You have before you the offender, Donald Marshall Mabry. His ample girth fills completely the fold-down seat in Judge Michael Greer’s courtroom. It is judgment day, and outside, the May morning is hot, the air bottom-heavy with smog, windless. Forty-three years old, with a scraggly beard and chubby hands, Don Mabry, whose tastes and appetites and guts match the reputation of his home state of Texas, has been convicted of grand theft. According to the jury, he’s a con man. He stood accused of bilking a retired La Jolla couple out of $50,000 on the pretense that he was a rich Texas oil man who was using the money to drill another well in east Texas. He never denied receiving and spending the money, and admits he was masquerading as an oil man, though he continues to deny he got the money from his former good friends, Langdon and Polly Thurston, through false pretenses.
The one man who believes Mabry is sitting beside him. Captain Jack Goddard, a retired naval officer who made captain in the reserves, is Don Mabry’s only friend in the world just now. As the judge walks into the courtroom and takes his seat, Mabry shifts position and shuffles his copy of that morning’s Wall Street Journal. Silver-haired Captain Goddard catches my eye and directs it to the newspaper. His expression says, “See, isn’t it amazing how upstanding Don is? He reads the Wall Street Journal all the time.” A few moments later Don Mabry is at the defendant’s table and the judge is saying, “Mr. Mabry is a charming, affable, educated thief . . ., a menace to the finances of anyone he comes in contact with.” He’s sentenced to four years in prison. He walks out into the hot morning air a pseudo-free man, pending the outcome of an appeal hearing on July 19. He and Captain Goddard drive around the bay to the Admiral Kidd Club for lunch.
To those who come in contact with him, Don Mabry has an almost supernatural ability to make mere appearances about him suffice for the truth about him. Captain Goddard, who calls Mabry his sixth son, sees a man who’s trying to legitimize himself after a lifetime of drifting, lying, gambling, cheating, and betrayal. Goddard takes every opportunity to remind you that he, Goddard, fought in sixty-nine battles in World War II, lost most of his classmates in the fight for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. (His language.) He sees the treatment of Mabry in the current case as precisely what he fought against. “Don’s committed a sin, but he’s done nothing illegal,” insists Goddard. “The district attorney was more interested in getting a conviction than in getting the truth.”
The jury didn’t see it that way. A couple of the jurors believe Captain Goddard was as much conned by Mabry as were the Thurstons, and that Goddard blindly allows himself to continue being conned. As one of the jurors, Charles Boozer, explained to me: “I had a friend, he’s in jail now, but I think he was right when he said, ‘You can outsmart a smart person, but you can’t outsmart a dummy.’ ” Captain Goddard is no dummy, and neither are the Thurstons. Neither, for that matter were any of the four women Mabry has been married to (committing bigamy for a short time) since 1979.
Captain Goddard and Don Mabry first met in May of 1978. Mabry was just finishing a year’s sentence for writing a worthless $21,539.54 check to Hoehn Motors in Carlsbad for a new Mercedes. The fact that the check was written on the out-of-state Champions Bank (Houston, Texas), and Hoehn let him drive the car away, is testimony to Mabry’s powers of persuasion. Goddard was an active member of a county-sanctioned group called the Liaison League, which paired volunteers with convicted felons in an effort to ease them back into society. On the bottom of the League questionnaire Mabry wrote, “All I want is a chance to climb my way back up the ladder. I know I’ll have to start at the bottom, but I also know it can be done.”
This can-do spirit impressed Captain Goddard. He was an officer on the battleship Maryland, which was in Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. He knows what it means to pull yourself off the bottom. Goddard helped Mabry find a place to live and got him a car to use after his release from the work-furlough program in late June of 1978. Later Goddard helped him buy a car, a red, four-door ’77 Caprice. Mabry was working odd jobs, trying to pay his fifty-dollars-per-month restitution for other bad checks he’d written to restaurants in North County. Eventually Mabry moved into a small apartment on Hornblend in Pacific Beach, where he kept his three pairs of pants, three shirts, and one pair of shoes. As the summer waned, Goddard had less and less contact with Mabry.
Sometime in late July or August, Mabry placed a classified ad in the “personals” column of the Union. The woman who answered it, Dale Hildebrand (both her name and that of the Thurstons are pseudonyms because they requested anonymity), says the ad read something like, “Newly retired from Texas, would like to share the good life. ...” Mabry says the ad didn’t read that way, and that both he and Hildebrand placed ads, and then answered each other’s. Whatever, Hildebrand, a well-to-do La Jolla real estate speculator, and Mabry, a down-on-his-luck ex-con trying to scramble back up the ladder, arranged to meet at the old Sambo’s restaurant on Pacific Highway in Old Town.
At the restaurant Hildebrand, who’s in her late fifties but looks much younger, was surprised by Mabry’s size. He stands six feet two and at that time weighed close to 300 pounds. In their exchange of letters they’d found common interests in bridge, golf, swimming, and diving. Hildebrand, just coming off a twenty-year marriage, was looking for someone to do things with, to have fun with. They hit it off well, took a leisurely drive up the coast. Hildebrand arranged for him to meet her sister, with whom she was very close, and Mabry favorably impressed the sister, too. Finally, toward the end of September, 1978, Hildebrand’s ex-husband moved out for the last time. She called Mabry, and the two of them began dating seriously. The next thing Jack Goddard knows, he receives this letter, dated September 21, on Western Airlines stationery, on top of which is printed, “Inflight with Western”:
- Hi Jack,
- Well here I am on my way. I looked in Fallbrook all day Friday and the only thing I could find was a place for $400.00 a month which we could not afford. Dale had told me Friday that we should go to Hawaii and spend three weeks together and that if it didn’t work out at least we had tried. When I didn’t find a place to live I thought God was trying to tell me something, that maybe I should go. So I am. Please don’t think I am running off, because I’m not. When I got to Dale’s Friday night she had $200.00 in cash for me and $3,000.00 in traveler’s checks and said she knew we would go to Hawaii. What could I do? This may turn out to be the best thing that ever happened. Friday night we played bridge with the Kelloggs. I think if things work out it can be really advantageous to us all, she knows everyone in La Jolla. I really enjoy being with Dale and she is totally in love with me. If I didn’t enjoy being with her I would not be here.
- The car is at. . . . Also you can do me a big favor. The [probation] report I’m supposed to mail the first of the month. I think it is still over the visor of Jim’s Olds. Would you please get it and mail it for me. Get things quiet with Hans [the probation officer] for me please. I would hate to ruin things now.
- I really think this may work and if it does things will really be great. We will be able to help each other then. Keep things quiet and I ’ll see you on the 13th of November.
- Love, Don
Captain Goddard wasn’t ecstatic when he read the letter, but he figured what the hell, Mabry’s not breaking any laws, and if he, Goddard, were single and foot-loose, he'd have probably taken off, too. From the letter it was obvious Mabry wasn’t spelling out his past to Hildebrand, but Goddard didn’t know just how he was representing himself. Mabry tells it this way: He and Hildebrand had a pact that neither would ask about the other’s background. He says she knew when they went to Hawaii that he was virtually penniless. She’d been to the Hornblend apartment, and she knew all he had was three pairs of pants, three shirts, and a pair of shoes. He says he was a kept man.
Dale Hildebrand tells it differently. She says that Mabry purported to have controlling interest in Texas-based Big Three Industries, an oil company that’s listed on the New York Stock Exchange. She claims he told her that he was in the process of divorcing his wife in Texas, that it was a big mess in which all his finances were locked away in legalities, and that he just threw up his hands and left for California. She says that when they were discussing going to Maui for a month, Mabry indicated he’d first have to go to Reno to get some cash. He allegedly told her he had three million dollars there in a safe deposit box. She says she told him not to go, that she would bankroll the Maui trip, and he could reimburse her when they returned. As for his skimpy wardrobe, she explains, “Well, he did have alligator shoes, I know that. And a lot of people pack light for Hawaii. But I guess I never really thought about it.” Mabry took her ex-husband’s golf clubs with him on the plane.
- October 30, 1978
- Thought I would take some time to write and let you know things could not be better. I really can’t believe how, trying as I may, truly happy I am. Been snorkeling almost every day. The beauty is truly unbelievable, the beauty is. Dale is just a joy to be with. I really believe we’ll be together forever.
- ... I have a [probation] report due the first of November. I think I signed two. Would you please mail it for me. I probly [sic] need to send $50.00 too. If you do this for me I’ll give it back to you when we get back. You must keep things calm with Hans. That’s the only thing that could ruin this. So please do what you can. It really means a lot to me. I think we (us) will just pay all the restitution off
- when I get back. Then maybe he will let you be my [sponsor]. Dale would never understand that. . .
- Take Care, God Bless, Don
When they returned from Hawaii, Mabry and Hildebrand moved in together. The last time Captain Goddard had seen Mabry, Mabry was driving a Chevy and had little more than the shirt on his back. So Goddard was "stunned to numb” when, in December of 1978, Mabry tooled up to Goddard’s house in a new Cadillac. Mabry said Hildebrand had bought it for him. He also had plenty of money with him. He says now that when they were in Hawaii, Hildebrand said she didn’t want the whole world to know she was keeping him, so they cooked up his rich-Texas-oil-man facade. He claims that as soon as they got back from Hawaii she gave him $10,000 and said, ‘‘Here, I don’t want you to be asking me for money.”
Dale Hildebrand’s version is somewhat different. She says that when they got back, it wasn’t long before they went to Reno so Mabry could get some of his three million out of the safe deposit box. She stayed in the hotel room while he went to the bank. When he returned, she says, he was very upset. He told her that he couldn’t get his money. His story was that when he’d rented the box, he had paid in advance for it, and that when the next bill came due, the bank sent it to his business office in Texas. His ex-wife somehow found out about it and she knew there was money in the box, and her attorney had somehow tied it up so he couldn’t get at it. ‘‘His stories were so convincing,” she says now.
As for the $10,000 she gave him, Hildebrand says that, after Mabry claimed his money was attached in Reno, he lamented that he’d have to pass up a sensational deal. There was a chance for him to get in on the patent for some new kind of oil-drilling pipe-coupling device. He commented to her that it was a real shame he couldn’t get his money so he could invest in the sure moneymaker. ‘‘He was so convincing,” says Hildebrand, “and so disappointed, I went ahead and gave him the $10,000.” And what about the car? Mabry insists that Hildebrand told him he couldn’t play the part of a rich Texas oil man while driving a Chevy, so she purchased the Cadillac for him. Hildebrand says simply that he came across a good deal on a car but his money was tied up, so she loaned him the cash to buy it. She has a typewritten note signed by Mabry that says he’ll pay back the $14,250 by December of 1979.
After the Hawaii trip, Mabry and Hildebrand settled into the La Jolla good life. He likes to recount her saying, ‘‘I’ve got more money than I’ll ever need, and you can help me spend it.” She admitted in court her time with Mabry was some of the best she’s ever known. Her good friends, Lang-don and Polly Thurston, corroborate that. Polly remembers Hildebrand mentioning at one of their weekly bridge-club get-togethers that she, Hildebrand, had met a nice fellow. ‘‘She was very happy, just delighted,” says Polly, whose home overlooks most of La Jolla and the sea. The four of them, Mabry, Hildebrand, and the Thurstons, played bridge for the first time just a few days after the Hawaii trip. Polly and Langdon were a little startled by Mabry’s size, but they found him interesting and fun. ‘‘A good ol’ Texas boy,” says Polly. Though Hildebrand and Mabry weren’t married until March of 1979, Hildebrand introduced Mabry to the Thurstons as her husband.
The Thurstons wear their easy retirement like an enveloping cardigan. Langdon is a pensioned materials-testing engineer from San Diego Gas & Electric. His college degree is in petroleum geology, and if you handed him a geological report on possible oil-bearing lands, he could read it. He and Polly don’t like to think of themselves as nosy people, so at first they didn’t know or care what Don Mabry’s business was. They’d been friends with Dale Hildebrand since 1955, and if she was swept away by Mabry, then they figured he must be something special. The Thurstons had no real inkling about his supposed wealth until Hildebrand told them she and Mabry were prospecting around for a house to buy in La Jolla. When La Jolla’s most opulent homes are for sale, word travels quickly about who’s looking at them. Don and Dale were known to be browsing at these fabulously expensive mansions.
And then one day Hildebrand, according to the Thurstons, told them that Mabry said he held controlling, interest in Big Three Industries. Langdon hadn’t heard of it before, but he was nosy enough to look it up in the register of the New York Stock Exchange. He and Polly had a few-odd thousand dollars in stocks, mostly GM and CBS, solid winners, and they had more than passing interest in publicly held companies. It was immediately evident to Langdon that Mabry must have been worth a lot of money.
The two couples began to see a lot of each other. They played bridge, they golfed, they traveled extensively. They took a two-week love-boat cruise together through the Panama Canal and toured the islands of the Caribbean. The Thurstons did not know that the money Mabry carried on these trips was supplied by Hildebrand. Every cent of it.
To the Thurstons, Mabry was the Texas oil business personified. Nobody, not even Mabry, disputes that he let them believe he was an international mega-businessman. “Everything he said indicated he was an executive,’’ says Langdon, a little chagrined. “His heart man was Dr. [Michael] DeBakey, the famous surgeon. His attorney was [Watergate special prosecutor] Leon Jaworski. And it wasn’t all braggadocio. This was just the normal thing for him. This was his world.” To the Thurstons, Mabry often talked of “his people” flying in from Texas to Las Vegas so that Mabry could sign posters, make decisions. He flew or drove to Vegas often for these meetings. He’d also make a lot of phone calls to Texas or Vegas, or wherever, when the Thurstons were present, but he’d never do it from their house or Hildebrand’s condo. Hildebrand says that he explained this by claiming the IRS was investigating him (another reason he allegedly couldn’t get to his money) and was very interested in his telephone conversations, and the only way he could be assured they weren’t tapped was to make calls from phone booths. She says he once explained how “Leon” had a special button on his phone that was set aside just for special clients like Mabry, and that when they were talking on this line, “Leon” could tell if the phone was being tapped or someone was listening in on the Texas end. The Thurstons remember Mabry breezing in from these phone calls and remarking, “Jeez, I just got a coUple more wells, which I need like a hole in the head.” To Polly and her daughter in Pennsylvania, and to Hjldebrand’s sister, Mabry gave Christmas and birthday presents that consisted of these nonexistent oil wells. On a card he’d draw a picture of a derrick gushing crude, and he’d ink in the well number, lot number, and section number of the particular well he was offering as a gift.
Mabry’s masquerade seems to have succeeded on its sheer boldness. Hildebrand, who says that from the day he moved in she never again saw a phone bill, recalls that Mabry once claimed he had to fly back to Camp David at President Reagan’s request. An Arab sheik and the President were conferring on some kind of oil crisis, and the sheik would only deal with Mabry on the problem. Did she really believe all this? Well, when they were married she put his name on all her assets, including checking accounts and fat trust funds. "It was the natural thing to do,” she says, adding, “I certainly wouldn’t have married him if I thought he didn’t have any money.”
In March of 1980, the Thurstons embarked upon a month-long trip to Florida in their immodest motor home. Mabry and Hildebrand made it a foursome. The length of a Greyhound bus, the motor home was plenty big enough to hold Mabry and his schemes. All was going well for him until the trip back, when it was decided that since they were driving through Houston, they may as well stop in at the offices of Big Three and be shown around by the big boss. Mabry says he and Hildebrand realized they’d have to come up with some pretty good excuse for not being able to stop at the corporate offices; Hildebrand, however, says she was as interested in finally seeing some of Mabry’s “people” as the Thurstons were. Here’s what happened: Mabry gets hold of a Houston newspaper and explodes in surprise. There in black and white is a big story about how an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico has been toppled by high seas. He’s flabbergasted, exclaims to Dale and Langdon and Polly that the well was one of his. At a gas station he jumps into a phone booth and calls his people, and returns with terrible news: if he shows his face at the office, he’ll be whisked away to the accident site, and Dale and Langdon and Polly would have to spend at least a week in Houston. Maybe more. With pained consideration, he tells the Thurstons he just can’t see putting them out by making them stay that long in Houston, so he’s decided not to go to the office. “ But as long as we can’t stop," he allegedly tells everyone, "we might as well go by the house.” But since the IRS is hot after Mabry — something he was warned about on the call to his people — he ’ll have to lie down on the floor of the motor home and direct Langdon to the house he owns. This way any lurking IRS agents won’t nab him.
After a few minutes of Mabry’s precise directions, the foursome arrives in one of Houston’s most exclusive neighborhoods, and Mabry points out “his” house. It is a miniature copy of the French palace at Versailles, which Mabry explains was built by a wealthy oil man for his wife, but the woman couldn’t stand it. So the man sold it to Mabry for a good price. Just a few million dollars. Thurston noted the Rolls Royce in the driveway.
On the way back to San Diego Mabry realized that, since he’d made such a big deal about the IRS being out to get him, he’d better not return to the La Jolla condo. He and Dale must lie low until these (fictitious) IRS problems blew over, so they decided to rent a house in Palm Springs. Dale says she believed the IRS ruse; Mabry says she was in on the lie. “He wouldn’t let me set foot in this house for nine months," she claims now in her comfortable condo, where she keeps on display one of the most extensive seashell collections in the nation.
The Thurstons drove over to Palm Springs often that summer to visit, and between those times, and trips to Las Vegas, Mabry kept in touch with Captain Goddard. Mabry’s probation on the bad-check conviction had ended, and he still owed Goddard money for various loans and favors. Goddard was Mabry’s connection to his past, which may be why the captain was kept at arm’s length from Mabry’s present life. Dale Hildebrand says she knew of Goddard — Mabry told her the captain was a business associate — but she didn’t meet him until she discovered the truth about her husband.
It was during this summer of 1980 that Mabry intensified his trips to Las Vegas to meet with his people. What Hildebrand and the Thurstons didn’t know, however, was that Mabry’s people weren’t corporate executives — they were gamblers. Fellow blackjack players. Mabry says that gambling became a sickness in him, that every time he walked into a casino “I thought I owned the place.” Sometime during this period he borrowed $50,000 from Hildebrand’s brother-in-law, and either lost it all gambling or used it to pay off existing gambling debts. He also got involved with a woman in Las Vegas, Veronica Martin, and he shacked up with her and her children when he traveled there from Palm Springs. Living a triple life of lies, betrayal, and convolution seems not to have put a strain on Mabry’s psyche. In his own way, he was simply climbing back up the ladder.
He may have reached the top rung during the Thanksgiving holiday of 1980. The Thurstons had driven out to spend the weekend with Mabry and Hildebrand, and it is this weekend that may land Mabry in the penitentiary. His version of what happened goes like this: During the weekend, while they were soaking in the backyard swimming pool (the house was in the finest locale; it rented for $2500 a month), Langdon approached Mabry with a problem. He told the supposed oil man that he had some stocks — GM and CBS — that weren’t doing very well, and he wanted to sell them and invest in something else. He asked Mabry if he knew of any strong investments, and Mabry told him he didn’t, but said he’d talk to Dale (who was sick in bed) and see if she knew of anything. Later Mabry told Langdon that Dale didn’t know of another good investment, but Langdon persisted, saying now that he’d like to sell the $50,000 worth of stocks and put the money in Mabry’s account in order to hide it from the IRS. Mabry was reluctant, but gave Thurston his savings account number at San Diego Federal in San Diego. But Mabry, feeling he had to give Thurston some kind of receipt, signed a blank check on Hildebrand’s account, drawn on La Jolla Bank and Trust. Mabry says he told Thurston the check was to safeguard his money in case he, Mabry, was killed or something. A few days later, on December 8, 1980, Mabry found his savings account balance to be $50,318; the Thurstons had sold their stock and transferred the money to him. He thinks they felt that since he was such a big-time business dealer, he’d somehow find a way to invest it for them and double it.
The Thurstons, of course, have a different story. They say Mabry approached them almost nonchalantly and mentioned an oil drilling project he had going in east Texas. They say he had all the money he needed to develop it — they recall the figure of one million dollars — but that since they were all such good friends, he was going to give them the opportunity to make some money on this sure thing. He told Thurston that the land had been explored and oil was definitely present; it was just a matter of grading the roads and setting up drilling rigs. Thurston did not ask to see geological reports. He and Polly listened to Mabry say they could put in as much as they wanted, anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000, and he would double it for them within a year. Mind, he didn’t need the money; he was just letting them in on a sure deal since they were such close friends. Hildebrand heard none of this because of her temporary illness. The Thurstons were interested, but noncommittal. The conversations about the project were spread over two days. Finally, to show his good faith, Mabry signed the check on Hildebrand’s account (he was an authorized signatory) in La Jolla. Thurston, who had not yet decided to throw in on the deal, understood this check to be both his collateral as well as the method by which he’d recoup his doubled investment in a year. He and Polly took the check and headed back home.
What the hell, they’d seen Mabry’s mansion, they’d heard him gripe about having too many oil wells, they knew his lawyer was Leon Jaworski and his heart man was Dr. Michael DeBakey, and they had his blank check. Why shouldn’t they invest in his latest venture? They even had his savings account number. They sold the stock and made the deposit. Mabry was in Las Vegas at the time.
Two days later, on December 10, 1980, Don Mabry withdrew $29,602 in four cashier’s checks. Of that, $12,602 went to Dixon Cadillac in Hollywood for the purchase of a 1980 Caddy; $10,000 was made out to Veronica Martin, Mabry’s wife-to-be in Las Vegas; $6000 was for two months ’ rent and a thousand dollars’ worth of phone bills at the Palm Springs house. A one-thousand-dollar check was made out to Mabry himself. The district attorney’s subsequent investigation found that this check was cashed on December 15 at the casino branch of the Valley National Bank of Nevada.
The Thurstons and the Mabrys got together that Christmas with the Thurston’s daughter in Pennsylvania. Mabry drove out in his new car purchased with Langdon and Polly’s money. Its vanity plates read CRUDOIL. He gave the Thurstons’ daughter an oil well for Christmas.
From this point forward Dale Hildebrand and Langdon and Polly Thurston didn’t see much more of Mabry. He drove back from Pennsylvania alone. By February 17, 1981, his savings account was down to $60.96. He’d managed to spend $50,000 in a little over nine weeks. Says Mabry, “I figured if Thurston asked for the money back, I’d get it from Dale and give it to him. But to this day he has never asked for it.” Say the Thurstons, “What makes him think we’d give him $50,000 and let him spend it and not give it back?”
Of course, a sham is a sham is a sham, and sooner or later the undertow of truth claims us all. In the spring of
1981, about the time Mabry was committing bigamy with Veronica Martin in Vegas, Dale Hildebrand began to realize the extent to which she’d been had. It was starting to gnaw at her when she was forced to borrow money from her sister in order to go to Ft. Lauderdale for a shell-collectors’ convention. She says she literally had no cash left. Then it finally hit her when Mabry, whom she says had planned to fly out in Big Three’s corporate jet to pick the women up, failed to appear. Hildebrand called a number in Texas that Mabry had said was the place to contact if anything bad ever happened to him. The woman on the other end, an old girlfriend or wife, said to Hildebrand, “Is that boy in trouble again?” Yes, he was.
Hildebrand and her sister, after discovering some facts about Mabry’s true identity, and also somehow getting wind of Veronica in Las Vegas, paid a visit to the Thurstons. (Polly had mentioned in passing the $50,000 “investment” just before the trip to Ft. Lauderdale.) Hildebrand told them that everything Mabry had said was a lie. She claimed he had tried to clean out a trust fund (to no avail), and had stolen some jewelry from her. She was going to the police, and the Thurstons would, too. First the Thurstons filled in the figure of $100,000 on the blank check he’d given them, then they tried to cash it. Langdon says he knew the check was no good, but he ran it through for evidence that he’d been conned.
Mabry’s story is that he phoned Hildebrand in Ft. Lauderdale to. call the marriage quits, and she blew up. He says that he’d just gotten tired of being a kept man. “It was worse than prison,” he complains. “When she snapped her fingers, I came running.” During his call to Ft. Lauderdale, he says she told him, “I’ll see you bum in hell for this.” Both Mabry and his friend, Captain Goddard, think Dale reacted to being jilted by trying to get Mabry thrown in jail. It’s true that she went to the FBI as well as the police and the district attorney, trying to press theft charges against him. She was told it was a civil case, that a husband or wife can’t really steal from one another. Hildebrand, who began divorce proceedings as soon as she returned from Florida, also tried to get Jack Goddard, whose identity she now understood, to press theft charges against Mabry for his unrepaid loans. Mabry and Goddard believe that without Hildebrand hounding them to do it, the Thurstons wouldn’t have filed a criminal complaint.
During this period, Mabry was often in contact by phone with Hildebrand, and the two of them spoke often with Captain Goddard. Mabry and Veronica had split up after a marriage of about two weeks, and he had sworn off gambling and joined Gamblers Anonymous. He called Hildebrand from Reno and she told him she wanted her jewelry back. He’d pawned these in Las Vegas and needed $800 to retrieve them. They arranged to meet in Vegas and reclaim the jewelry. She gave him money (she says it was $500; he says it was $300) and he got one ring, which he gave to Captain Goddard in San Diego. (Goddard gave it to Hildebrand.) Mabry and Hildebrand saw each other here once, in October of 1981, in a Safeway parking lot; she gave him some fruit and his San Diego Federal bank card so he could get the last twenty-five dollars out of his account. (He’d long since traded the Cadillac in for an Oldsmobile and $5000 cash.) That Thanksgiving Mabry hit bottom in Vegas. He was feeling that his whole life had been a waste. He called Goddard and said he wanted to return to San Diego. Goddard got Hildebrand to wire Mabry a hundred dollars, enough money for him to get to San Diego, and she paid for his room at the Mission Valley Motel 6. About five o’clock that Thanksgiving Sunday she brought him dinner, his favorite: chili cheese dogs.
Mabry and Captain Goddard decided the best thing for Mabry to do was to return to Texas and begin anew. Goddard arranged to borrow $1000 from Hildebrand to give to Mabry, and he, Goddard, signed a note saying he’d pay it back at one hundred dollars per month. This was supposed to come from Mabry in Texas, who was planning on finding work in the oil business. Before he left, Mabry says he vowed to both Captain Goddard and Hildebrand that he would pay everyone, including the Thurstons, every cent he owed them. Goddard’s phone records show that Mabry, on his way to Texas, took a detour through Las Vegas.
Mabry’s whole life seems to be a series of detours followed by fresh starts, and along the way he accumulated a rap sheet the way most people develop a resume. Born in the north central Texas town of Cleburne, he was an only child raised by his natural parents. He graduated from high school and spent four years of college, according to his probation report, at Texas Christian University in Ft. Worth. His first conviction was for forgery in 1961. In 1962 he was nabbed for passing worthless checks in Dallas, for which he received a six-month sentence, and in 1965 he got the same amount of time in Los Angeles for grand theft, auto. From L.A. he was sent back to stand trial for an old forgery charge in Texas, and this time was put away for three years. He more or less stayed out of trouble for a few years, working in the oil-field equipment business in Houston. Then in 1976 he married a woman named Jan, who was in the real estate business in Houston. She was apparently fairly well-off; Mabry says they lived in a large house on Champions Golf Course in Houston. They moved out to La Costa in 1976, and who knows what Mabry told her his business was. He says he gave a $100,000 post-dated check to a real estate person for purchase of a house in La Costa, and they put Jan’s kids in La Jolla Country Day School. This was when he began writing bad checks for Mercedes and restaurant bills. He says when the real estate people started pushing for money for the house, he went back to borrow some in Texas. In the meantime the real estate people did some checking on him, told Jan about his past, and she disappeared back into Texas with the kids. Mabry drifted to Chicago to make a new start, and in so doing took the name Donald Lama Hunt. When he was arrested there for the attempted theft of a lady friend’s property, he was sent back to San Diego to do a year for the bad-check charges. Then he met Jack Goddard The captain stood loyally beside Mabry throughout his time with Dal Hildebrand, and even admitted to the district attorney that he knew Mabry was misrepresenting his background t her. But as far as Goddard knew, the money he’d gotten from the Thurstons was a loan, just as Mabry claimed. But when Mabry started mailing money back from Texas, Goddard didn’t start paying off the Thurstons; he began retiring his own debts, which included old loans, car registrations, and large phone bills Mabry had run up with Goddard. He also began paying Dale Hildebrand back the $ 1000 she’d lent him for Mabry.
Meanwhile, in the process of looking for work in Texas, Mabry met another woman. Dr. Kathleen Cody, a psychiatrist in New Braunfels, about forty-five miles south of Austin, was rebounding from a traumatic divorce while living with her two children and mother. Since she refuses to talk for publication about her experiences with Mabry, the details of this disastrous linkage are sketchy. The district attorney’s investigator, Ken Brown, says Mabry is one of those classic con men who have a knack for sniffing out vulnerable people and a talent for telling them just what they need to hear. On January 27, 1982, Mabry and Dr. Cody were married. The wedding made the society pages of the local paper.
At the same time, Ken Brown was wrapping up his investigation of the Thurston and Hildebrand charges in San Diego, and a warrant for Mabry’s arrest was being issued.
The D.A. ’s office had been told by Hildebrand and the Thurstons that Mabry had skipped town and that his whereabouts were unknown. Hildebrand had told Brown that Captain Goddard might also be a victim of Mabry’s, and that he probably knew where Mabry was. Her efforts to get Goddard to file a complaint fell on deaf ears; Brown’s efforts to contact Captain Goddard were perfunctory, and failed. So Goddard was unaware that Mabry was wanted for conning the Thurstons out of $50,000. Had he known, he says he would have told Mabry, and the two of them would have started paying the money back to the Thurstons. Mabry, who says he intimated to his new wife that there might be some trouble for him in California, claims he would have gotten several thousand dollars from her right away and given it to the Thurstons. Goddard, who was in frequent contact with Mabry, somehow couldn’t be located by investigator Brown, who had his address and phone number, so 150 wanted posters with Mabry’s mug shot were sent around the country. It was official: Mabry was a hunted fugitive.
But he was a happy hunted fugitive. He says Dr. Cody was one of the two women in the world he’s ever been in love with. “It was a perfect marriage, literally,” says Mabry. “I thanked God every night; I didn’t know what I did right to deserve this, but I sure appreciated it.” He claims Dr. Cody didn’t want him to work, that she just wanted him to stay home and take care of the kids, J.T., thirteen, and Becca, who was nine. He credits himself with affecting a personality change in the young girl, whom he says was undergoing therapy for the psychic injuries caused by her parents’ divorce. He still carries her picture in his wallet. An angelic blond girl in a blue Izod shirt smiles out at him from the past; the studied, penmanship-class writing on the back reads, “Love you dad, Becca.” While the kids were in school Mabry was able to do day work on the sly — telephone solicitation — and he sent Captain Goddard the money he made. This amounted to about $1400 before summer arrived, and then he had to stop working and stay home with the kids, who were out of school.
In August, after messy wrangling with attorneys, the kids’ natural father took custody of them for a few weeks. The father’s lawyer had done some checking into Mabry’s background and the father, a radiologist, called the police. The warrant from San Diego and another old charge from Texas popped up, and the next morning, after Dr. Cody left for work, she was intercepted by the police and told her husband was being arrested. In Texas a person convicted of three felonies is considered an habitual criminal and faces a mandatory life sentence. The local police told Dr. Cody her husband was an habitual criminal. As she fell to pieces they went into the house, guns drawn. Mabry was in his swimming suit, getting ready to hop into his backyard pool for his morning dip. He found himself face down on the kitchen floor with a gun muzzle in his ear. The jig was really up this time.
The Texas charge, defrauding an innkeeper (running out on a hotel bill), was eventually dropped and Mabry was brought back voluntarily to answer for himself in San Diego. After the preliminary hearing last November, at which the judge decided there was enough evidence to bring Mabry to trial for stealing $50,000 from the Thurstons, an outraged Captain Jack Goddard came up with the $200 to bail Mabry out. His outrage wasn’t directed at Mabry, it was pointed at the district attorney’s investigation that branded Mabry a fugitive, instead of the D.A.’s office working through Goddard, who was appointed by the sheriff to keep tabs on Mabry, to get the $50,000 paid back. “Certainly he should be held responsible for the $50,000,” acknowledges the paternal Captain Goddard, “but they want to put him away rather than let him pay it back. ” Apropos of Mabry’s ability to pay it back, which the judge has said would probably occur only if Mabry conned someone else out of the money, investigator Ken Brown made an inadvertently cogent observation. “It never ceases to amaze me,” he said, “that good con men could make $50,000 a year and up legitimately. Don Mabry is a super salesman.”
The jury, given conflicting sketches of Mabry’s doings by prosecutor Lantz Lewis and public defender Michael Butler, figured that Mabry was first a super liar. None of the jurors believed his protestations that if he were going to bilk $50,000 in a phony oil deal, it wouldn’t be from a man like Thurston, who had a degree in petroleum geology. But neither did the jury buy completely Hildebrand’s or the Thurstons’ depiction of events. “We thought they were all liars,” recounted one juror. “It just came down to who was the biggest liar.”
“The Thurstons give this guy $50,000, and all they get in the way of a receipt is a blank check? Drawn on Dale’s account? And they never talk to her about it?” asks one juror, incredulous. “And why a man supposedly as intelligent as Thurston would deposit that much money in someone else’s account, without putting a notation on the check — how could he be so stupid?” wonders another juror. One thing that bothered the jury was Thurston’s attempt to write off the $50,000 as a bad debt from his taxes. They were shown evidence that he’d written off large sums like that before. And some of the jurors did not believe that Hildebrand really thought Mabry was a rich oil man. “She was a smart businesswoman,” remarked one female juror. “How could she have been so stupid?” Other jurors felt Hildebrand was partially blinded by her own greed, that she really did swallow Mabry’s oil-man facade and the reason she gave him half her assets was so that she’d get half of his. Though they convicted him of grand theft on the strength of the fact that he no doubt obtained, spent, and failed to repay the money, generally the jurors didn’t feel they learned the truth of the whole affair. Even Captain Goddard was seen as a dupe. “How old was Mabry, forty-five? And he’s still looking for a father. Goddard was looking for a soul to save, no matter what. He always kept hoping for good to come out of his friend. His assigned friend,” commented one cynical juror.
But the thing that seemed to bother at least some of the jurors the most was the fact that Dale Hildebrand, under subpoena by the defense, was allowed to leave for a pleasure cruise to Australia before testifying. She did take the stand for the prosecution early in the two-week trial, and she was cross-examined, but over the objections of the defense attorney, the judge let her go on vacation. The attorney, Butler, was given the opportunity by Judge Michael Greer to put Hildebrand back on the stand before she left, but the defense attorney declined at that time. ‘ ‘We all agreed that it wasn’t right for Dale and her sister to go on vacation during the trial,” says one juror. Others seconded that. This is a key point in Mabry’s appeal.
So now, facing four years in prison, Mabry nervously awaits his appeal hearing next month. He and Goddard meet once in a while for lunch at the Admiral Kidd Club. Up in La Jolla, the Thurstons anxiously await the outcome of an IRS audit questioning their write-offs of the $50,000 as a bad debt. Dale Hildebrand lives alone in her condo; she has answered lonely-heart classifieds again, and dated a “real nice” psychologist she met through the personals. Not her type. As for Mabry, two weeks before he was sentenced, he married again. His wife is an attractive career woman with a nice home in La Mesa. She was the one who came up with $2500 to bail him out after the trial. They were married in a private ceremony in Bonita, and had a lavish wedding dinner at the Admiral Kidd Club. Captain Goddard picked up the tab.