lebanon was “FAKE” and that he arrived only to find himself a captive of “Palastine-Bandits” who wanted him to fly drug runs into Greece in order to finance the war with Israel. He refused, and was held a prisoner for “22 days mostly without food.” Kleasen wrote that he finally wrestled a pistol from one of his guards and forced his former captor at gunpoint to drive him to the U.S. Embassy in “Beirute.” There he “received rather cool and shabby treatment from My Government as I had lost everything.” He wrote that a doctor was finally secured to treat the illnesses he had endured during his captivity and that he convalesced in Beirut for some period. He then flew across Europe and finally to Washington, D.C., where he called his friend Rathbone. After a few days visiting Rathbone in Austin, he flew to Calgary because “I had a [teaching] position offered here and I thought I would look into it.”
There was no “position” in Calgary, although Kleasen wrote the Jensens that he “lost” it when the Canadian government froze all work permits in an effort to protect the jobs of its own citizens. In a later letter Kleasen said he’d worked “illegally” as a “powder monkey” for $175 a week handling explosives for a remote timber company. This was at the Dominion Paper Company, located in Radium Hot Springs, British Columbia. He stayed a month until he was found to be working without the proper papers. He wrote that he “was very disappointed in Canada” but had saved enough money to return to Texas and buy a Honda motorcycle.
Kleasen closed the Christmas Eve letter by thanking the family [p.71] “for sticking by me when all were against me,” hoping to make them feel guilty about their obviously growing doubts about him.
His Christmas had been “a dismal one,” he wrote in January 1973. “I did not send a single card to anyone I was so misserable [sic].” He said he was looking for a job and was thinking of getting a mobile home—“about a 50-75 foot long house on wheels.” Kleasen also wrote that he was confident of securing a Texas teaching job by the fall of 1973.
Once again he pleaded with the family to write back. He said they could write to him either as Kleasen or Williamson at the Austin Taxidermist, 2708 South Lamar Boulevard, Austin, Texas. This was the original location of Lem Rathbone’s taxidermy studio.