Evil Among Us
by Ken Driggs
[p.134] Kleasen wanted new lawyers who would not bring up embarrassing issues such as his mental fitness. He wanted a defense conducted on his terms.
One day, while Kleasen was visiting with Pentecostal friends in the Travis County Jail, the group encountered Austin lawyer R. Roscoe Haley. Haley was a flashy solo practitioner of no more than average legal talent. He was a gregarious, flamboyant character in his thirties. He enjoyed the limelight and public exposure, and the Kleasen case represented both. In many ways Haley and Kleasen seemed made for each other. Haley started talking to Kleasen’s friends about his situation and volunteered, “It sounds like he needs a lawyer.” Patrick Ganne, a “baby lawyer” just a year out of law school, was in the hallway and overheard the conversation. Soon Kleasen’s friend Linda Miller was stopping regularly in Haley’s office. On March 20 Kleasen wrote Haley: “I request your services as Attorney and Counselor of Record in the matter now pending before the 167th District Court …” Haley agreed, and Kleasen’s letter ended up in the court file.
Haley also appreciated that he would need help so he approached Judge Blackwell about assistance. Blackwell understood the situation and appointed Ganne and another recent law school graduate, David Bays, to assist. Bays had clerked for Haley recently. He was a graduate of the Naval Academy at Annapolis and had a master’s degree in engineering, but little legal experience. Ganne was a University of Texas Law School graduate and at least had a year’s experience prosecuting misdemeanors in New Mexico. He had done exactly one felony trial with the district attorney’s office in Albuquerque.
While the penniless Kleasen initially promised a private retainer, Haley, Ganne, and Bays were eventually paid by Travis County. [p.135] Ganne and Bays worked on the case full time from that point through the end of the trial.
Haley was a competent lawyer but had a drinking problem. In the weeks leading up to the Kleasen trial, he could be found passing the afternoon in his office with clients and an open vodka bottle on the desk. It was the two young lawyers who undertook discovery and all the other preparation for trial.
The following week Kleasen was back before Judge Blackwell with Haley and Ganne. Gibbins, Wilkerson, and Levatino were now officially off the case.
On March 24 Judge Blackwell set the trial for May 19. At Kleasen’s insistence, they scrapped the insanity defense planned by their predecessors and announced a defense of complete innocence. There were also rumors about Kleasen’s having read several books from the Bastrop Public Library on mental illness right after his arrest, making his new lawyers nervous about how well an insanity defense would stand up. Kleasen felt he was now in a position to direct his lawyers rather than their directing him. He was an accomplished manipulator and quickly sensed how to get Haley to do his bidding.
Kleasen took advantage of his new leading role to grant a lengthy interview with Associated Press reporter Robert Heard which was published the following weekend. It was Kleasen who contacted the press, but Haley agreed to the 90-minute interview at the county jail and was present while Kleasen told his stories. Heard described Kleasen as looking tired but enjoying the attention. “He appears to be weary, believing himself to be the target through the years of incompetents and of evil men. But he somehow conveys the impression he has arrived at precisely the spot he has sought so long—the center ring.”
Heard speculated on what sort of man Kleasen was. He probably came closer than any of the mental health experts when he wrote that Kleasen seemed like “a weak man with Walter Mitty dreams; a man with limited talent but a clever imagination; a man who has made exaggerated claims so long he has come to believe them.” Kleasen insisted he was innocent: “I certainly haven’t killed anybody and I certainly haven’t seen anybody killed.” He denied having seen the mis-[p.136]sionaries on October 28, 1974. “They sent me a letter stating that they were coming on that date. Well, I clean forgot about it.” (At other times, he claimed he had prepared dinner but the expected missionaries hadn’t shown up.) And he denied any motive for murder: “I certainly don’t have any animosity towards these people. They were just two nice young men.” But he also said he hardly knew them. “I knew these people very, very, very slightly. I knew them less than I know you.”
Under instructions from his lawyer not to discuss the murdered missionaries, Kleasen would say, “I think they [ate] once” at his trailer, but he expressed plenty of bitterness toward the LDS church. He said he was baptized in Austin in 1972, ignoring his 1973 baptism by Austin bishop Bruce Smith. “My church did not support me in any way, shape or form during my trials. In fact, I never received even a Christmas card from any of them. In fact, any time they came they did everything they could to hurt me.” This probably referred to the several months Kleasen was in Texas Hill Country jails for shooting the buffalo. He also complained that an unnamed Mormon lawyer refused to represent him in the case, probably Ed Guyon. He accused two other church members of going through his trailer while he was jailed and stealing “whatever they wanted.”
As if to remove any doubt that he lived a life of fantasy, Kleasen insisted that this prosecution was really a CIA plot. He said he learned to fly by age fifteen and that his secret agent career began as a test pilot. In 1951, when he was only nineteen, he claimed he was sent to Korea by Bell Aircraft to test their air-to-air and ground-to-air missiles. When the reporter told Kleasen he could check Bell employment records, Kleasen backpedaled, saying he was not sure how they would list him. Kleasen went on to claim he was also a U2 pilot. Somehow, however, he had graduated from test pilot to spy. He claimed that with the CIA he helped plan the 1961 Cuban Bay of Pigs invasion, and knew the details of the assassination of South Vietnam president Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963. Later he was assigned to watch groups like the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Weathermen while at the State University of New York at Buffalo. His cover was that he [p.137] was an ordinary college student. It was this assignment which brought him into contact with the Peace Movement and convinced him his CIA handlers were corrupt. Kleasen then decided to defect and save the world.
Admitting that he could not prove it, Kleasen said he quit the CIA in 1965 to join those opposed to the Vietnam War. He began to travel in Red China and North Vietnam on behalf of anti-war groups. With that act of conscience, Kleasen pronounced, the CIA became obsessed with silencing him. “I know too much. See, they don’t know what I will divulge or what records I’ve taken or anything about it, so it’s easier just to eliminate me.” The agency was afraid of his “naming names, and embarrassing incidents,” he boasted. After he quit the CIA, “they blew up my VW camper,” he told AP. When asked if he still had CIA records in his possession, Kleasen laughed and asked the reporter, “You want to get me killed?” He then claimed his trailer was burglarized and ransacked after his December 1973 “fake” arrest on the buffalo rustling charge. “They took everything, including my dirty socks. How can I prove anything?” He recited dozens of misfortunes that had befallen him since leaving the CIA. Asked if he thought the CIA was responsible, he said, “I don’t know, but how come all these things happen?”
After the interview, the reporter contacted the CIA and researched Associated Press files on the agency. There was no connection between Kleasen and the CIA. Bell Aircraft told the reporter Kleasen never worked for them either. Kleasen countered that the government had altered its records to remove him. He went on to claim he spoke several languages, that he was an expert marksman and designer of firearms, that he had two master’s degrees and was just a few hours short of his Ph.D., and that he had an outstanding record as a sociology scholar. “You heard me speak at the sanity trial, and you know I am a highly educated, intelligent individual,” Kleasen had boasted in a letter he had written to the Associated Press. At the conclusion of the interview, Kleasen told the reporter with a smile, “Sounds pretty wild, doesn’t it?” He was basking in the attention.
The published interview did not just repeat the murder defendant’s claims without challenge. Reporter Heard also interviewed [p.138] Kleasen’s bishop, Frank McCullough, who was furious over the accusations of neglect by Mormons. “An outright lie,” he said, noting that Kleasen “looses [sic] control easily.” An indignant McCullough outlined for the AP the several jail visits to Kleasen by church representatives who left him fruit and other food stuffs.
Perhaps most galling to Kleasen’s schizophrenia-fueled ego, Heard pointed out how badly he spelled. Kleasen’s attorneys refused requests for further interviews.
Next Kleasen sought to make the courts a forum for his paranoid delusions. On April 22, a month before his trial was to begin, he persuaded Haley to sue the sheriff and chief jailer in a federal civil rights action. They sought $50,000 in damages. Kleasen claimed the sheriff and his chief jailer abused his rights by allowing him to be assaulted by other jail inmates, that they had denied him access to needed law books and access to his attorney at reasonable hours, that they were slowly starving him with inadequate food, and that they allowed a pattern of harassment and ridicule by other jailers. At the time the Travis County Jail was the subject of other suits about poor conditions, so Kleasen’s claims were more plausible than most he made.
But his strangest allegation was that he had been deliberately fed a “centipede sandwich” by chief jailer Bill Mansell. The ever-creative Kleasen claimed the black insect—which he described as five inches long and an inch wide—was served to him between two slices of white bread alongside potatoes with cockroaches mixed in. The centipede was dead, Kleasen told reporters, because that was the only way it could be kept between the bread. Haley showed the press a dead centipede in a plastic bag at a press conference.
Kleasen insisted that Mansell had stood nearby watching “with a big grin on his face” while the meal was served. “I hope you enjoy your meal,” he quoted Mansell as saying. Kleasen went on to insist that he had routinely been fed “cockroach tacos” in the jail. He said sometimes he was so hungry he would pick the insects out and eat the food, but at other times he could not bring himself to eat anything served him. In spite of this claim, Kleasen’s lawyers noticed he had steadily gained weight in jail.
[p.139] Sheriff Frank was indignant. He told an Austin newspaper he had “never seen a centipede in the county jail. We have a minor problem with cockroaches but the jail is not infested. Don’t take my word for it,” he challenged. “I invite the media to go up and inspect the jail.”
No sooner had Austin newspapers published accounts of Kleasen’s suit than another inmate, eighteen-year-old Renaldo Ramirez, came forward to say it was really he who had given Kleasen the dead insect. He told a reporter for the University of Texas student newspaper that he had obtained the insect from someone in the jail hospital tank. “I gave Kleasen that centipede. It was burned and put in a plastic bag, and I gave it to him to give to his lawyer,” Ramirez told the reporter.
Kleasen had accused Ramirez of being one of two inmates who had assaulted him in the jail and implied he was a homosexual. He then went off on a discourse about homosexual liaisons among Travis County Jail inmates. He told the AP there were several homosexual couples in the jail and this caused considerable friction among inmates. Kleasen said these inmates fell into “he” or “she” personalities depending on their role in the relationship. He said he was in the habit, like other inmates, of referring to inmates as “him” or “her” based upon their persona. Kleasen took this opportunity to say again that any incriminating evidence found at his trailer had been planted there, including some pornographic homosexual materials. “I am not a homosexual,” he defiantly added.
The civil rights suit, not surprisingly, was strictly theater. It was filed with the clerk of the federal court but was never served on the defendants nor was any other action taken. In January 1980 Judge Roberts dismissed it, noting it had languished without action since filing.
Surprisingly, the only other thing Kleasen demanded from his defense team was that they not rely on the hated insanity defense. Beyond that his approach was pretty much hands off through the preparation as well as during the May and June trial.
The newly reconstructed defense team met with Kleasen in jail two or three times a week. When talking to his lawyers, Kleasen did not blame the incriminating evidence found in and around his trailer on a CIA conspiracy. Instead he saw a Mormon plot to get him. [p.140] “Whenever you hear anything coming out of the Mormon church,” he instructed his lawyers, “remember that Joseph Smith was hung as a horse thief in Missouri, and that’s all you need to know about them.” Kleasen always denied involvement with or knowledge of the disappearance of the two missionaries.
Ganne found Kleasen to be an arrogant blowhard and hard to like. An experienced Naval intelligence officer who once tracked Soviet nuclear submarines, Ganne was quick to see how ridiculous Kleasen’s claims of an espionage career were. He never told Kleasen about his own background with the navy. Bays, also a navy man, found his client just as hard to believe.
In view of Haley being the lead chair, his unwillingness to investigate or prepare on the law was frustrating to both Ganne and Bays. “His idea of trial preparation was to buy more suits,” Bays now says. Ganne and Bays looked to Haley for leadership, but it was well into jury selection before they reluctantly concluded it was not forthcoming.
Considering that the Kleasen trial was destined to be one of the first tests of the new Texas death penalty law and could have impacted the national death penalty picture, it is surprising that Haley, Ganne, and Bays were offered no help from outsiders. They were very much on their own representing an extremely unpopular client. The situation was further compounded by Haley’s attitude and his increased drinking. There was no real division of labor, so Ganne and Bays did whatever preparation they could think of.
The new defense team had adopted the pretrial motions of the first group of lawyers, so they concentrated on the physical evidence. They spent a lot of time with assistant district attorneys Charlie Craig and David Spencer examining the evidence. When the possibility of neutron activation analysis testimony came up, Ganne began learning everything he could about the science, anticipating a technical cross- examination. Bays had also recently researched the subject, which he expected to combine with his engineering background.
One day Ganne and Bays were walking around the taxidermy studio grounds trying to get a feel for the place. Ganne suddenly felt a [p.141] chill and the premonition that he knew exactly what had happened to the two missionaries, that Kleasen had used them for target practice. At the time Ganne did not know that other Mormons Kleasen had shot with would sometimes collect the targets down range then turn around to find Kleasen sighting down on them.
Ganne did most of the discovery, spending many days at the DPS crime lab or at the Austin Police Department looking over the evidence gathered by the huge state investigation and talking to expert witnesses. The band saw was still at the lab, looking sinister and ominous. He feared it could be devastating evidence at trial.
As the defense team came to appreciate the pile of circumstantial evidence accumulated against Kleasen, Ganne and Bays feared a guilty verdict was inevitable. Kleasen had no sane explanation to offer for all the victims’ property found in and around his trailer. He would only say it was a Mormon plot. No defense strategy emerged from their preparations. They had no believable story consistent with innocence to offer to a jury. Ganne in particular started thinking in terms of preserving the record for their legal issues on appeal. “It was a loser from the word go,” he thought, sensing nonetheless that the search warrant issue was worth pursuing.