Evil Among Us
by Ken Driggs
[p.77] That summer of 1974 Kleasen wrote to, and persuaded, a young returned Mormon missionary from the west coast, Caleb West (not his real name), to visit him. They had met a year and a half earlier in Buffalo. West had never been to Texas and thought it would be fun. He also hoped the visit might complete Kleasen’s conversion to the Mormon faith. So West hitched a ride with friends to San Antonio where Kleasen picked him up in a red pick-up truck.
However, the Bob Kleasen he found was more than he could deal with. They did talk a lot about Mormon beliefs and Kleasen asked thoughtful questions. But Kleasen talked constantly about his problems, at least as he saw them—his three unfaithful wives, his loneliness, the unfairness of the government, his persecution by the CIA, and his legal problems. He talked openly about his life as a poacher and his disregard for game laws. The returned missionary didn’t see Kleasen as mentally ill, just “odd.”
After a week or so, the young man had had enough. He was even too uncomfortable to tell Kleasen he was leaving. He waited until Kleasen was in town, then packed his things and hitchhiked out of Oak Hill. His family paid his way home from the San Antonio Airport about seventy-five miles south of Austin. Kleasen would later call the young man’s father looking for him. After picking his son up at the airport, the father said West had done the right thing to get out of there. Later West counted his experience with Kleasen as evidence that some people don’t tell the truth about themselves.
Kleasen persisted in his efforts to become a Mormon in good standing. Sometime in early 1973, he showed up at the Austin First Ward asking to be baptized. The local leadership, however, found him to be a problematic investigator.
[p.78] Missionary Larry Doty, who served ten months in the Austin area, remembers the first time he saw Kleasen at church dressed in a white shirt with no tie. When Kleasen attended church, he often dressed in a clean white t-shirt and faded blue jeans. There is no enforced dress code among Mormons, but his dress still struck people as strange. Doty noticed the improvement when Kleasen began wearing an ironed white shirt in August 1973. There also were his stories about the CIA and other exotic matters which struck many older Mormons as bizarre. By July 1973 Doty was noting in his missionary journals when Kleasen showed up for services. On July 29 Kleasen appeared with a visiting Mormon friend from the West Coast, Caleb West.
Doty and others introduced Kleasen to single Mormons and encouraged him to attend their social functions. “Perhaps they all can get more acquainted in singles meetings,” Doty wrote in his journal. This is probably where Kleasen met Mattie Cannon (not her real name).
Normally it is young missionaries who teach investigators, and at first Doty and his companion Blair Bell presented Kleasen the standardized instructions given to potential converts. On Monday, August 6, Doty was notified by the mission headquarters that he would be transferring to the Houston area. He packed his few belongings, then, with his missionary companion, drove to Oak Hill to say good-bye to Kleasen. It was apparently their first visit to the taxidermy studio.
“He says he gets lonely out there and was glad to see us,” Doty wrote in his journal that night. “He lost two wives and is alone most of the time. He is industrious. Has a job and is building his own house and is a guard for the taxidermist place. He said he was just an unbaptized member of the church. He has had various contact with the church for several years in different parts of the world. He feels his CIA experience has marred his past. Bob is a good man and only needs love and attention,” Doty continued. “We need to love him into the church. Brother Kleasen (and I say brother because I feel he will be a member of the church before long) also gave us a tour of the taxidermist building.” Kleasen posed for Doty’s pictures beside a mounted elk he claimed to have shot.
Kleasen again told them stories about his world travels as a sort of [p.79] hired gun, claiming to have often contracted with the CIA. His obvious fondness for guns made Doty uneasy, but he left that day impressed that Kleasen was “a kind and thoughtful man.” Not long after, Bell was transferred to San Antonio but continued to write Kleasen for the next year or so.
A few months later, Kleasen finally became a Mormon. After Doty and Bell left, he was taught by a local member, Boin Campbell. This was probably a reflection of the discomfort older Mormons felt about him. Finally Kleasen persuaded Texas Mormons to accept him and on September 20, 1973, was baptized. He asked Bruce Smith, bishop of the Austin Ward, to baptize him. Mormons baptize by full immersion, in this case in a font constructed for that purpose in their Parker Lane meeting hall.
Three days later Kleasen was ordained a priest in the church’s Aaronic or lesser priesthood. Beginning in their early teens, males are ordained into lay priesthood offices of increasing responsibility. A priest is one of the lower of these callings and is a common beginning point for adult male converts.
As it worked out, Kleasen never did become an active Mormon. Almost as soon as he was baptized, he complained constantly and alienated most members who encountered him. This was especially true as the details of his past became known. No one recalls his bearing his testimony at monthly fast and testimony meetings, a ritual of faith in Mormon life.
Mormon congregations are organized by geographic boundaries with members being assigned to a “ward” or “branch” to attend. Soon Kleasen had become so angry with the leadership of the Austin First Ward that he tried to transfer to another one but was denied permission. He sometimes attended a small Marble Falls branch of the LDS church anyway.
In the summer and fall of 1973, congressional committees investigated Watergate and other abuses by President Richard Nixon. On November 21, the Senate Watergate Committee learned of a critical eighteen-minute gap in tapes of Oval Office conversations. Nixon and Kleasen had suspicious gaps in common, and just as Nixon’s caught [p.80] up with him, Kleasen’s omissions began to unravel on him as well.
Within two weeks of his baptism, Kleasen had persuaded Bishop Smith to write the Jensens in Denmark confirming his baptism and enclosing a copy of his priesthood ordination certificate. “I consider Brother Kleasen to be a member of the Church in good standing and an asset to the Austin Ward,” the bishop wrote. Kleasen had been less than candid about his past.
The next day, October 7, he wrote to the Danish family anticipating their having received the bishop’s letter. He pleaded, “You are the only Family I have. I ask you to try and understand that I am not perfect, and that I have cut some corners so to speak. However that is in the past.” But the family was not convinced and took the letter, as they had others they had received, to Danish Mission president Ipsen. Ipsen was familiar with Kleasen and regarded him as a predator. He wrote Vaughn Featherstone of the church’s Presiding Bishopric in Salt Lake City. The Presiding Bishop’s Office administers the physical needs of Mormon congregations, including security concerns.
“Robert Kleasen, who we know here in Denmark as John T. Williamson, caused us great problems,” Ipsen wrote on October 27, 1973. Ipsen briefly set out Kleasen’s conduct in Copenhagen, including that he “took advantage of a young lady in the Church here,” and finally “beat her up terribly.” Ipsen dismissed Kleasen as “a confidence man and one who would bear watching.” He went on to write, “I hope and pray, as [Bishop Smith’s] letter states, that he has made a full and complete repentance. But I write this letter as a caution so that more people in the Church may not fall into a trap and be hurt if this is his aim.”
Salt Lake City thanked Ipsen for the warning and passed his letter on to Smith on November 12, 1973. “We are forwarding this letter to you so that you may make adequate judgment and act accordingly,” the Presiding Bishopric wrote. “We trust that you will exercise caution in light of this past experience to see that all of the Church principles are followed by this brother.” They encouraged Smith to report back.
At first, Kleasen was involved with his ward, receiving considerable attention as new converts often do. While some members expressed suspicion about his grandiose stories, others seemed drawn to [p.81] him, creating divisions in the congregations. Kleasen even was invited to speak about his life—his fantasy life, as it turned out—at a fireside in Smith’s home.
Despite his delusions, Kleasen recognized that things were not going well. “I am living now rather poorly compared to some periods in my life,” he confessed in a November 6, 1973, letter to the Jensens. But almost from the beginning, Kleasen registered complaints and demands with local church leaders. As was his habit throughout his life, he wrote a steady stream of letters to local Mormon leaders complaining about how he had been abused. When Smith was replaced as bishop by Frank McCullough, who had previously served on the stake high counsel, Kleasen immediately caught his eye. The first time McCullough heard Kleasen introduce himself at a priesthood meeting, an introduction laced with complaints, the new bishop saw him as trouble.
Kleasen was regularly discussed in the ward’s all-male elders’ quorum presidency meetings where he was described as a needy convert. Eddie Davis, young secretary to the quorum presidency and a University of Texas student, was assigned to be Kleasen’s home teacher and attempted to visit him several times at his trailer. (Home teachers are priesthood representatives who visit every member family each month to check on their spiritual and temporal welfare.)
Kleasen also met an attractive twenty-six-year-old Mormon woman, Mattie Cannon, and persuaded her to go out with him three or four times. By the time of Kleasen’s arrest and her interview by police, she had turned hostile toward him. Cannon was a conservative, strict Mormon and quickly discovered that Kleasen was not. Their dates often became wrestling matches with Kleasen being all hands. “We talked many times on the church’s moral code. To him it was to keep children out of trouble and it did not apply to adults,” she later told investigators. Kleasen, she thought, “had a rather distorted view of many of the church’s policies and standards.” Kleasen told her he had master’s degrees in both sociology and education, “but due to some weird problems, he could not get his transcripts down here so he could teach.” He told Cannon he wanted to teach. “He loved young people because he could appear as a hero to them.”
[p.82] Kleasen liked to brag about his accomplishments and travels, showing off his passport. He again claimed to speak and read several languages, among them Danish. Once Cannon picked out a verse in Kleasen’s Danish Book of Mormon and asked him to read it to her in English. “He tried to wiggle out of that but I discovered that he could not read or speak Danish,” she later said. He would also talk about that “witch” he had been involved with in Denmark.
Kleasen’s weapons were all around and Cannon didn’t care for them either. “I wouldn’t tolerate his playing around with guns when I was there because I hate guns.” The couple sometimes would drive around the Texas Hill Country where Kleasen liked to poach deer; she realized he knew the region “like the back of his hand.” He told Cannon he “believed that the deer were for anyone and he didn’t believe in the hunting laws.” She thought he “was quite depressed” and saw the naive missionaries “as a great ego boost. They fell `hook, line and sinker’ for his stories.” Different missionaries would often come to his trailer to target shoot with him.
By the late fall of 1973, Cannon was concerned about Kleasen’s state of mind. “I knew he had problems and that he was unstable, but I was afraid in a self destructive way,” she’d later tell police. “He seemed to feel that he was a failure at life and that the whole world was now, and always had been, against him; that due to circumstances he always got the ‘shaft’ but never because of his own doing.” She also observed, “Bob is a clever man, and many (most) individuals that I have observed are suckered into where he wants them, and he is proud of this.”
The last time Cannon saw Kleasen was October 28, the day of the murders. It was the day before her birthday.