On Friday, Nov. 13, 1970, Michael Thevis slipped into his office early for an important meeting. With balding hair and a tidy goatee, the 38-year-old business owner looked like any other executive working in downtown Atlanta. His company headquarters spanned an entire city block of historic Marietta Street and commanded annual profits of $25 million—more than Hewlett-Packard or Hershey Foods. But Thevis wasn’t in computers or chocolate. He was in America’s hottest new commodity: pornography.
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He liked to boast that 99 percent of America’s adult magazines and films flowed through his sprawling warehouse, where 300 workers arrived every day. In his factory, Thevis manufactured a new machine that was taking the sex industry by storm. It was like a jukebox for porn, with an 8mm projector that played a 15-second loop of erotic film. Thevis leased them to adult bookstores, where the lustful and the curious locked themselves in a private booth and kept the action rolling by feeding it quarters. During the sexual revolution of the 1970s, the peep machine racket would earn an estimated $2 billion. In the conservative Deep South, Mafia-like firms battled for its obscene profits, as Atlanta became America’s murder capital.
At around 8 a.m., just before his staff arrived, Thevis welcomed onto the property his friend and former partner, Kenneth Hanna. Their meeting took place in the warehouse, where they chatted among stacks of magazines like Weekend with the Boss and Young Humpers, and boxes full of rubber penises and vaginas. A year earlier, Hanna had quit Thevis’ company, Cine-matics, to join a rival peep machine maker in New York, called Red Vought. With Thevis expanding his business nationwide, Hanna perhaps expected to hear about a business opportunity. Instead, Thevis pulled out a pistol and shot him three times in the chest. Hanna’s knees buckled and he dropped to the floor. Somehow still alive, he begged for his life as blood gurgled in his throat, but Thevis raised the gun and put a fourth bullet into his head. The meeting was over.
Thevis had heard cops in Florida had recently seized a Red Vought truck full of unlicensed copies of his own erotic films. Hanna was ripping off both his hardware and his software, and that just wouldn’t do. Thevis wrapped the body in padded blankets used for transporting peep machines. He dragged him to Hanna’s gold-colored Cadillac, and dumped his rival in the trunk. But as it slammed shut, Thevis realized the car keys were in the dead man’s pocket. Surrounded by blood, he’d locked himself out of the car, and the morning shift was about to clock in. But Thevis knew what to do. He would call a man who would become his accomplice in this and so much more.
The slaying was just part of a campaign of murder, arson, and extortion that Thevis used to seize control of the country’s pornography market. Earning hundreds of millions of dollars in coins, Thevis built a hotel-sized mansion, where he liked to tower over a model city of Atlanta carved from ivory. He filled his palace with Chinese antiques, French Provincial furniture, and painted the ceiling like the Sistine Chapel with scenes from erotic Greek myths. Yet at home the king of hardcore was a Puritan who didn’t even allow a Playboy in the house, lest his young children see it.
During the eight years after he shot Hanna, Thevis racked up over 100 arrests, escaped from prison, and was finally re-captured by the FBI while on the run with a lover. A court heard that he had commissioned a paperweight made from the shattered bones of a second murdered rival, and the judge sentenced him to life in prison. In 1983, as Thevis appealed his sentence in court, theatergoers in America were captivated by another violent kingpin, Tony Montana, and the tabloids started to call Thevis “the Scarface of Sex.” When he died behind bars in 2013 at the age of 81, Thevis left behind a legend, and a secret cache of memoirs.
In September of last year I visited “the house that porn built,” the 30-room palatial mansion where the Thevis family agreed to reveal his personal diaries and letters. These documents tell the inside story of America’s most dangerous startup, the lawless birth of the modern sex industry, and a parable of greed.
* * *
Michael George Thevis was born in Raleigh, North Carolina on Feb 25, 1932, and raised by his grandparents after his parents separated. “My family were Greek immigrants that didn’t have two nickels to rub together,” Thevis wrote in his memoirs. “When the rest of the kids would be playing or going out for the team, I’d be working my butt off.” Even as a child, “Mike” had a hunger for the good things in life, and earned an early conviction for attempted robbery. That made the devoted altar boy reconsider his plans for the priesthood, and he decided to seek his fortune in the nearest major metropolis. One day in 1950, he hitched a ride on the back of an orange truck to Atlanta.
The city was everything he had hoped for, full of ambition and opportunity. Young and slim, with thick black hair, he studied for his high-school diploma while working nights at a newsstand for $50 a week. At 19, he fell in love with Joan, 16, who worked in a nearby store. They married in 1951 and moved into a cramped apartment in the shadow of the United States Penitentiary in Atlanta. He was too poor to afford antifreeze for his car.
“I could remember sitting on the curb and crying because it was so cold and the motor was frozen, and I couldn’t get to my job,” he recalled.
Yet Thevis promised his young bride he would be a millionaire before he was 30, and she believed him. In letters from the Thevis archive, a family friend named Arlene Tate wrote, “Thevis had an hypnotic effect on people... people were drawn to him... he had an evil glint in his eye.” Soon, Thevis convinced his boss to open another newsstand with him as manager. By 1955 he had three of his own.
In the 1950s, America was still reserved, even uncomfortable about sex—a nation where on television married couples slept in different beds. Since the Civil War, obscene publications were illegal, yet when Thevis stocked risqué magazines like The Dude and Gent, they changed his fortunes. “I was doing inventory one day and I noticed that 90 percent of my profits were coming from 10 percent of my inventory—girlie magazines,” he wrote. “I had several arrests... for obscenity charges, with the first arrest for Playboy magazine. It seems ludicrous now, but I can assure the reader that it was considered a serious crime in the 1950s Bible Belt South.”
Thevis capitalized on the American male’s insatiable hunger for illicit thrills. In 1960, he published a guide to America’s nudist colonies. “It must have sold a zillion copies,” he recalled, “and didn’t even have any pictures.” He launched a distribution company, Peachtree News, and filled its office with writers pecking away at typewriters. They churned out cheap paperbacks with sex scenes on every page, including A Teacher Confesses to Sex in the Classroom. Thevis spent the profits on his growing family: He and Joan now had two young children at home, Mike Jr., and Christina.
It was on a business trip to New York in 1967 when Thevis first saw a peep show machine. They had been around since the ’40s, showing cartoons at carnivals, until a former jukebox distributor, Martin Hodas, introduced them to Times Square. The machines were clunky and insecure, but Thevis watched customers fighting to use them. He decided he could make improvements. Back in Atlanta he hired a local locksmith named Roger Underhill to help make his own prototype. A bald ex-con with a genius IQ, Underhill had been caught hacking telephones with an illegal “blue box” machine, and claimed to have worked undercover for what would become the Drug Enforcement Administration. There was something brilliant, yet utterly dangerous about him.
By 1969, they had engineered the perfect, profitable, theft-proof machine, and sold them nationwide, 48 on each tractor-trailer. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court under liberal Chief Justice Earl Warren unanimously overturned a Georgia law forbidding the possession of obscene materials, making it legal to own pornography—however it was still illegal to produce or sell it. “The country at that time was so wide-open, it was like opening the West,” Thevis recalled. He told bookstore owners: “I’ll put in eight of my peep machines, and you’ll make at least $1,000 a week off them, and we’ll split 50-50.” Soon Thevis couldn’t make enough machines to satisfy demand. “It was a gold mine,” he recalled.
By the time he was 37, Thevis was a millionaire.
His two corporations, Automatic Enterprises and Cine-matics, were now manufacturing 50 machines a week. He rewarded Underhill by making him a minor partner in the business. Thevis would telephone the factory at 1 a.m. and beg Underhill to go home, but they were both hooked on profit. The two men spent any free time together watching river races, climbing cliffs, riding dirt bikes, and picnicking with their young families. By now Thevis had five children, including twins Tony and Stephanie, and his youngest, Jason. One day, Tony got food stuck in his throat and started to choke. It was Underhill who grabbed him and popped it out.
By the end of the 1960s, more than 6,000 Cine-matics machines were operating across America. Thevis had acquired the Marietta Street building, where the peep machines now rolled off a production line. Underhill redesigned the machines with a meter inside to check the integrity of bookstore owners, and reduce “skimming.”
As the money rolled in, a constant fight with the law ensued. Thevis was regularly arrested for interstate distribution of pornography, but his powerful First Amendment lawyers and America’s confusing stance on pornography helped him avoid prison time. “About this time, I formed the American Publishers and Distributors Association (APDA) and served as the association’s first president, opened offices in Washington, D.C., and lobbied for laws favorable to the newly formed pornography industry,” he wrote.
Known by employees as “Mr. T,” Thevis became a director of his church’s lay board and wrote generous checks to local charities. His corporations joined the Better Business Bureau. He pumped his profits into 200 “straight” corporations, including gift shops, bookstores, candy shops, and a mail-order cheese and fruit club. Thevis snipped the ribbon at the opening of his restaurant, the Saddle and Stirrup. He launched a furniture company, a trucking company, and invested in real estate.
With designer suits and powerful motorcycles, Thevis was unrecognizable as the penniless newsstand owner unable to buy antifreeze for his car. The young man who married Joan had vanished. “As happens to many couples, we grew apart,” Thevis confessed, “We had love for each other, but were no longer in love.” There were screaming matches. Joan, a humble housewife, had grown to hate her extravagant husband and would order him to leave, but they both knew she was financially dependent on him.
Thevis put on a brave public face. The couple even attended dance classes, instructed by Jeanette Evans, a deeply religious, stunning brunette. As they danced, Thevis learned that Jeanette had also escaped a childhood on a hardscrabble farm to “make it” in Atlanta. It was the aspiring real-estate agent’s dream to earn enough in commission to join the “One Million Dollar Club.”
Joan quit the dance classes. Her husband bought the dance school.
Thevis recalled, “I fell in love with Jeanette Evans.”
* * *
From women to money, nothing was ever enough for Thevis. Now a millionaire, he desired complete control over the pornography industry and to be known as its figurehead. Thevis had no interest in sex: Pornography was purely business, a stock in trade. “There are other people in the country as big in pornography as he is,” one Thevis associate said. “But nobody’s heard of them because they don’t go around telling everyone how big they are.” Cleveland’s Reuben Sturman, for example, ran a larger operation in the Midwest. But Thevis demanded the limelight, and his boasting soon attracted unwanted attention.
The Intelligence Division of the Atlanta Police Department leaked to the press a 56-page investigation into Cine-matics. It claimed that Thevis was backed by Mafia money:
“The fact… is exemplified by a conversation overheard at a pornography convention in Las Vegas in 1969. Thevis was bragging about owning 90 percent of the sex-film vending machines in the United States. Robert DiBernardo, a member of the Sam DeCavalcante LCN [La Cosa Nostra] family, said: ‘Don’t forget, Mike, you manage the machines. The family is in charge.’”
Thevis’ second son, Tony, told me that “Didi” DiBernardo gifted the Thevis kids a pony.
Mafia rumors intensified when federal agents raided a Brooklyn warehouse in 1969 and seized $550,000 worth of hardcore pornography. The warehouse was financed by Joseph Colombo, the boss of the Colombo crime family. Discovered in the raid was a note that read: “Mike says don’t ship [any] more films until further [notice].”
Thevis protested he had nothing to do with the Mafia, but thought it didn’t hurt that people believed he did.
“Sometimes when I’d roll into town, that reputation had preceded me. I’d go into some adult store where the guy didn’t know me, and make my offer. I’d say, ‘My truck is gonna roll in here in two days and unload eight machines and you’re gonna use them.’ He’d look at me and say, ‘Who the hell do you think you are?’ And I’d say, ‘I’m Mike Thevis from Atlanta.’ And he’d say, ‘Yes, sir, Mr. Thevis. You send those machines right over.’ I never said I was with the Mafia. It was the press that did it, not me.”
Rival peep machine manufacturers emerged, included those run by Leon and Mike Sokolic, Art Sanders, and Bill Walters. Before now, the most Thevis had ever done to intimidate a rival was let off a stink bomb at a store in Baltimore. Not all competitors rolled over so easily. Nat Bailen, who manufactured a peep show machine for cartoons, started to sell his units to sex-shop owners who used them for porn. In 1970, a customer named Harry Mooney in Michigan asked to lease 50 machines from Thevis—an order so large he couldn’t meet it in time. Instead, Mooney bought his machines outright from Nat Bailen. As he would do so often, Thevis turned to Underhill.
“Something,” Thevis told him, “has to be done with Bailen.”
On April 26, 1970, Underhill drove from Atlanta to Louisville in his yellow station wagon, where he met a paid accomplice, Clifford “Sam” Wilson. In the dead of night, they broke into Bailen’s factory, carrying burglary tools and five-gallon containers of gasoline. They built a bonfire using his furniture and paperwork. When Wilson found some paint cans, he told Underhill, “Let’s really screw this guy,” and poured paint over the desks and carpets. There were four-foot-tall flames licking at the windows by the time the goons fled. Reeking of gasoline, Underhill found a pay phone at the Kentucky Turnpike, and called Thevis at the Central Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles.
“Veni vidi vici,” Underhill said—I came, I saw, I conquered.
There were times when Underhill encouraged the darker side of Thevis. Other times, it was Thevis who seemed to bring out the worst in Underhill. It didn’t take long for the two men to progress from stink bombs to arson to murder. Then came that Friday the 13th in November 1970, when Thevis found himself alone in his warehouse with Ken Hanna’s dead body locked inside the Cadillac. He picked up the telephone and dialed Underhill.
When Underhill arrived at Marietta Street, he found a gruesome scene, with Hanna’s blood all over the floor. He used his lock-pulling tool and a screwdriver to pop the trunk, then fished the keys off the corpse. He drove the Cadillac to the airport and dumped it in a parking lot. Next, he purchased a blowtorch from Sears and melted the pistol, the Cadillac lock, and the screwdriver into a molten ball of metal. At a quiet spot where he and Thevis liked to watch the river races, Underhill tossed the evidence into the Chattahoochee River. Thevis hadn’t planned to involve Underhill in the murder until the mishap with the keys. But now, as the metal blob sank to the bottom, the two men had become more than friends and partners. They were bonded by a dark secret, and in time it would set them on a collision course.
* * *
The king of pornography lavished his girlfriend Jeanette with $120,000 in cash, statuettes from Greece, and dinner rings. She wore his diamond pendant around her neck, and believed that one day she would become Mrs. Thevis. Once, she ordered the wedding dress and told her mother to prepare for the big day. Thevis even made it to the courthouse steps with the divorce papers, only to turn back. Being divorced would make him look bad in the eyes of a jury, he believed, as the threat of prosecution loomed.
Joan Thevis was more than aware of his long-term affair with Jeanette, and at home tensions were growing. Thevis recalled of Joan, “I was her boyfriend, her father, her husband, and her lover. I was everything to that woman and, as the years went by, that proved to be the problem.”
There was soon a third woman in his life. Joan had hired a fiery 18-year-old hostess, Patricia McLean, at the Saddle and Stirrup. Despite her fabulous figure and long red hair, it was her business acumen that attracted Thevis. “I knew that Pat McLean was brilliant and aggressive,” he wrote, “as well as a workaholic. At my urgings, and through my tutelage, she rose to the occasion until she was finally made president of my largest company”—later called Global Industries. Pat and Joan worked side-by-side at the office on Marietta Street, which was by then populated by headstrong women.
“I learned early that women, for the most part, make the best executives,” Thevis wrote. “Not only did I find them more loyal, but harder working and more determined than most males.”
In January 1971, Underhill begged Thevis to buy him out, and he did. Underhill was convinced their enterprise was doomed as rumors of murders were circulating Atlanta’s sex trade—Hanna’s body was eventually discovered at the airport—and Thevis was gleefully avoiding paying tax on his machine’s profits. Soon everyone knew the feds were building a case against Cine-matics. “He decided that he wanted out of the business, because he was afraid of being arrested,” wrote Thevis.
When no arrests followed, it appeared that Underhill had made a mistake in selling out, as Thevis’ profits soared. Underhill could not let go of his relationship with Thevis, and agreed to work for him for a pitiful $50 a week. “Basically, Roger was just a very jealous person,” Thevis recalled, “he always wanted to spend every minute of every day with me.”
As the majority stakeholder, Thevis became increasingly protective over his business. Every day he bugged a different phone in his offices, and gave his employees lie-detector tests to check their loyalty. Next, the man who wouldn’t allow Playboy in his house installed members of his family in high-ranking positions. In 1971, he hired his nephew, Mann Chandler, 24, as chief of manufacturing for peep machines.
Chandler’s new models used movie cartridges, which automatically cleaned the film, added a layer of wax, and reduced breakdowns.
“I took it from old wooden cabinets that fell apart to metal cabinets, from spring-loaded to solid state,” he told me.
Chandler was also wary of Underhill.
“He had one of the most treacherous smiles I’ve ever seen on a human being,” he told me. “When he smiled at me, I took four steps back.”
Meanwhile, the law was closing in on Thevis. He was convicted on charges of transportation of obscene materials in 1971 and sentenced to five years with a $1,000 fine. Thanks to some legal gymnastics and an expensive appeal, he avoided prison with a suspended sentence. To remain a free man, Thevis realized he needed to step away from his pornography business. Announcing his “retirement,” he said: “I rode the boom to its crest, and I made a lot of money. I’m not sorry for it.”
Later in 1971, he handed over the reins to Bernard and Noel Bloom in Los Angeles, and Mel Friedman in Atlanta. He also gave Patricia McLean the power of attorney and control of his businesses, estimated to be worth as much as $12 million. “I don’t want to be remembered as Atlanta’s own pornography kingpin,” he said.
Thevis had achieved the riches he craved, and the notoriety. But there was still something missing. He desired the credibility and respect of a real businessman.
It was widely believed that Thevis still controlled his empire from afar, and his effect on the pornography industry was indelible. Up to 75 new film loops were shot every week just for the peep machine market. Adult filmmaking became a profession, creating the first “porn stars,” as America entered the Golden Age of Pornography. In 1972, Deep Throat broke all records by earning $25 million at the box office, yet adult theaters earned less than a quarter of the income of peep machines.
As porn grew, so did the backlash against it. America’s new conservative Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, cracked down on obscenity once again. Thevis became a target of America’s moral outrage. “My family has taken a lot of abuse from cranks and idiots calling and telling us we’re going to hell,” Thevis told Newsweek. “I get dirty notes in my mailbox telling me I’m a dirty so and so because I’m so obscene.”
Thevis drew up plans for his imposing 30-room mansion, the Lion’s Gate Estate, designed in the style of the British Tudors. It was one of the largest private residences built in 1972. The day it was finished, Thevis stood on the driveway and proudly told a family friend: “The quarters from my machines paid every quarter of it.” There, he regularly spent over $10,000 on flowers, more than the average American’s annual salary. Leon Sokolic, a peep show operator and Thevis acquaintance, told me he once saw a million dollars in cash just sitting on a table.
Thevis turned over his estate and swimming pool to visitors from orphanages, wrote checks to the Little League, and bankrolled performances by the Atlanta Symphony and Metropolitan Opera. “I could be this city’s best goodwill ambassador if they only knew it,” Thevis told reporters. He rebranded himself as a music producer, boasting that he had a “sixth sense” for the mixing deck. One time Sokolic walked past the lounge and saw Evel Knievel hanging out.
Next, he financed and produced kung fu flicks and low-budget movies. Though Thevis had never bothered to visit a porn shoot, he became a regular on his movie sets. In 1973, while filming The Last Stop, Thevis clashed with a dwarf actor who went on a violent drinking binge. Speaking to a newspaper in Redlands, California, Thevis said: “The little rascal got a brick and started breaking windows.”
An Atlanta-based film critic who saw his movie Poor Pretty Eddie, starring Shelley Winters, wrote: “Upon leaving the theater, I quite honestly felt nauseous.”
He quickly lost $10 million.
* * *
It was the first week in August 1973 when the high-speed life of Michael Thevis first spun out of control. It was a Sunday afternoon, and Joan was at Underhill’s house chatting with his wife. Their husbands were out riding their motorcycles, and when they didn’t return, Joan went out to look for them. On Riverside Drive, near the Chattahoochee River, a car had forced her husband off the road—a terrible accident. Paramedics found Thevis at the bottom of a 50-foot embankment, and Joan drove behind the ambulance all the way to the hospital. For two and half months, he would remain there, recovering from major internal injuries and a broken back. The hospital bed provided Thevis an alibi to arrange a shocking new murder, it was alleged.
Just before midnight on Sept. 13, 1973, Jimmy Mayes left his adult bookstore, Metro Books, and stepped onto Atlanta’s swinging Peachtree Street. Mayes was a former employee of Thevis who had learned how to make peep machines at the Cine-matics warehouse. Three miles away, he opened his own bookstore and—unwisely—installed his own machines. As Mayes walked through the bustling red-light district, Midtown throbbed with pimps, drug dealers, and hippies. When he sat in his truck and switched on the ignition, a dynamite blast lit up the street and blew his body through the roof.
After police and the coroner had cleared away the wreckage, Underhill, who had organized the pipe bomb, scooped up parts of Mayes’s wristwatch, skin, and bones. He took the evidence to Thevis in hospital, where they talked about turning them into a paperweight—Underhill’s idea.
Underhill was now desperate to impress Thevis, but when his former partner refused to let him back into Cine-matics, he became aggressive. Underhill demanded to be paid more for his previous ownership, but again Thevis refused. One day, Thevis boasted that he had spent his end of the profits by building his super-mansion. “He really got bent out of shape over that one,” Thevis recalled. “He was very incensed.”
Even from his wheelchair, “retired” Thevis was expanding his vast network of money-spinning machines, and vowed to destroy anyone who stood in his path.
* * *
Paul King looked too young to be an FBI agent, but that was part of his success. He had joined the bureau during its October 1969 hiring frenzy, at age 23, becoming one of its gung-ho “Ten-one-sixty-nine” agents, short for October 1, 1969. They were known for aggressive tactics and Friday night house parties. As a rookie in Kansas City, King liked to station himself outside banks waiting for robbers. Before he was 25, he had shot and killed his first bandit. The baby-faced agent transferred to Atlanta in 1974, where he posed as a Georgia Tech student to arrest the boss of a “numbers” racket. King, who preferred to drive his Mustang instead of FBI station wagons, got a thrill from closing down complicated criminal enterprises. When he heard on the streets about the Mayes murder, he jumped at the chance to work on a case involving pornography. Slowly, methodically, he started to build his case.
“I was always attracted to something like that where you pit your brain against somebody else,” he told me on the telephone.
Meanwhile, Underhill, in his desperation to keep up with Thevis’ millions, turned to burglary and theft. One day, cops questioned his wife after her car bottomed-out under the weight of whatever was in the back. “They opened the trunk, and here was all these gold coins,” Thevis recalled. In 1974, Underhill was convicted of possessing millions of dollars of stolen gold coins and antique firearms. When he was sent to prison, King saw an opportunity. “I was tasked with interviewing Roger to see if he would talk about Thevis’ operation,” he said. Underhill declined.
Later in December 1974, the FBI brought pornography and arson charges against Thevis. He held a press conference in his mansion, bouncing his son Jason on his lap. “I want people to think better of Mike Thevis,” he told reporters. He offered to donate his $5 million estate to the city of Atlanta for use as a school. He promised to spend $3.3 million on restoring a famous theater on Peachtree Street. Every tactic failed. Thevis was convicted of the transportation of obscene materials and conspiracy to commit arson at Bailen’s warehouse.
The testimony of arsonist Clifford Wilson convinced a judge to send Thevis to the United States Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, for eight years. His lover, Jeanette, the devoted Christian, could no longer continue a relationship with a man found guilty of these crimes.
“It was about that time that Pat and I became serious with each other,” Thevis wrote of McLean. “Out of need, I had feelings for her. Out of compassion, she had feelings for me.” That winter, Joan and Patricia arrived together in the prison visitors’ room. “For most men it would have been a moment of supreme awkwardness,” wrote the Atlanta Constitution. “For Mike Thevis, it was a rare moment of joy. Walking toward him in the crowded prison waiting room were two women: one his wife of 26 years and the mother of his five children, the other his girlfriend and lover, 22 years younger than he.”
“I kissed them both hello,” Thevis recalled.
* * *
On June 10, 1976, Paul King raided the Cine-matics warehouse. FBI agents seized thousands of reels of pornographic film, including Hard Thumpers, Real Strokers, and The American Sex Scene Vol. 5. Inside Thevis’ office, agents broke open the safe where they found a to-do list.
“The first thing on the list,” said King, “was kill Roger.”
King and the FBI figured out that Thevis was telling the truth about one thing: He wasn’t involved in the Mafia. “I met a lot of fairly high-level organized crime people in my day, and I never met one that liked him. He drew too much attention on the pornography business and he was too flamboyant,” King said.
“He was not a made man.”
King told me that Thevis tried to hire various inmates to kill Underhill in different prisons, but each time, Underhill fought for his life and survived. He added that the FBI even recorded this conversation between Underhill and Thevis on prison pay phones:
“Are you trying to kill me, Mike?”
“Well, Roger, you gotta do what you gotta do.”
King said that it was Underhill’s parents who convinced their son to co-operate with the FBI, after they heard about the murder attempts in prison. “That’s what started my relationship with him,” King said.
Underhill agreed to be interviewed for a week.
“I had been hearing on the grapevine that Roger was attempting to make a deal as a government witness against me [in exchange for] early release. He did and was set free,” Thevis recalled. “He was bitter about a number of things... he accused me of having an affair with his wife. He was very upset about that, as rightly he should be.”
Thevis had unwittingly driven Underhill into the arms of the FBI. “He knew so much about Thevis’ operation that Thevis was trying to shut him up for good,” King said, “If he hadn’t tried to have Roger killed while he was in jail, Roger was so loyal he probably would have never testified against Thevis.”
The FBI sent Underhill to visit Thevis in prison, wearing a wire. Agents had also bugged the walls in the visitors’ room.
“How are you doing, Sultan?” said Underhill, referencing a Reader’s Digest headline that had recently called Thevis “the Sultan of Smut.”
“First of all,” said Thevis, “there’s a lot of things happening around these places, and your atrocious puns, you know, your sophomoric, feeble-minded philosophizing, if you are here to negotiate, let’s negotiate.”
Underhill confessed that he had spoken to the FBI.
“What did you take the polygraph on?” asked Thevis.
“They asked me if I killed Jimmy Mayes. And they asked me if I killed Ken Hanna and if I put his body in the car and I said… no, no, no, no.”
“How did you do?” Thevis asked.
“I didn’t tell any lies, and they said I passed the test with flying colors,” Underhill said.
Moments later, Thevis asked, “Well... What’d you tell ’em when they asked you if I did it?”
“I said yes,” Underhill replied. “You wouldn’t want me to lie.”
“No wonder you passed,” Thevis said.
Moments later, Underhill tried to cover the FBI’s SK-9 microphone hidden in his shoe. Thevis said Underhill then threatened to testify against him and sue him in a civil case unless Thevis paid him a million dollars.
“Despite what we’re saying in bitterness, and you’re not going to believe this, but I’m going to say it to you anyway,” Thevis told Underhill. “I still love the shit out of you, but I know that we fell out.”
“Then what do you want to have me killed for, Mike?” Underhill asked.
On April 2, 1978, marshals transported Thevis from his cell in Springfield, Missouri, to face a civil trial in Louisville for the Bailen arson. With Patricia McLean watching from the gallery, a jury ordered Thevis to pay $687,000 in damages for burning down the warehouse. During the seven-day trial, Agent King flew to the local jail in Floyd County and warned officers that Thevis was an escape risk. However, the Courier-Journal reported that Thevis received unusual privileges including “unlimited telephone calls, at least one unsupervised trip outside the jail, and sexual relations at the jail with his girlfriend, Patricia McLean.” Deputies at the jail later admitted to taking $50 and $100 “tips” from their millionaire prisoner. A newspaper even reported that deputies watched through one-way mirrors as the couple had sex.
“That week,” Thevis recalled, “several things happened to put me in a deep state of depression and really create a very moribundus attitude. One, my wife of some 26 years finally divorced me... I had since formed some attachment to a young female associate [Patricia] who was working in my real-estate companies. That had a very unsettling effect on me.” Next, he was denied parole and indicted under RICO statutes in Florida. With Underhill poised to testify, two murder trials would follow. Thevis sprang into action. He signed his divorce papers, and pulled in his attorneys to finalize a trust for his wife and children, paying Joan $12,000 a month and the children $18,000. He signed papers that transferred his entire business holdings to a trusted assistant. He also told another inmate, Louis Knight, that he was going to escape and flee the country with a girlfriend.
On April 28, at 4 p.m., guards led Thevis into the chief deputy’s office to use the telephone, which he liked to do for several hours each day. When the deputy returned at 10 p.m. to take him back to his cell, the office was empty.
* * *
It was later discovered that Thevis had paid off his jailors with cash and cigars, and it was alleged they let him escape. “Money talks to some people and Thevis had a lot of it,” said King. Patricia McLean was arrested and accused of providing Thevis with money and aiding his escape. “She was hard as nails. She wouldn’t talk to me,” King told me. “She came very close to telling me to go screw myself once. But then she caught herself and kept her mouth shut because she knew I’d probably put her in jail.” Patricia told a court she knew nothing about the escape, and threatened to kill herself if she ever took the stand again. She was acquitted by a federal jury.
The FBI added Thevis to their 10 Most Wanted list, and distributed wanted posters across the United States. Underhill was sent into hiding.
Meanwhile, Thevis was cruising along a freeway in Atlanta behind the wheel of a beautiful 1979 Chevrolet Caprice Classic. Sitting in the passenger seat of the maroon and silver car was Jeanette Evans.
If Patricia McLean was involved in the escape, she got cold feet about joining Thevis on the run. But he always had a Plan B. Jeanette knew it was a crime to harbor an escapee, but she was not just in love with Thevis, she was possessed by him. On his command, she flew to Atlanta and joined Thevis on what he called “my flight for freedom.”
Posing as “Arby J. Evans” and “Sally Green,” they crisscrossed America, from St. Louis to South Carolina. For months the lovebirds drove between Colorado, New Mexico, and Connecticut, where they planned to buy a house. Inside the car, Thevis had a “fuzzbuster” radar detector to spot cops, a salt-and-pepper wig, five handguns, $550,000 in cash, and $1 million in jewelry. Jeanette had put her house up for sale, and they had airline timetables and a motorist’s map of Britain. Jeanette booked Thevis a $1,400 hair transplant for October 26, and evidence showed that he bought her a ring. Their plan was to travel the world then retire quietly in a small Connecticut town.
“We had decided to be married in the next few days, as soon as was humanly possible,” Thevis recalled. When they visited a mall in Spartanburg, South Carolina, to buy Jeanette a dress, his satchel split open and $100,000 in cash tumbled to the floor. By now he had acquired a printed copy of Underhill’s 300-page interview with the FBI. He read it carefully and made angry notes in the margin.
The transcript conjured violent vignettes of murder and mayhem: The opening of a Cadillac’s trunk with Hanna’s corpse inside; Underhill’s face, illuminated by the blow torch as he melted the evidence; Jimmy Mayes’ truck in mid-air, lifted by the force of a bomb; ivory bones stained with blood. If Underhill projected these scenes in the minds of a jury, Thevis would spend the rest of his life in prison.
Then, Underhill took the opportunity of the escape to sue Thevis for $8.3 million, knowing he’d win. Somewhere on the East Coast, Thevis’ mind turned from romance to revenge. He’d be damned if Underhill was going to steal his fortune like that. Jeanette canceled the hair transplant. They pointed their Chevy toward Atlanta.
Paul King recalled a social event where he crossed paths with a well-known Mafia family. The wife asked King if he was the case agent looking for Thevis. “We’ll do anything we can to get him arrested,” she told him. “We have no respect for what he does.”
In late August, five months after his escape, Jeanette asked her cousin, a police officer named Bart Hood, for help. In Charleston, Hood obtained for Thevis a 1978 Mercury Marquis and a South Carolina driver’s license. The fake identity was so effective that when he sped into Atlanta, a cop wrote ‘C.M. Feagin’ a ticket. Jeanette and Bart then allegedly contacted another cousin, Dennis Bradley. They asked if he could manufacture a silencer for a .30-06 rifle. This would transform the long-range gun into a silent killing weapon. Thevis was going hunting.
Roger Underhill was preparing to record his testimony on videotape, before disappearing forever into the federal Witness Relocation Program. Against King’s wishes, he wanted to tie up some loose ends, and drove from his hiding place out of state, back to Atlanta. There, Thevis and Hood were tracking him like dogs; when Thevis spotted Underhill’s wife behind the wheel of a car, he wrote down the license plate, and his policeman friend traced it. They stalked various addresses where they hoped Underhill was hiding.
On Oct. 24, 1978, Jeanette visited a local real-estate broker’s office in Atlanta, and asked for information about a property. It was unusual for Jeanette, who specialized in residential sales, to be interested in an undeveloped tract of land on Riverside Drive. When the broker pulled the local tax records he told her the owner was Mr. Roger Underhill. Later that night, someone drove to the property and crashed into the gate, destroying it.
The next day, Underhill arrived at 11:35 a.m. and met Isaac Galanti, a local grocer who was interested in purchasing the land. The two men were strolling across the fields when a gunshot exploded. Shotgun pellets tore through Galanti’s head, ripping out his teeth and tongue. As a second gunshot echoed around the field, Underhill collapsed, five pellets lodged in his head and chest.
About 25 minutes later, Underhill’s wife, Irene Williams, arrived at the property. At first she thought she saw bags of trash in the field. When she realized one “trash bag” was her husband, she ran off screaming. She drove to a neighbor’s house and raised the alarm. FBI and police officers raced to the scene, where they found Galanti dead, and Underhill breathing heavily. He held on as medics worked on him. At the hospital, King held Underhill’s hand and asked: “Do you know who did this? If you do, squeeze once. If you don’t, squeeze twice.”
Underhill squeezed once.
“Was it Mike?” asked King.
Underhill squeezed King’s hand once more, and then he was dead.
Sixteen days later, on Nov. 9, 1978, at 1 p.m., a man calling himself “Arby Evans” strolled into a bank in Bloomfield, Connecticut. When he tried to withdraw $30,000, a suspicious manager called the local police, who summoned the FBI. Inside the office of the bank’s president, FBI Agent Richard Foster and the chief of the Bloomfield Police Department sat face-to-face with Michael Thevis. He had changed his mind about the money, he said. He’d just like to leave. Then he looked out of the window, and saw more agents talking to Jeanette, who was waiting in the car.
When they escorted Jeanette inside, she was frantic. “I’m sorry that I had to involve you, as my sister,” Thevis said, with a knowing look. Jeanette had told the agents she was his wife. Everyone looked at each other. Then Agent Foster unfurled a flier of the FBI’s “10 Most Wanted.” He looked at Thevis, and back at the flier.
“When I first heard that Mike had been caught in Connecticut with a woman, more than a dozen names flashed through my mind,” King told a reporter, “and I still didn’t pick the right one.” King had built a thick criminal case on the former newsstand owner, and told me that the FBI knew of other murders.
“He had a competitor from the Tampa area,” King said. “The guy came up to see him, from what I’ve heard, with Roger. Got him up on the pretext of doing business with him to expand his pornography business. Got him up to the house and just killed him… just shot him.”
Neighbors of Thevis heard the gunshots but were too afraid to talk, he said.
“We didn’t prosecute him for the Tampa guy. You can only pile on so much. He’s not gonna get any more time.”
Tony Thevis told me this account must be “pure fiction”—the Lion’s Gate Estate sits on 18 acres, and they had no neighbors.
Either way, the pornographer was perhaps doomed from the first day of his dramatic trial, when the court was asked to lead the jury in prayer. In his deposition, Thevis boasted when speaking about his porn business: “No one could compete with our machines,” he said. Thevis referred to himself as “the chief” and “the Supreme Leader,” while claiming that he was the victim of a government on a morality binge. When recordings from Underhill’s shoe microphone were played to the court, government attorneys claimed that his comment about Underhill’s polygraph (“No wonder you passed”) confirmed his involvement in the slayings of Mayes and Hanna.
Thevis denied all of the charges, every act of violence, even after Underhill’s neighbor testified that he saw Thevis at the double-murder scene. “As to Mr. Underhill,” Thevis said, “my position with his testimony is that he is a liar; always has been, always will be.” A top psychiatrist confirmed what many suspected about Underhill, that he was “mentally unbalanced” and paranoid. Meanwhile, Thevis diagnosed King with “tunnel vision” and “myopic lunacy.” He claimed King told him he “would make the directorship [of the FBI] off my back.”
The jury reviewed more than 1,000 cartons of evidence and testimony from 300 witnesses. Perhaps their hardest decision concerned the then-born-again Christian Jeanette Evans. Her family and friends wrote emotional letters to the court begging for leniency. “It would seem she acted first and thought later in a matter of the heart,” a co-worker wrote. Thevis agreed. “Her only crime was loving me,” he wrote, “it seems you always hurt the ones you love most.”
On Oct. 21, 1979, the jurors returned their verdict, as tears flowed in the courtroom. Thevis and his two co-defendants, Jeannette Evans and Bart Hood, were convicted of conspiring to murder Roger Underhill to prevent his testimony on racketeering charges against Thevis. All three were sentenced to life in prison. No longer a baby-faced agent, King left the trial with graying hair and a gray moustache. When he marched down the courtroom steps, the jurors formed a line outside to applaud him.
* * *
According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Jeanette Evans was released in 1992. That year, Paul King retired from the FBI after 23 years of service. On the fifth and 10th anniversaries of the trial, he flew to Atlanta to celebrate with members of the jury. In retirement he set up a private agency, West River Group, and helped the FBI seize assets from another great American villain, Bernie Madoff. During the ’90s, the Thevis mansion became the home of Whitney Houston, until Tony Thevis, a successful real-estate agent, bought it back with his stepfather and restored it to its former glory.
The last peephole that Michael Thevis ever looked through was in his cell door at the United States Penitentiary in Atlanta. There, prisoner 00105-123 kept a secret hamster he named Scooter. “He’s very cute,” Thevis wrote in a letter to his daughter. Now bald with paunch, Thevis watched from behind bars as pornography became regulated, legitimized, and unionized. His peep show machine eventually died and was quickly forgotten. Ribbons of film became magnetic VHS tape, then pixels. There are now fewer adult bookstores and sex shops in Atlanta—though Wal-Mart and CVS carry some vibrators. The lustful and the curious still pay to watch strangers act out their secret desires, but they peer into their own box of lights, in the comfort of their homes.
A few years ago, Thevis welcomed to the visitors’ room his nephew Mann Chandler. The former peep machine engineer told me that Uncle Mike gave him one final piece of advice. “Son, make as much money as you can, but don’t go over the line,” he said, “I went over the line.” Before he died of heart and respiratory failure in 2013, Thevis would look out over the barbed wire fence, and see the cramped apartment where he and Joan once lived, back when they were broke. Back when he dreamed of making a million dollars. Back before Roger Underhill. Back when he was happy.