Evil Among Us
by Ken Driggs
[p.234] City Mission residents eventually got used to Kleasen’s presence and decided he was not such a menace after all. As he had done so many times before, Kleasen embraced the religious mores of his audience and gained acceptance, or, in the words of one Mission observer, “gave himself to Jesus.”
Kleasen secured privileged living space in the basement of the building rather than the large dormitory area where over 200 other transients lived. He usually got first pick of the donated clothing that came into the Mission, though at 300 pounds he could not find much that fit.
Kleasen continued to see himself as a privileged person deserving of more than others. On July 11, 1988, this resulted in a nasty confrontation with an eleven-year-old boy who volunteered as a food server with his family at the Mission cafeteria. The boy served him the usual portion given to all residents, but Kleasen angrily insisted he was entitled to more. He finally threatened to throw his plate in the boy’s face. The incident earned him another round of unflattering television news coverage.
Aware of Kleasen’s toxic public image, the parole division investigated the matter. He later admitted the threat to his parole supervisor, saying, “It was hot and I was tired and hungry because I had skipped breakfast trying to lose weight.” He claimed the youth had been “shorting” him food for a month. The resulting report noted the incident “showed the darker side of his nature.” After concluding the matter was relatively trivial, the investigator observed it was not helped by Kleasen’s being “infantile, a bully of nasty temperament, and without remorse.” As predicted, the matter blew over.
Kleasen made his weekly visits to a parole officer in the Donovan [p.235] Building a dozen blocks from the City Mission. He talked about the Texas murders, always insisting that the two missionaries were still alive and hiding from the Mormon church in Mexico. He let on that they had confided their fears of the church to him. He had been railroaded at the 1975 murder trial, Kleasen insisted. Kleasen said Texas District Court judge Tom Blackwell—the national guard general—had once been his commanding officer in Southeast Asia. He claimed Blackwell had sent him on a number of secret “black bag jobs” which would embarrass the government. Kleasen claimed to know of atrocities Blackwell had orchestrated against various Asian peoples and insisted he had reported these to the World Court at The Hague. Kleasen claimed the death sentence was Blackwell’s payback for his having revealed the ex-general’s dirty secrets. Today Blackwell just laughs when told of these new Kleasen delusions.
During the last few months of his parole, Kleasen managed to qualify for New York welfare benefits. He used the income to move out of the City Mission and into the Hotel Lafayette some five or six blocks closer to the Donovan Building. The hotel was once one of Buffalo’s elegant addresses. It was completed in 1904 at the corner of Washington and Clinton streets near Lafayette Square. At the time it cost $1 million, boasted 350 rooms, was billed as “fully fireproof,” and was said to be one of the finest hotels in New York. It would later be expanded to 500 rooms. But when Kleasen moved there in late 1989, it had become a typical big city transient hotel inhabited by welfare recipients, parolees, and poor retirees. About 100 people lived there full time. In many instances their rents were paid directly to the hotel owners by the state of New York.
The Erie County Public Library was across the street, probably an attractive feature for Kleasen. The City Mission was an easy walk and many other Lafayette residents also took their meals there. The Donovan Building with its parole offices was a few blocks in the opposite direction. No doubt, the hotel was a more elegant sounding address for his pen pals, among them Ann-Eliza Young in Northern Ireland.
Mrs. Hung Nyguen, a short, friendly Vietnamese woman, ran the hotel with her husband. She could be found just about every day be-[p.236]hind the hotel’s long first floor registration desk, a wall of mail slots behind her and a large cage of chirping parakeets before her in the lobby. Like everyone else in Buffalo, she had been bombarded by television accounts of Kleasen’s parole. She did not know what he looked like, but was aware that he was supposed to be a demon.
One day a huge fat man with a cane slowly approached her at the registration desk and asked if she had a room. “Of course,” she said, and then began to register him. He told her he was Bob Kleasen and she froze, recognizing the name. But he hardly looked like a crazed killer, more like a broken down old man who appeared much older than his fifty-five years. She was afraid of having Kleasen as a guest, both for safety reasons and because she feared other tenants would move out if they heard he was now living among them. But she had already told him she had rooms so she was also reluctant to turn him down.
Mrs. Nyguen registered Kleasen in a room in the middle of the sprawling hotel. She explained her concerns and urged him not to reveal where he was living because if it hit the news she would have to ask him to leave. Kleasen agreed. He rarely spent his days in the hotel, but left early in the mornings and stayed out until after eating dinner at the Mission.
Reporters did find out, but by then Kleasen had become an accepted and appreciated member of the Lafayette Hotel community. Mrs. Nyguen came to regard him as a nice man who was always courteous, treated everyone else well, and never showed any of the pathological killer he was made out to be. At one point assistant hotel manager Peter Stegura told a reporter Kleasen was “one of the nicest guys we have here. He’s on the preferred customer list, as far as I’m concerned. He doesn’t bother anyone here. In fact, if you ever need a hand, he’s happy to provide it.” The owner of the hotel bar, The Tapp Room, also spoke to reporters. Robert McCarthy said, “Since the initial shock of him moving here, it’s become no big deal.”
Kleasen had his quirks, one of which was his refusal to allow maid service. He wanted to clean his own room, and Mrs. Nyguen’s periodic inspections suggested he was an adequate housekeeper. The [p.237] room was filled with papers arranged in no particular order. New York parole officers also inspected the room from time to time.
Mrs. Nyguen still calls him “Dr. Kleasen,” accepting his stories of graduate degrees and scholarship without question. He told everyone in the hotel he was writing a book and that the mountains of papers he kept in his room were part of his research. Most residents had the good sense not to challenge his grandiose claims. His crimes were not often discussed, but when they came up, Kleasen maintained his complete innocence, saying he was framed. He did not often mention the CIA.
Detective Murphy, who maintained a cautious, professional interest in Kleasen, no longer worked for law enforcement. He was mildly alarmed to learn Kleasen had moved into a hotel close to the downtown public utility whose security operation he ran. He made a point to find out if Kleasen had a room in the center of the Lafayette, as opposed to an outside room with a window opening onto his place of business. The two never encountered each other.
David Jay did refile Kleasen’s 1988 civil rights complaint in U.S. District Court and the matter finally came to trial in late January 1990. Kleasen was asking for $2.5 million in damages against Erie County executive Dennis Gorski and sheriff Thomas Higgins. The two prepared for trial in Jay’s downtown office not far from the hotel. Both were convinced they would win.
During a brief press conference before the trial, Kleasen said he had been living “in hiding” since his 1988 parole, and that he had no social life and no activities he enjoyed. “You’ve all spread so much poison about me,” he said of the local press. “There’s no way I’ll ever have a normal life.” “Buffalo hasn’t exactly been the City of Good Neighbors to him,” Jay added.
On the third day of the trial, Kleasen took the stand. He used a cane to hobble slowly to the witness stand. He denied any involvement in the Texas murders and complained that his parole officers “didn’t seem to believe me” when he said this. Asked about his ordeal following his release from prison in May 1988, Kleasen said, “I was shocked. I thought my dilemma was over with, and here it started all over again. The poison is there no matter how many times they’re told the chain [p.238] saw massacre thing did not happen. It sticks in people’s minds.”
His parole officer, Richard Low, who was the first witness to testify, was now seated in the courtroom. As Kleasen’s delusions began to pour out, Low could not help but grin. He had heard most of them already and knew how they sounded.
On the fourth day of the trial, testimony concluded. Attorneys for the county then moved to dismiss the case as being unproven, thus taking it away from the jury. Judge John T. Curtin agreed. Even if all the facts as presented by Kleasen were true, Curtin said, he still could not find that he had been wronged. “I find nothing here to indicate there was any malicious prosecution or malicious intent by either Gorski or Higgins,” the judge said.
“I was denied a jury trial,” said a disappointed Kleasen. “I was denied my constitutional rights.” Asked if he was now prepared to put the dispute behind him, he replied, “That all depends on the accuracy of the news media which hasn’t been very accurate to date.”
Gorski and Higgins were delighted and offered no apologies to Kleasen. Asked if he thought Kleasen presently posed a threat, Higgins said, “He’s still on parole, still under observation by the parole office. They do a competent job and I’m sure they’ll keep an eye on him. You never know if a person is going to act out. There’s always a potential for danger.”
Back in Jay’s law office, Kleasen took the decision with uncharacteristic good grace. Jay had earned his trust and respect so he wasn’t ready to blame his lawyer. Besides, he only had to serve a little over seven more months of parole and he would finally be a free man again.
In September 1990 Kleasen completed his parole. He pestered parole officers to release any holds on his passport and made plans to leave the country. Kleasen had been corresponding with at least three women—Young in Northern Ireland, another in England, and one in Australia. He settled on the English lady, showing her photograph and a ring to his friends at the hotel. He said they planned to marry.
Kleasen would not give Mrs. Nyguen a forwarding address, saying he did not want to put her in a compromising position. He did give a Mission friend, a young cook, an address and put him in charge of [p.239] shipping much of his stuff to South Humberside, England. The boxes mostly contained his papers, but Mrs. Nyguen and her guests jokingly speculated as to which boxes contained body parts.
Kleasen’s parole supervision was terminated on September 8, 1990. He received a certificate of “Final Discharge” reading, “This is to certify that KLEASEN, ROBERT has this day been discharged from further supervision of the Board of Parole in accordance with the provisions of law.” By his fifty-eighth birthday on the 20th, he was gone.
Investigator Murphy made sure that Interpol and British authorities knew of Kleasen’s departure and intended destination. (Interpol, the International Criminal Police Organization, has no arrest or investigative powers of its own but is comprised of 176 nations that exchange information.)
No doubt Kleasen continued to churn out letters, but none of the people I interviewed received any. In 1992 Buffalo lawyer David Jay received a postcard from Kleasen from England. Around Christmas, Marvin Teague, by then a judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in Austin, received another English postcard from Kleasen. He brought it to the Texas Chili Parlor, a popular watering hole for Travis County lawyers, and showed it to Pat Ganne.
Kleasen continued to write to Young in Northern Ireland for two or three years but never visited her. He told her he married the English woman in a big church wedding shortly after arriving in 1990. They lived in a “lovely antique home.” Kleasen claimed he had become active in a local gun club. His new wife worked in a craft shop she owned. He had previously boasted to Young that he was an English duke and his mother had been a duchess.