The decision was split, six, five and one even, but it was only a temporary reprieve for Don King against the evildoers of justice aligned against him. The federal government had accused the flamboyant boxing promoter of conspiring to defraud Lloyd’s of London of $350,000; now all the Washington, D.C. legal suits had to do was find 12 Americans who could closet themselves in a closed room and find anybody guilty of robbing an insurance company. A bank or a liquor store, sure. But an insurance company?
When the smoke had cleared at the 15th floor courtroom of the United States Courthouse in Lower Manhattan, six people thought the government had proved its nine charges of fraud, five had sided with King, and one was undecided. Both sides had been bloodied. Neither was happy when U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence McKenna declared a mistrial on Nov. 17, 1995.
“I’ve got nothing to say now,” said King, who did not invite the jury to join him on an all-expenses paid vacation to some exotic location. When another jury acquitted him of 23 counts of Federal tax evasion in 1984, King took those twelve discerning folks on a luxurious junket to London to see the Frank Bruno-Tim Witherspoon heavyweight championship fight. “I’m going to get my head and thoughts together. I will have a lot to say, man,” he said this time, while practically ignoring the hung jury. Then he went off to do lunch in Brooklyn.
Mary Jo White, the United States Attorney for the Southern District, was not so reticent. “No questions,” she snapped. “But I will tell you this. It is our present intention to seek a prompt retrial of the defendant.”
Like an old fighter who does not know when to quit, the inexhaustible government agents signed King for a rematch in 1998, with the same multiple charges of bilking the British insurance giant out of $350,000 by padding non-refundable training expenses for a fight that never happened. This time the feds included King’s promotional company, Don King Production, Inc., as a co-defendant.
Four months later, twelve of King’s peers voted for acquittal. With one lone holdout for guilty, the same jury informed the judge that it could not bring in a verdict concerning King’s company; it was unchangingly hung. The towel came flying in from the feds’ corner; the government said it would not retry the company.
King, who had been reading a bible while the verdict was announced, rushed the jury box. “Thank you all very much,” he said. “When I heard the verdict, my liver quivered and my heart palpitated.”
One lady juror leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. “I just want to say goodbye,” she said.
While King was signing autographs, merrily and loudly, he spotted a trio of security guards. Rushing over, he hugged one of them, “I’m free, brother,” he said. “I’m free again.”
King had taken his jury from the IRS trial to London; he took this latest one on vacation in the Bahamas. From there, he flew them to Atlanta to watch Evander Holyfield successfully defend his WBA/IBF heavyweight championships against Vaughn Bean. As he was rounding them in the Bahamas for their trip to Georgia, King asked them if they had a good time.
“Well,” whined one of the male jurors, “I had hoped to do some fishing.”
Spinning around, King shouted at one of his attendants: “Get that man a boat!” The rest of the jurors waited while the now-appeased angler got in a few hours of fishing.
What follows is what occurred during one day early in the trials of King and the tribulations of the Fed attorneys . . .
NEW YORK, July 1994 – The judge was 45 minutes late, but Don King had already spotted the courtroom sketch artist. As Judge Nina Gershon took her seat, the defendant, his hair as stiffly erect as a Welsh Guard, struck the proper pose: head bowed slightly, hands school boyishly clasped in front, the picture of humble innocence. The artist's pencil swirled swiftly, capturing it all. King nodded at the judge and smiled.
In less than 15 minutes last Thursday King's arraignment in New York on nine charges of wire fraud was over. His press conference orations should be so short.
“How do you plead?” said the petite judge.
“Not guilty, your honor,” said King, his famous voice unwavering, strong but with no hint of anger at the US government's latest bid to narrow his world to a Spartan nine by 12 cubicle in a federal retirement home for crooks. Probably on the advice of his attorney, he did not add a plug for the fights he promoted in Bismarck, North Dakota last night. Judge Gershon did not look like a boxing fan.
After two years of intense investigation, and an exhaustive study of the 250,000 documents the FBI and IRS scooped up from King's New York headquarters, it had come to this: Uncle Sam's cops claim King swindled Lloyds of London out of $350,000 with a phony insurance claim.
“He stole from an insurance company? That's what the Feds got him on?” said Max, a Manhattan cabbie. “They should give the bum a medal. Them creeps been robbing me for years.”
Max, apparently, is not aware of the long arm of the law’s dismal won-loss record against the elusive boxing promoter. The last time the cops made a charge against King that stuck was in 1967, but then they found him still standing over the warm body. When a man named Sam Garrett was slow in paying $600 he owed, King beat him to death. For trying to collect money owed in an improper manner, King served three years and 11 months at Ohio's Marion Prison, where he learned to misquote Freud and Voltaire and Nietzsche and that ilk.
Then, too, the guys wearing the badges that nailed King that time were locals, Cleveland cops with long memories; they had not been happy when the then numbers entrepreneur walked away from another killing in 1954 after a successful plea of self defense. That time King shot and killed a man he said was trying to rob his house. As the 63-year-old promoter likes to say, and does often, “Only in America.”
Unlike the Cleveland gendarmes, the Feds have not been so fortunate. While King savaged just about everyone he touched in boxing, three grand jury investigations, an FBI sting operation, and a hung jury on the same charges did little more than add to the national deficit. Laughing, King likes to bray: “I think I'm destined to be investigated until I die.”
The IRS thought they had him cold in 1985. He was indicted on 23 counts of federal income tax evasion. King's secretary went into the slammer; King walked. William Tell the IRS wasn't; they missed the apple, hit the kid. To show his gratitude, King invited all the jurors who acquitted him to the Tim Witherspoon-Frank Bruno fistfight in London that year; some of them went, although they never got to see Bruno play Juliet in a pink dress.
Showing they can learn from past mistakes, the Feds are keeping this one simple. Insiders say there is enough evidence and witnesses to keep King in court for the rest of his life. The Feds don't want him in court; they want him in jail. There are, for example, at least three separate cases of insurance fraud; Uncle Sam settled for one. As a Chinese cop once said, a sentence of a 1000 years begins with the first guilty verdict.
According to the indictment, King submitted a bogus claim to Lloyd's after scheduled fight between Julio Cesar Chavez and Harold Brazier was cancelled when a sparring partner cut Chavez's nose. The Feds contend King drew up a phony contract between himself and Chavez, rewrote a rider, and then claimed he paid Chavez $350,000 in non-refundable training expenses.
King's mistake, if it turns out that way, was filing his claim in nine separate faxes from his New York office to London. You have to wonder what he would have been charged with if the claims had been hand delivered. You also have to wonder if anyone at Lloyd's ever reads the sports pages. They paid $350,000 for training expenses. Where did they think he was going to train? In Monte Carlo? For a year?
No matter. Lloyd's isn't on trial for being dumb, although you have to wonder now not if they would have paid Betty Grable if she had sawed a leg off a manikin and shipped it to them, but how much.
If King is wondering the same thing, he isn't saying. The man of a million words has thrown away half his vocabulary. Faced with a five years and a $250,000 fine for each of the nine counts, King isn't making any waves; he's only saying nice things about people, even the six ex-employees who are supposed to be blowing the whistle on him.
“I'm only here to say I am innocent,” said King after Judge Gershon turned him loose to wander through the U.S. District Courthouse in New York in search of the office where he could post bail. His bail was set at $250,000, but Judge Gershon told him it was personal recognizance bond, which meant King could just sign for it. Judge Gershon forgot to tell King where he was supposed to go.
“This is a great country,” King said as he wandered from floor to floor in search of the elusive bonding department. “I've done nothing to warrant these charges. I believe in the American system of justice. Like Patrick Henry, I have put my liberty where my mouth is. Where the hell is this place? I've got to catch a plane to North Dakota.”
Finally King disappeared into a small room. A large entourage trailing in his wake began to follow him in. “Hey, wait a minute,” said Fast Eddie Schuyler of the Associated Press. “That's the men's room. That's beyond the call of duty. The AP doesn't pay me enough to follow him in there.”
Even after the door swung closed, you could hear King’s voice from inside. “Only in America,” he was telling someone.
(Special to TheSweetScience.com from the Pat Putnam Classic Series. Portions of this article originally appeared in Sports Illustrated.)