In 1976 Melvin and Betty Sembler assembled a crew of clinicians and directors hell-bent on saving the nation's youth from drug addiction. But in the first year a half dozen directors left claiming abuse. By 1980 the original clinicians had been replaced too, but if anything their replacements were even worse. Straight made nearly $100 million and Mel Sembler became a US ambassador, not once, but twice, based, on part, on his humanitarian work at Straight. So who are these self-righteous people who felt they could solve America's drug problem? Where did they come from? Where did Mel Sembler come from?
On April 23, 1993 The St. Petersburg Times ran a strange obituary. It was for one Gilbert Adler Schlesinger, 87, of Dyersburg, Tenn. "and a frequent visitor to St. Petersburg." He was buried in St. Petersburg. Gilbert Schlesinger was the father of Straight cofounder Betty Sembler. Mel Sembler has been telling the press since the 1970s that he made it big while working at his father-in-law's ladies apparel store after he convinced Mr. Schlesinger to expand the business. That got Mel into the the shopping center business. Mel Sembler has always spoken highly of his in-laws and the Schlesingers are frequently mentioned in press-hog Sembler news stories. For example the big story about Betty Sembler's 70th birthday party and the inaugural diner in 2001 when Mel told someone, "You brought your father-in-law, I brought my mother-in-law." It is strange that theSt. Pete Times ran Gilbert Schlesinger's obituary in 1993 because when a man named Benjamin Sembler died on Jan. 18, 1992 in Houston, Texas, the Houston Chronicle carried the obit on Jan 20, 1992, but the St. Pete Times never mentioned it. Benjamin "Benny" Sembler was Mel Sembler's father. His mother was Fannie Sembler. And while the Semblers have frequently slipped the names of Betty's parents to the press they apparently never refer to Mel's parents. What manner of man would brag about his father-in-law but never mention his own dad! According to press stories Mel Sembler's rise to glory started in Dyersburg, Tennessee. But Mel Sembler wasn't born in Dyersburg, Tennessee. He wasn't born anywhere in Tennessee. Mel Sembler was born, and raised, in St. Joseph, Missouri. He left in 1948 to attend Northwestern University where he met Betty. After a stint in the Army he worked for his father-in-law and you know the rest of that story.
In the 1951 yearbook for Northwestern University in the School of Speech there is a picture of Mel Sembler, junior, with the caption, "Melvin Sembler, St. Joseph, Mo." But on page 29 of the yearbook for Central High School in St. Joseph, Missouri there is a picture of Mel Sembler with the caption "Sembler, Buddy." He is not listed as Melvin "Buddy" Sembler or Melvin F. "Buddy" Sembler which would be typical title for a nickname. He is listed as Buddy Sembler implying that his given name is really Buddy, not Melvin. What happened in St. Joseph, Missouri that would cause Mr. Sembler to start his legend in Dyersburg, Tennessee. Could it be so embarrassing as to cause him to change his name?
The men behind Straight marketed their product (a drug-free child) to the affluent parents of white children. It didn't seem to matter so much whether a child had a drug problem or not; what mattered was that the child's parents had a means to get their hands on money to pay them. All Straight had to do was to get a child's parents into the door and separate them from their child and Straight could convince them that their kid had a drug problem and would probably die without Straight. No parent will risk losing his child.
The young are vulnerable pawns to the so-called War on Drugs and a lot of money can be made off them from unscrupulous businessmen. But there is another group of vulnerable citizens that are targeted by unscrupulous businessmen and newage cults alike. These are the very old. When your mom and dad get too old to care for themselves. When they can no longer remember if it is Monday or Tuesday. When they are bed ridden and someone has to clean their soiled sheets, they may placed in nursing homes and assisted living homes. Many of these older citizens still have wealth in the form of a home, a bank account, a social security check, a retirement check. They just don't have memory anymore. And their money may be targeted by others the same way that the money of a child's parents may be targeted by certain individuals. And while Straight targeted the parents of the young, Straight board member Melvin Gross and his Diversified Insurance Company was busy targeting the very old. We'll get back to Mel and Benny Sembler momentarily, but first let's hear about Melvin Gross.
The cover of the June 1994 issue of Modern Maturity, the magazine for AARP (American Association of Retired People) reads �Cults: Forget the kids. Now they're after you.� Inside is the article "Let Us Prey" by Catherine Collins and Douglas Frantz." [That's "prey" not "pray."] It's an article warning that newage cults are now visiting nursing homes and assisted living homes trying to befriend elderly people. Elderly people with financial resources but lonely elderly people who rarely get visitors. But cults are not the only people who realize the vulnerability of lonely elderly people who have financial resources. Insurance companies offer health policies to the over-65 market for nursing home stays, for surgery and for Medicare supplement policies which cover some expenses not reimbursed by Medicare. This last insurance is often called Medigap because it pays hospital bills, nursing home bills and doctor bills that Medicare doesn't pay.
In March 1987 the Florida Department of Insurance fined Melvin Gross, president of Diversified Health Services, $5,000 and placed him on probation for using "deceptive and misleading" tactics while selling health insurance policies to senior citizens. The product being sold was supplemental Medicare insurance. According to the Dept. of Insurance this is how the pitch worked. Older Florida citizens were mailed literature that invited them to fill out a card to join NARP (the National Association of Retired People)--easily confused with AARP (American Association of Retired people). According to state officials the elderly were also mislead into thinking they would be sent information about group health policies. When people mailed in the cards they were sold to Diversified. Diversified agents contacted them and tried to sell them more expensive individual policies, not group. Many older people complained to the state insurance department saying they had been confused thinking they were dealing with AARP. (SPT, 3-14-87, p. 1B)
In 1987 The St. Petersburg Times analyzed 2,771 complaints about medigap policies lodged with the Department of Insurance between mid-1985 and the end of 1986. Over that period state regulators received 412 complaints about National States Insurance Co. That's almost twice the complaints generated by any other company. Diversified was the exclusive agent in Florida for National States and Mel Gross was a major stockholder in Nations States. The Times reported that George and Sophie Ellis mailed in a card to NARP thinking it was AARP. An agent selling National States Insurance showed up and told them the company currently insuring them was on the verge of bankruptcy and that they should drop their policy and take one with him. When they declined they say he stomped out and "slammed the door.`` (SPT 3-29-87, p. 1A) In an article titled, "One company refused to submit a sample supplement policy" the Times reported that as part of its study the Times had asked National States Insurance Co. for a copy of its supplemental policy but, the seventh-largest seller of Medicare supplement insurance in Florida did not submit its supplement policy to the St. Petersburg Times for comparison with other policies. Charles Rariden, president of National States, did not return several telephone calls and a telegram and Melvin Gross had said through a spokesman that he wouldn't submit a sample policy because his company had been treated unfairly by the press in the past. (SPT 3-30-87, p. 7A)
In those days Diversified was taking in $25 million a year in sales. Two weeks after Mel Gross was exposed for deceptive insurance practices for the elderly, the Jewish National Fund Gulf Coast Council awarded him and Straight board members Walter Loebenberg and Joseph Zappala Tree of Life Awards. (SPT, Apr. 10, 1987, p. 9B)
Two years later Mel Gross, Diversified and National States were being investigated by the state insurance department again because of consumer complaints. In one comparison reported in the Times Diversified generated 18 times more complaints than a competing company with similar sales. The Times reported that according to 1987 figures National States received 19 complaints for every $1-million it earned in premiums or roughly five times higher than the average rate of complaints against Florida's other top 10 Medicare supplement sellers. The state insurance department received complaints that Diversified agents sometimes pose as "investigators" and sometimes as Medicare "consultants" or "advisers." One former agent wrote a letter to the insurance department in which he described training sessions at the insurance company as the ``Ding-Dong School of Deceit.`` He wrote that agents are taught to ``lie, gain entrance to a home, avoid the truth and mislead the public.``
The state insurance department had received letters of complaint like these:
Before Terry Statton was a Diversified agent he sold water filters. He once sold a water filter to an 81 year old woman for $650 (it cost about $100 to make). The woman said he showed up to test her water, told her it was full of "all kinds of germs" and told her her bottled water was loaded with cancer causing germs. He was later charged with grand theft, acknowledged his guilt (but claims he did not tell the woman her water was full of germs). Before Edward Kodish came to Diversified he had been charged with grand theft and fraud against the state in Illinois. He was a top seller at Diversified earning $238,000 in one year. (SPT 6-6-89, p. 1B) One allegation the state made against Kodish when it suspended his license was that he stole a check from an Orange Park woman when she stepped out of the room and used the check to sign her up for a Medicare supplement policy. (SPT 6-13-89, p. 1B)
In Sept. 1989 15 agents from Diversified were accused of "deceit" by Florida state insurance regulators. Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher alleged, "Agents for Diversified Health Services posed as investigators, misstated coverage, lied about competitors and helped customers cover up past illnesses on application forms." The state alleged that Lawrence Hugh Sussman sold five National States policies to a Port St. Lucie man who was suffering from terminal brain cancer. The state alleged that on the applications Sussman had written that his client once had surgery for ``a growth`` but was in ``good health.`` The state alleged that Michael Halloran sold policies to a Venice woman and to a Fort Myers woman without their ``authorization or knowledge.``
The state charged that Daniel Charles Ianiello told a woman that he would ``update`` her Medicare supplement policy with a new policy that would go into effect immediately. But in fact the new policy had a 90-day waiting period leaving her without any coverage for three months. In another charge, the state said that Ianiello talked a woman to switching from Blue Cross to National. Later she had a heart attack and accumulated $30,000 in medical expenses that would have been ``significantly lower`` had she not signed up with Ianiello. (SPT, 9-23-1989, p. 1B)
Joseph Zappala. When detectives raided the home of Angela Lee in Tampa on July 27, 1988 they found two pounds of cocaine in her bathtub, a scale and $30,000 cash. But prosecutors cut a deal with Ms. Lee when she agreed to help them build cases against at least seven others. On Nov. 1, 1988 she pleaded guilty to Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Edward H. Ward to trafficking more than 400 grams of cocaine. Judge Ward sentenced her to two years house arrest, five years probation, 100 hours of community service, to submit to random drug screening and to receive treatment if necessary. Prosecutors convinced the judge to drop the house arrest and place her in the witness protection program, so the state put her up in a place in Greenville, North Carolina. Ms. Lee's full name is Angela Zappala Lee. She is the sister of alleged Straight founder Joseph Zappala, former US ambassador to Spain. In April 1989 Lee testified against two brothers, but they were acquitted. A week later she testified against Kim Butcher, a 30 year old mother of three who had no previous record. Ms. Butcher was sentenced to a mandatory 15 years for conspiring to deliver more than 400 grams of cocaine.
In Sept. 1990, while in the witness protection program, Angela Zappala Lee was arrested by federal authorities along with 20 others as part of a drug bust in Illinois. She was charged with conspiracy to distribute 4.5 kilos (about 10 pounds) of cocaine, two counts of distribution of cocaine, 33 counts of conducting a financial transaction with drug proceeds (money laundering). She had allegedly distributed of cocaine to five men in Central Illinois. But once again Anglea Lee cut a deal with prosecutors. She provided information about the other defendants and plead guilty to two counts on January 30, 1991. She was scheduled for sentencing on June 28, 1991 but was not actually sentenced until Sept. 3, 1991. She received 5 years in a federal prison to be as close to Tampa, Florida as possible, plus 3 years supervised release. [Journal Star, Peoria, Ill. 2-1-91, 9-13-90, 3-15-91, Tampa Tribune 3-1-89]
That was Angela Zappala Lee, not Joseph Zappala and Mr. Zappala should not be held accountable for the crimes of his sister. Nevertheless there are concerns. What you have is one part of a family abetting a situation to get kids addicted to drugs and another part of that family supporting a $100 million, tax exempt business enterprise to treat perhaps some of those same kids for addictions. Angela Zappala Lee was participating in an illegal activity, but then Straight is an illegal activity itself. God forbid if Straight was in the business of selling drugs to get kids addicted to drugs and then selling their parents a program to get them off drugs. Surely Joseph Zappala's relationship with his sister is important to know and perhaps it can be cleared up in depositions in the Bradbury-Sembler trial. Did she live with her brother? Had he ever been over her home when she made a sale? Did he know she was a big-time dealer? Is he very close to his his sister? Have the Semblers ever attended a party where Anglea was present? Have the Semblers ever met Angela? Did they know who she was before her illegal activity became public knowledge? I have read one account that nobody sold drugs in the Tampa area without paying tribute to mobster Santo Traficante. Did Angela pay tribute to Traficante?
is the resume Joseph Zappala submitted to the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee that considered his ambassadorial nomination to Spain in
1989. Notice that he is from New York and notice his meteoric rise
from bookkeeper/timekeeper of a Long Island Construction Company in
1955 to owner of a multi-million dollar construction company by the
1960s who founded his own bank. Also notice that he claims to be a
Straight cofounder and that he has been involved with Straight from
1979 to 1989. Now look at this link.
It shows that Straight was not founded in 1979 when Mr. Zappala says
he got involved with Straight. Straight was incorporated on April
22, 1976. The link lists Straight's original directors and Joseph
Zappala is not among them. There are many newspaper articles in 1976
about Straight and the people who founded it but Joe Zappala is never
mentioned. For example, an article in the August 12, 1976 St. Petersburg
Times tells of the various men including Mel Sembler who had a hand
in the founding of Straight, but Joseph Zappala is not mentioned.
It appears by his own submission to the Senate that Mr. Zappala got
involved in Straight in 1979. If that is true then he could not have
been a cofounder, so why did he say he was a cofounder if he was not!
On his Senate application form Mel Sembler wrote, "I have been known as a coalition builder, able to organize my colleagues and peers to action in support of worthy civic, charitable and political causes." On his Senate application form Zappala wrote "I am known as a coalition builder. I am able to organize my colleagues and peers to action in support of worthwhile civic, charitable and political causes." The two men had plagiarized their applications. Senator Paul Sarbanes of Maryland was not amused. He stated on the floor of the Senate, "This is an absolute insult to the process. It's incredible. It's the sort of thing where a teacher in school would hand the exam back, or better yet flunk the student." The Washington Post editorialized calling the two forms "modular testimony" and asked the question, "Can the would-be ambassadors be trusted to enter into dialogue with their host governments if they, apparently, cannot be trusted to write a few lines on their own qualifications?" The Washington Post and a US Senator had questioned the two men's veracity not even knowing that Straight was a criminal activity and not even knowing that Zappala's statement to the Senate about being a Straight cofounder was also in question.
During the midst of Zappala's nomination hearings The St. Pete Times (8-27-89) reported on a $ 3.5 million Spring Hill land deal in which Joe Zappala was involved. Zappala was a partner in Park Avenue Communities which brought the land for development. Unlike Mel Sembler, Joseph Zappala is camera shy and frequently avoids the press. Zappala did not comment in the article, but Park Avenue VP George Steigner who is Zappala's son-in-law did. About Zappala's involvement Steigner said, "I'm absolutely forbidden. I'm not allowed to discuss his involvement in our activities." And company president Bruce Baynard told a reporter, "It's not really pertinent." But if you look at the resume Zappala submitted to the Senate it is important because his resume lists his employment history yet he never mentions Park Avenue Communities. Three months before the Park Avenue question had come up, Sembler and Zappala had tried to explain to the Washington Post their plagiarism. (6-24-89, p. A1). Tampa public relations specialist Pat Lewis told the Post that she had completed Sembler's form and used the words "coalition builder." A man named Bruce Bannard, identifying himself as a Zappala associate, told the Post that he had filled out Zappala's form, that he had had a copy of Lewis' form and that "whether consciously or unconsciously" he had used her wording.
Is it Bruce Bannard or Bruce Baynard? When the Tampa Tribune broke the story about Angela Zappala Lee, ambassador nominee Joseph Zappala refused to comment publicly, but his associate Bruce Baynard did. He told a reporter that Zappala "is not close to his sister" and he added that that her arrest "illustrates why Zappala is so committed to his work with Straight." We believe that the Zappala associate mentioned in the June 24 Washington Post article was the same Zappala associate mentioned in the March 1 Tampa Tribune article and the man quoted in the August 27 St. Petersburg Times article. We suspect that there is only one associate--Bruce Baynard-- and that the Post article misspelled the name as "Bannard."
Here is the situation.
You have a man who bought an ambassadorship trying to tell the Senate
that he has been chosen because of his humanitarian work helping kids
at Straight. In fact he told the US Senate that he had confounded
Straight. But that claim is in dispute. You have him omitting in his
application that he is part owner of a corporation and you have his
business partner Bruce Baynard saying I can explain that--it's none
of your business. It looks like Sembler and Zappala copied each other's
application, and again you have Zappala's business partner Bruce Baynard
saying I can explain that too. Mel Sembler hires a public relations
person to write his resumes, Bruce might would say, but Joe Zappala
uses me, the president of one of his corporations, to do his. So I
wrote Joe's and I copied it from Mel's, but I may not have done it
consciously! In June First Florida Bank sued Park Avenue Communities,
Joseph Zappala and Bruce Baynard for not paying their bills (foreclosure).
(SPT 6-10-92, City Edition, p. 10) So it should not surprise you that
when the Anglea Lee story broke Joseph Zappala had no comment to make,
but Bruce Baynard "an associate" did. Baynard had reported
that Zappala "is not close to his sister" and he said that
her arrest "illustrates why Zappala is so committed to his work
with Straight." Did Zappala lie to the Senate? Did Mel Sembler
realize he had lied? If so why had he not corrected the statement.
Zappala is from New York but his sister was busted in Tampa just miles
from Joseph Zappala. If the two are estranged as Baynard claimed then
when were they estranged? If they were estranged in New York, then
it sure is coincidental that she just happened to be in the Tampa
area when arrested. Or did they become estranged after they both moved
to Tampa Bay? Even so, just when did Zappala become not close to his
sister? Within hours of her arrest? The week before her arrest? Or
did they both move to the Tampa area in the sixties but had a fallen
out in the 70s?
Joe Zappala and Ray Chambers 9/11 Check. I do not know what the IRS reporting requirement is, if any, for non-profits to declare who their major contributors are. I do know that Straight, Inc. and Straight Foundation, Inc. have historically reported contributions of at least $5,000. So I was a bit surprised to see that nobody reported a $25,000 donation to Straight by Ray Chambers (below) who is a former Straight, Inc. board member-at-large.
Look at the foundation's tax returns for FY 85, page 14. See how in 1986 the foundation accounted for major donations of $25,000. Atlantic Richfield Foundation, Constantin Foundation and Rosewood Corp. all gave donations of $25,000 and the foundation accounted for it on their Form 990. Look at the tax returns for the original Straight, Inc. FY 83. On page 1, Part 1, #1(a) notice that it took in $1,526,341 in gifts and contributions. Notice that major contributors like the $50,000 gift from Sebly Foundation are itemized on pages 11 and 13. Look at the tax return for new Straight, Inc. FY 85, page 1. See where it took in $2,214,570 in gifts, contributions and grants. Now go to page 8 of that return to see where the major contributors were itemized--in this case a grant of $1,255,719 from Straight Foundation. Anthony Battaglia is a former business partner of Straight cofounder Joseph Zappala. He frequently handled legal matters for Straight. Look at page 8 of the foundation's FY 87 tax return. See where the foundation gives Battaglia's law firm acknowledgment for its kind donation of $5,000. Also acknowledged are Steven Karp, Lance Larenstein and the Lions Charity in Norfolk, Virginia each for a donation of $5,000. Now observe from the returns for Straight Foundation FY 90, page 1 that it received no public support. On page 12 notice that the foundation return did account for a major contributor from back in 1986, but there is no acknowledgment of a gift from Ray Chambers. Now look at Straight, Inc. FY 90, page 1. Note that Straight, Inc. took in $1,994,988 direct public support from gifts and contributions. But again, there is no acknowledgment of any gift of $25,000 from Ray Chambers.
If Straight normally reports major contributions of even $5,000 then why did it not report a $25,000 contribution from Ray Chambers? Did Joe Zappala give a matching amount as he was put on the spot to do? Is Ray Chamber's donation the only donation Straight claimed but did report on its tax forms. Perhaps depositions in the Bradbury trial can clear matters like this up.
When Melvin Gross got into trouble with the state insurance department he turned to attorney Anthony Battaglia. Though Straight had no declared corporate attorney, Battaglia probably came closer to that role, outside directors who were also attorneys, than any one else. Besides Battaglia was a business partner to land developer and self declared Straight cofounder Joseph Zappala. One business venture that Straight cofounder Joseph Zappala teamed-up with Anthony Battaglia was BFZ Development, Inc. Another was the Great Crockett Lake Ranch SALE. In the 1970s Anthony Battaglia and his wife, Straight cofounder Joseph Zappala and his wife, two other couples, and another man bought 973 acres of rural land in Pasco County known as Crockett Lake Ranch for less than $1 million. Fifteen years later it was worth about $2.5 million when the partners asked the county to rezone it part residential, part commercial. The county planning commission said no to commercial, but maybe to residential, provided the owners or potential new owners would pay for an impact study on roadways if declared residential as the owners or potential new owners would be the immediate beneficiaries of a rezoning. But then, four months later, the county, inexplicably decided to rezone it residential/commercial as the owners wished. The property jumped from a value of $2.5 million to $10 million with the stroke of a pen. If sold to a single buyer, it would be one of the biggest land deals in Pasco County history at that time. County appraiser Ted Williams remarked that the county may have serious financial problems planning and paying for all the new development that has been approved!
Roy Speer In 1988 Straight board members Mel Sembler, Joseph Zappala, Alec Courtelis and Roy Speer (founder of cable TVs Home Shopping Network [HSN]) each gave at least $100,000 for Republican causes. In return George Bush made Sembler and Zappala ambassadors and did a TV commercial on Speer�s Home Shopping Network for Straight. Zappala got the ambassadorship to Spain where plans were underway for the summer Olympics to be held in Barcelona. Roy Speer got the concession agreements for the summer Olympics in Spain. Allegations concerning HSN surfaced in 1993 about commercial bribes, secret investments and misleading filings with the SEC. Allen Alweiss, formerly the state prosecutor's chief assistant attorney for Pasco County and in 1989 a member-at-large on Straight Foundation, Inc.�s board of directors, left the prosecutor's office and gone on to work for HSN. He alleged that one HSN executive had ties to John Gotti. He also made claims of a proposed business venture between HSN and a convicted drug dealer named Doc McGhee. [Wall Street Journal 5-14-93. Sec A, p. 1; Wall Street Journal, 3-18-94 Sec B, p. 4; Saint Petersburg Times, 12-8-88, Sec Business, p29A, Ed: City]
Bernadine Braithwaite and Walter Loebenberg Mel Sembler's good friend Walter Loebenberg used to be president of U.S. Health Corporation. In 1992 the US attorney in Tampa, Florida filed suit against Walter Loebenberg and two of his employees at US Health--Bernadine Braithwaite and another person. It seems that Medicare was to have reimbursed US Health a portion of $300,000 required to pay medical malpractice insurance but had made a mistake and paid $950,000. In the meantime US Health had dissolved--with the money--and the government wanted its money back. [Saint Petersburg Times, 9-24-92, p. 6E., City Ed.] That case (Case # 8:92-CV-1356-T-17TGW) was settled on July 27, 1993. We do not know the terms of the settlement. Walter Loebenberg is a good friend of Mel Sembler. In 1988 Loebenberg was a senior vice president of Straight Foundation, Inc. By 1989 Mr. Loebenberg had become the president and chairman of the board of Straight Foundation, Inc. Walter Loebenberg founded the Tampa Bay Holocaust Museum (now called the Florida Holocaust Museum) on whose Board of Trustees sits or has sat Mel and Betty Sembler and Straight, Inc. board member-at-large Bruce Epstein.
Loebenberg brought Bernadine Braithwaite onboard as executive director of Straight, Inc. in September 1987. According to Tampa reporter Kim Keeler of Channel 13 Eye Witness News in a special serial report called "Straight: Healing or Harming?" [c. 1992], in February 1991 Bernadine Braithwaite made an emotional, videotaped appeal to Straight parents for increased fundraising efforts. Citing a 65% reduction in enrollments she had made this statement:
But whose salaries "at all levels" had she cut? Tax returns for the years 1990 and 1989 show that five months before she made the plea for additional fundraising efforts by the parents, her own salary had increased from the previous year from $132,000 to $145,200. Her last salary reported to the IRS five months before that broadcast showed an increase to $145,200. Her salary for 1991, the year she made the broadcast, increased even more to $151,417. In fact, in 1990, including contributions to employee benefit plans and her expense account, Mrs. Braithwaite�s share was $172,098. In the same period Page Perry�s salary increased from $72,000 to $86,400, Anthony Agliardi�s from $73,425 to $88,110. The fact is that all of the top five paid employees (other than officers, directors and trustees) received salary increases over the previous year. So just whose salaries had been cut at all levels?
If you click on A Message from Bernadine Braithwaite you will see the back page of a two-page glossy Straight brochure titled STRAIGHT, THE FAMILY ORIENTED TREATMENT PROGRAM. At point "a" you see that Ms. Braithwaite became the new national Executive Director for Straight, Inc. in September, 1987. At "b" you see that she claims that her Straight, Inc. has been around since 1976. But this is misleading. In 1985 Straight, Inc. was about to be sued yet again. So they changed the mission to education and the name to Straight Foundation, Inc. Then a brand new organization was created to treat kids for addictions. The new organization was named Straight, Inc. The foundation kept the money and property and was free from any future law suits for criminal child abuse. Mel Sembler went with the foundation. The foundation was a shell corporation to protect Mel Sembler from lawsuits and jail time and to protect Straight's assets. Thus in "A Message from Bernadine Braithwaite" Ms. Braithwaite is playing it both ways. In 1985 Straight, Inc. had to give up its claim of lasting power in order to protect Sembler. But here she was claiming that Straight, Inc. had been around since 1976 though that was no longer true--and Mel Sembler let her do it! In the undated "Personnel Handbook STRAIGHT" there is a picture of Bernadine Braithwaite on the first page. So we know that the handbook refers to the new 1985 Straight, Inc. On the second page it reads that Straight was founded in 1976 and then states, "Since that initial effort, STRAIGHT has expanded to become a national organization." Another deception. Also there is a big, glossy eight page brochure from Straight which also has Bernadine Braithwaite's picture on page 1. Page 2 starts off by telling how some parents and professionals founded STRAIGHT in 1976 and leads into saying, "Today STRAIGHT is considered one of our nations' most effective drug treatment programs for adolescents." This is all fraud. A new organization was built to protect Mel Sembler. The Straight, Inc. that Bernadine Braithwaite directed, the one that went out of business in 1993 was founded in 1985. That whole story of fraud and deception is here.
Norman Trenton Straight was a St Petersburg, Florida based corporation with almost all of its board members from that area. So it was surprising when the Semblers chose Norman Trenton from Los Angeles to handle the corporation's money because Straight did not have a camp in California at the time. Norman Trenton was Straight's treasurer. According to Straight's tax filings Norman Trenton's full time position was with a Los Angeles firm called Zond Systems. We do not know what Mr. Trenton did for Zond Systems. According to newspaper accounts of the times Zond was a provider of windmills for the production of electrical power. In August 1990 more than 70 people nationwide filed a lawsuit against Zond Systems of Los Angeles and four affiliates claiming they had been defrauded of thousands of dollars. The plaintiffs say they had been promised returns totaling hundreds of millions of dollars over the next 20 years on their investments which ranged from $19,000 to $113,000. The investors say Zond�s projected wind speeds were 50% below projections, that turbines had to be repositioned and were even �found or claimed to be pointed in the wrong direction to catch the wind.'' Jan Knee, one of the plaintiffs, claims he invested $75,000 but had received a return of only $266 in five years! We do not know the outcome of the lawsuit. We do not know what Norman Trenton did for Zond Systems. We do not even know if he was an executive at Zond. We have never seen any document tying Mr. Trenton to the allegations of the civil suit against Zond. We do not even know if he was in the windmill division of Zond.
Early Straight board members resign in mass No sooner than Straight had opened that complaints started rolling in. Straight was incorporated on April 22, 1976 but did not start operations until September 1. On September 26, exactly twenty-five days after it had started operation, executive vice president Art Bauknight quit. In his letter of resignation he warned that the board "is not operating as required by Florida statutes, its charter and bylaws." "There are voids in your insurance coverage," he wrote. "Money is being handled by non-bonded employees and officers." No "basic safety rules" had been developed by the corporation "to protect others from unreasonable risk of bodily harm, loss or damage," he wrote. Like board member Mel Gross, Art Bauknight was an insurance agent. One of his concerns had been forced haircuts. He noted that Straight usually made juveniles get a haircut and some resisted. This should have been a concern of everybody, but perhaps only Bauknight, being an insurance man, could understand the significance of this. Suppose the barber's scissors wound up in the eye or through the eye to the brain of the struggling newcomer or one of the boys made to restrain him. Board members might be liable for allowing such a practice to occur in the first place. Five months after his resignation, in an article in the St Petersburg Times in March 1977, Straight responded to Bauknight. After six months Straight had finally produced a graduate--Randy. Straight is �great' Randy said in an interview. "They didn't force me to do anything, not even get my hair cut. They like you to get your hair cut, but they don't force you", Straight's first graduate said. Jim Hartz, Straight's first executive director, was asked about forced haircuts in December 1977. His response, "I could get hit (by a car) walking across the street."
In July 1977 ten months after Art's resignation, his wife Lila, another founding director, also resigned in protest. In her letter of resignation she stated, in part, that "major decisions involving the operation of Straight Inc. are made without consultation of board members or their approval." Next month, August 1977, three more directors resigned in mass. In a joint statement they said that neither Hartz nor Peterman [Helen Peterman who directed the clinical staff] "have the necessary qualifications to rehabilitate preteens or teens who have a drug or alcohol problem." "Furthermore," they wrote, "we feel we cannot recommend Straight Inc. to our friends or citizens of our community." In all at least six corporate directors had resigned by early December 1977. One director to resign was Theodore Anderson who had donated the original facility for Straight. "It [Straight] has many of the poor points of the Seed [the controversial model upon which Straight had been patterned that had been accused by the US Senate of brainwashing] and few of the good points," he stated. "If I had to recommend one [program] I'd recommend The Seed." L. Hap Henson was another director to resign. Carolyn Henson, Hap's wife, had been a program volunteer. She stated to a St. Petersburg Times' reporter in December 1977, "they [juveniles] are Straight while they're there, but it's out of fear." She further stated that several former program counselors and clients had told her that juveniles have been mistreated while in the program. A former program volunteer told a Times reporter in December 1977 that she, Hartz and others once witnessed Mrs. Peterman maliciously kicking a youth who was passively resisting Straight officials.
We have just discussed some of the board members behind Straight. Before we talk about Mel Sembler and his roots in St. Joseph, Missouri, we should discuss some of the clinical "experts" he had working for him at Straight.
Reverend Doctor Miller Newton In the last section we mentioned some of the alleged abuses attributed to Straight's founding clinical director Helen Peterman. Jim Hartz/Helen Peterman were replaced by one Miller Newton. The following alleged events preceded the departures of Miller Newton and his wife Ruth Ann Newton from Straight in 1983. In front of hundreds of other kids, Miller Newton grabbed 15 year-old Leah Bright by her hair, threw her on the floor, said, 'I want this girl the fuck out of my group' and sentenced her to no sleep from Saturday afternoon to Monday night--80 hours.(2) When Ms Bright told her old comer in private that she felt suicidal, she says she was made to wear a sweat shirt with the word PSYCHOTIC on it!(3) In 1990 Karen Norton was awarded $721,000 for being abused at Straight. She testified that Newton had thrown her against a wall.(4) Marcie Sizemore was in Straight between 80-82. She says she was beaten and thrown against a wall.(5) In Feb 82 Straight-Atlanta settled with 3 kids represented by the ACLU who claimed they were suffering "inhumane treatment".(6) The Florida state agency responsible for overseeing drug rehabilitation programs was Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS). An HRS report in April 1981 found that teenage clients at Straight had been threatened by administrative staff members with being either court ordered into Straight or being committed to a mental institution unless they voluntarily entered Straight. Several former clients reported to the Saint Petersburg Times in 1981 that they had been treated similarly by Straight staffers.(7) On July 17, 1980 Michael Calabrese went to Straight to visit his brother. He claims he was detained for 9 hours by Straight staffers who threatened to retain him for two years with a court order unless he voluntarily signed himself in. He says he got into a shouting match with Miller Newton during this intake.(8) Acting on a complaint on September 30, 1980 Florida state health officials (HRS) interviewed a male juvenile client at Straight-St Pete whom they found being held against his will for treatment for a drug problem he did not have. Straight released this minor. An investigation by HRS responding to a complaint by an Orlando woman on March 4, 1981 found that her son was being held against his will at Straight. (She had previously filed a Writ of Habeas Corpus to get her other son out.) On March 16, 1981 state officials Terrell Harper and Marshall met with Miller Newton and two female clients who had recently escaped from Straight-St Pete but had been returned. In the presence of the state officials Newton threatened the two girls that they could be "sent to a mental institution," and then told one of the girls he was considering advising her parents to take her to a treatment program in Georgia where she could be "locked-up for 6 months" on just her parents signature. HRS removed one of the girls the next day. The other child was removed three days later by her mother at the recommendation of a court appointed guardian ad litem. State investigators found that the locks to the bedroom doors where these girls sleep--a Ms. M's home--had been reversed to lock from the outside.(9)
Arletha Schauteet attended a sibling interview on Oct 23, 1981 in order to see her brother. She was held against her will until April 21, 1982. At one point she had escaped only to be kidnapped, in a violent 30 minute struggle, by her mother, two adult males, and a woman and taken back to Straight. At one point she says Miller Newton told her that if she persisted in saying she was held against her will, "the state of Florida would take over and put my mother in jail for kidnapping." Detective Brown from the Sanford, Fl. Police Department secured her release. [Judge C. Vernon Mize signed a preemptory Writ of Habeas Corpus in the interest of Ms. Schauteet, the date is smeared, but appears to be 1982.] On Jan 19, 1983, an 18 year-old student intern in the Seminole County's sheriff's office named Hope Hyrons attended a sibling interview so she could visit her brother. They tried to make her sign herself into Straight. She resisted and she was made to walk and hitch hike back to Longwood, Fl--a 2 hour drive away. A month later she was kidnapped by her mother and father and two strange men and carried to Straight. She fought to get out of the intake room and was restrained. When she told her captors her legal rights were being violated, she says Rev. Miller Newton walked in and said, ""Well, I don't give a damn about your legal rights." Two days later a social services official secured her release. Newton and Straight settled out-of-court with her in 1983.(10) On June 19, 1982, Fred Collins, Jr, a B level engineering student at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, (Fred now has a Ph.D. in mathematics) attended a Straight sibling interview in order to visit his brother. Fred was detained in a room with guards at the door for 7 - 10 hours, refused permission to go to the bathroom by a group of kids who related to him their stories of perverted sexual activities and drug addiction, trying to persuade him to admit to the same. He finally consented to sign in for a 14 day observation period. Four and a half months later, 20 - 25 pounds lighter, Fred escaped from Straight. In a 1983 trial in which Miller Newton testified, Fred was awarded $220,000 for false imprisonment.(11)
The following 1983 civil suits/criminal investigations immediately preceded Newton's resignation: May--Michael Daniels sued Straight-St Pete for driving him insane; Aug--Newton and Straight-St Pete settled separate suits with Arletha Schauteet and Hope Hyrons.(12) Aug--Martin Brashears, an adult, sued Straight-Atlanta for false imprisonment.(13) Sept--Larry Williams sued Straight-Sarasota. Sept--Benson Williams sued Straight-Sarasota for beatings, pulling him by hair, hanging him by his underpants to a bedpost, and for torture.(14) Sept--Florida state's attorney office for Sarasota County released a damning 600 page criminal investigation of Straight-Sarasota including statements from current/former counselors of kidnappings, false imprisonments, threats of being court ordered unless client voluntarily enrolls, enrolling clients who were not drug dependent, hair pulling, neck grabbing, throwing against walls.(15) Straight-Sarasota voluntarily closed so the state dropped its investigation. Principal investigator, assistant state attorney David Levin would later say ". . . it was child abuse and torture--was directed by Miller Newton".(16) On Sept 3 a boy named Charles was brought to Straight. Charles had been kidnapped in Albuquerque, New Mexico by two private detectives hired by his mother, and placed in leg irons. A Florida judge later ruled his release because proper commitment procedures had not been followed, and because the judge found no evidence of drug addiction or abuse.(17) In Oct--Michael Keen sued Straight-St Pete for false imprisonment(18) and Jacqueline A. Stallings sued Straight-St Pete for physical assaults and false imprisonment. She eventually won case #83012161C1 for Straight committing a "malicious act" against her.(19) On Nov 15, 1983 Newton and his wife resigned from Straight.(20) Dr. Newton left Straight and continued running his own Straight-like chain called Kids out of New Jersey for the next 20 years.
In 1999 Miller Newton and team settled with Rebecca Erlich for $4.5 million for abuse she sustained at his Kids program. In 2003 Newton and team settled with Lulu Corter for $6.5 million. She had been completely crushed. He had convinced her she had a sexual compulsion and she would be restrained for wiping herself down there with more than three wipes.
On Feb. 9, 2005 Mel and Betty Sembler answered their first set of interrogatories in PumpGate. In question 15 they were asked, "Please state your understanding of what has motivated Richard Bradbury to picket your house." To which they answered in part, "His sadistic desire to inflict pain on people." Mel Sembler selected Miller Newton to direct Straight for him. You have just read a report on Straight activities under Newton. This does not include most of his activities since leaving Straight. It is necessary to determine what the Sembler's define as sadistic. By comparison to Bradbury do they consider the activities of Newton sadistic? Why did they allow Newton to join a subsidiary of DFAF in light of his reputation for abuse? Do they consider Bradbury's behavior more sadistic than Newton's and if so how? These, and others, are deposition questions likely to be asked of the Semblers in PumpGate.
Will K., MD Straight clinical directors Miller Newton, MDiv and Will K., Mdiv have master degrees in divinity. Will K. once took some courses open only to medical doctors by signing his signature Will K., MD (e.g. leaving off the "iv")
Linda Creighton, MD According to NOTICE OF ACTION TO REFUSE TO RENEW FOSTER CARE LICENSE #184-P ISSUED TO STRAIGHT, INC., OFC Docket No. SC 2-87, June 25, 1991, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Division of Administrative Law Appeals, page 17, para. 42a: on a February 20, 1991 OFC visit "Straight represented to OFC licensors that Linda Creighton is a psychiatrist. Ms. Creighton is a Registered Nurse."
Chris Yarnold During the Fred Collins� trial, which resulted in a $220,000 judgement against Straight for false imprisonment, Straight�s director Dr. Miller Newton presented Chris Yarnold as Straight�s expert on diagnosis for drug abuse. In fact Mr. Yarnold had been Straight�s senior intake counselor when Mr. Collins had been admitted. During deposition Mr. Yarnold admitted he did not know what laughing gas was, nor did he know the active ingredient in marijuana [THC]. When asked, in court, if he knew how the hallucinogenic factor in drugs worked, he replied, "No. All I knew was drugs affected people." He declared that he had known Mr. Collins had been smoking marijuana because his eyes had been red at intake! He admitted that contact lenses could make one�s eyes red, but on physical examination of Collins at the trial, he failed to notice that Collins was currently wearing contact lenses. Mr. Yarnold, a former Catholic priest, had joined Straight in August 1981. Sixteen months later he was director of the infamous Sarasota Straight.
Straight-Maryland Maryland health officials cited Straight-Maryland in 1992 for not having even one certified drug or alcohol abuse counselor on its entire staff!
Straight-Cincinnati On September 28, 1986 Straight - Cincinnati placed an ad in the Cincinnati Enquirer advertising for an admissions counselor / intervention specialist. The only qualifications listed were: "sales and marketing experience."
Helen Petermann Helen Peterman supervised the first counselors at Straight. All had been been Seed [Straight's model] graduates. Ms. Petermann was the mother of one of the graduates. She was not even a high school graduate but a 1978 report card on her by the board of directors noted "[she] has 3 � years experience in a drug program." In a deposition in 1999 Dr. Miller Newton says that he thought she had worked in the kitchen at The Seed. The 1978 report had noted that Ms. Petermann is well read in her work having read I�m OK, You�re OK, Primal Scream, Games People Play, Passages, Your Erroneous Zones, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, Psychology--An Introduction, and We Mainline Dreams.
Three board members resigned in mass in August 1977 and made a joint statement that, neither [Jim] Hartz [Straight's first director] nor Peterman "have the necessary qualifications to rehabilitate preteens or teens who have a drug or alcohol problem". A former program volunteer told a St. Petersburg Times reporter in December 1977 that she, Hartz and others once witnessed Mrs. Petermann maliciously kicking a youth who was passively resisting Straight officials. When questioned by The Times regarding the disgruntled former board members Mrs. Peterman had responded, "I sure wish they would get off my back. They would like to see this (program) go down the drain." Hartz had compared the disgruntled directors to small children. "If they didn�t get their candy, they would go home." In response to Mrs. Henson�s allegations of abuses, Hartz responded to a reporter that rumors of mistreatment constantly surface about Straight, but no incident has ever been proven. He did acknowledge to a Times reporter that three methods are used to discipline "disruptive" clients.
According to the Saint Petersburg Times of February 12, 1978 two former Straight counselors (in sworn statements) said they had seen Straight program director Helen R. Petermann repeatedly slap a small youth and yank him by his hair in an apparent outburst of temper. "I saw maybe five good smacks," one ex-counselor had said.. Another bizarre allegation was made by two former Straight staffers who said that Ms Petermann once demonstrated different positions of sexual intercourse to a group of female clients, some in their early teens. When a Times reporter asked Jim Hartz about the alleged incident he said he knew nothing of the sex rap. But he said the subject of sex occasionally comes up. "Helen�s a very uninhibited person," Hartz reportedly said. If the session occurred, he said, "It might have been done better in private."
Two former counselors said that Ms. Petermann allegedly prepared two documents to scare clients into remaining at Straight. One was reportedly signed from the police department. After the kid had signed the document, the two had alleged, he was told by Ms. Petermann, "Ah ha! Now we�ve got you. If you don�t stay here now and you run away, we�re gonna� send you away to Marianna (state juvenile home)." An ex-counselor claimed that Ms. Petermann had threatened at least one other juvenile in the same manner. [Miller Newton once reportedly threatened a child in a similar manner in front of two HRS officers.]
Around 1977 HRS (Florida�s licensing bureau for juvenile drug rehab programs) made five recommendations in order for Straight to renew its license. The fifth recommendation had been "to make sure personnel and program policies are in written form and that staff members are frequently evaluated." So in the week before HRS was to make its decision on Straight�s license the Straight Board of Directors announced ratings for its program staff members. The report acknowledged that Helen Petermann once struck an "hysterical and out-of-control" program client. "We do not condone the action from Mrs. Petermann, but it is not such a severe infraction that would create (her) severance," board president Melvin Sembler had reportedly said. "Helen did not think it was an infraction at the time," he said. "These (clients) are people who are on drugs, and because of that they are not normal." The board said, "Mrs. Petermann states that . . . [she] only slapped one person; that particular person was hysterical and out of control." She states that she had "wrapped two persons in a blanket who (were) too aggressive to handle." But Jim Hartz had previously publicly denied that Mrs. Petermann had slapped anyone. Sembler said that was because Hartz was unaware of the slapping incident. Sembler added that Mrs. Petermann had recently been given the Service to Mankind Award by the Northeast Sertoma Club for her work at Straight.
Dr. George Ross George Ross had been Straight's national education director. He and Helen Peterman left in 1980 to setup their own Straight-like program called LIFE in Sarasota, Florida. Ross left LIFE to setup Kids of Hebron, Ky. and left there to setup Possibilities Unlimited in Lexington, Ky. Reporter Susan White of the Lexington Herald-Leader had written about Possibilities on May 27, 1985, page C3: "Not all of the kids come to Possibilities Unlimited eagerly, or even willingly. The walls of the intake rooms are decorated with jagged holes made by frustrated newcomers. Some sign their commitment papers only after long hours of persuasion by peer counselors, parents and Ross." In 1985 Dr. Ross and six others associated with Possibilities Unlimited were indicted and tried for keeping young people in the program against their will in a trial where assistant prosecutor Jack Giles told the jury he would seek a jail sentence for Dr. Ross. [LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER, August 30, 1985, page B1 ] The complainants included a 23-year-old woman who alleged that Ross had threatened to have her "2-year-old baby taken from her if she didn't enroll in the program"; a 15-year-old boy who "alleged that Ross threatened to have him hospitalized and get a court order placing him in the program"; a 16-year-old boy; and a 19- year-old Frankfort teenager who alleged that "three Possibilities Unlimited workers came to his home and carried him back to the center after he had been allowed to leave".
During the trial Douglas Patrick Smalley of Frankfort, Kentucky testified that his intake lasted four hours in an interview room where he had been physically restrained by Ross to prevent his escape. Just as in an earlier trial against Straight in Virginia, Ross� attorney questioned Smalley about his admissions in Moral Inventories. [So much for the confidentiality clause] Smalley had said that much of what he had admitted to was lies saying that you had to invent things so they would leave you alone. [LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER, May 17, 1987, page B4, SECTION: CITY/STATE ]
During cross-examination Fayette County Assistant Attorney Phillip Moloney was critical of Dr. Ross� method for determining whether a young person had a drug problem and faulted him for making a determination without using any sort of psychological test. But Dr. Ross had said those tests were not needed adding that it was not necessary to get a second opinion even though the parents of one of the accusers had told Dr. Ross they did not think their son had a drug problem.
One of the teenagers had filed a complaint that three boys had been sent to his house to forcefully take him back to the program. On that charge Dr. Ross had testified that he had ''chewed them out royally,'' and had told them ''That's the kind of situation that could close this program down.'' [LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER, August 30, 1985, page B1 .] There were allegations that parents had been instructed to nail shut windows in their homes to keep kids in. But former program parent Dr. Robert Bain testified that "I never heard in all my experience of anyone who nailed their windows shut." [LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER, August 19, 1985, page A1.] Dr. Ross' star character witness was Helen Peterman. Lacking even a high school education she had just published an article in the prestigious medical journal The Journal of the Florida Medical Association. [LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER, August 28, 1985, page B1 ]
Dr. Ross was acquitted of three charges of unlawful imprisonment. Charges against the six staff members were either dismissed or dropped especially after a prime witness failed to show. So Dr. George Ross is the highest Straight official, former official, (or official tied to a Straight-related program), to be criminally prosecuted to date. Though found not guilty, the ensuing exposure of the trial probably had much to do with the ultimate demise of Possibilities Unlimited.
Straight spokeswoman Joy Margolis says Straight tried to stop the abuse On March 24, 1990 Los Angeles Times Reporter John Hurst published a large, front page feature article on the horrors of Straight, Inc. He interviewed Joy Margolis, Straight's national spokesperson for that article, and learned from her that Straight, Inc. did not tolerate abuse. That Straight. Inc. got rid of abusers whenever abuse was brought to its attention. Joy was asked about the allegations of Erica Clifton that while in Straight - Dallas she was held down and the boys painfully pulled her legs apart. She recalled one time when she was resisting and they "put a . . . Kotex pad down my throat to where I was gagging." When the LA Times asked Joy about the alleged incident she responded, "We regret things that have happened in the past. When it has been called to our attention, we have taken proper action." "We don't condone gagging." "One staff member I know of who was guilty of this was fired." The LA Times wrote about Gena Golden age 16 who said of her Straight - Dallas stay that her nose was badly broken while she was being restrained and that "clients were sometimes held down and kicked." According to the LA Times, "Margolis acknowledged that Golden's nose was broken while the girl was being held. She said it was an isolated incident. She also said that Straight does not condone kicking clients." The Times pressed about a Texas state health report charging that "clients were tied with rope and with an automobile towing strap to prevent escape, that clients were physically restrained for minor infractions such as 'failure to sit up properly', and that bedrooms were overcrowded and furnished with 'containers to be used for urination.' " Once again Joy Margolis put everyone at ease explaining (according to the LA Times piece), "a staff trainee used a rope to tie up a client and was fired, as was an employee who instigated the practice of putting the containers for urine in bedrooms."
Buddy Sembler AKA Melvin Floyd Sembler And so this is the team of medical experts and board members that Mel Sembler put together to run the world's biggest juvenile drug treatment program. What kind of backgroud did Mel Sembler himself come from to qualify him to run such a program? In early 2001 Fred Slater, retired editor of the News-Press, the newspaper for St. Joseph, Missouri which is the boyhood hometown of US Ambassador to Italy, Melvin Sembler, BS, AO, SO, NRA, DFPB, was reading about St. Joseph's most successful son in the Washington Post and the New York Times. He called Sembler several times during the year and Sembler mailed him back some newsclippings about his accomplishments. The result was three very insightful articles about the history of Mel Sembler and his family which appeared in the News-Press between April and December of that year. Mr. Slater published the first article "The president faces rejection" on April 12, 2001 in which he wrote that Sembler is one of the few who has turned down a Presidential request when he had to decline to be president of the Import-Export bank citing a conflict of interest. Sembler would have been loaning money to banks that have loaned his real estate company money.
Slater's second article "Rags to riches and beyond" was published on May 10, 2001. In this one Fred noted that Mel had been a star football halfback and track star for The Wakitan at Central High School. He was called Buddy Sembler in his yearbook, wrote Slater. Mel recounted for Fred how he had dated (on the sly) a pretty blonde whose parents would have been "shocked" to know she was dating a football player and "horrified" if they knew he was a "Jewish football player!" Mel fondly recalled being "the hoodoo" on Wakitan's football team that once played Christian Brothers High School on a Jewish religious holiday. "We lost to Christian Brothers High School for the first time in years. I think I was to blame by playing on the holiday," Mel recalled.
Slater wrote that after graduating from Northwestern University, Mel was a lieutenant in the US Army and while in the Army he married Betty Schlesinger of Memphis, Tennessee. Then, in 1962, Slater wrote, Sembler "convinced Dyersburg, Tenn. merchants to move from Downtown to a modern facility with lots of parking. After developing other Tennessee shopping malls, he moved his family and business to St. Petersburg, Fl." Slater noted that Nancy Reagan's "Just say NO," slogan came from the Semblers. Fred wrote that the last time he had talked to Sembler, Mel had told him that he had turned the President down yet again. The "Pres" had wanted Sembler to represent the him at an out-of-state affair, but Sembler had to tell President Bush, "I had promised to attend a granddaughter's bas mitzvah and that is where I am going."
Mel Sembler must have dreaded Fred Slater's call. On the one hand there is nothing better Mel Sembler would want to do than to have a story written in his hometown newspaper that he had made it bigger than anyone else from St. Joseph. But what must have been worrisome was that Fred Slater was older than Mel and that he had been an acquaintance, not of Mel, but of Mel's father Benny. He wrote, "In pre-World II years and after the war, he [Benny Sembler], Meyer Gordon and Calvin Weinberg ran the Paddock at 814 Felix St. At The Paddock, ostensibly a cigar store, one could watch race results being posted, odds listed and discreetly bet on the horses in what was federally legal but frowned on by local law enforcement officials." Benny Sembler had been a bookie, according to the News Press, but the statement had been sugar coated. Benny moved to Houston in 1957 and retired there. He died at the age of 94 in 1992 but there was no mention in the St. Petersburg Times.
Of course I called the records department for the St. Joseph Police Department and spoke to Vivian Robison, records supervisor. I asked for any old records the police may have on Benny Sembler, Buddy Sembler AKA Melvin Floyd Sembler, Meyer Gordon and Calvin Weinberg. She told me that in 1985 the St. Joseph Police Department moved to a new building. Records had been kept in the basement of the old building and there had been some flooding down there and most of the old police reports had been damaged and were thrown out. However, she said, the indices for all arrest records had been preserved intact. (E.g. somebody reports a burglary in 1946 and the police make a report. Almost all of the old reports of crime had been destroyed but if an arrest was made, then a line entry is made on an arrest registry and all of those are intact.) She searched and reported that there are simply no police reports on any of these men. But she did tell me conclusively that none of them had ever even been arrested because none are listed in the arrest log which is complete. I called her back on another day and asked her if she could recheck these four men. This time she found an old folder on Calvin Weinberg. In it the police had four newspaper articles from 1940 about the arrest of Calvin Weinberg on June 17, 1940 after a police raid charged him for possessing a gambling device.
In those days there was a morning paper The Gazette and an evening paper The News Press. Here's what the articles had to say.
The arrest of Calvin Weinberg troubled Ms. Robinson--and me too. According to the newspaper clipping, Calvin Weinberg had clearly been arrested yet there was no entry in her "fail-safe" arrest index! Was it never entered? Had it been removed? I asked her, "Well then, is it not possible that there are other arrests that could have been made in those days that are not, for whatever reason, in your arrest index?" Yes, she admitted, that now appears to be possible.
I called the News Press' former editor Fred Slater several times during preparation for this article (including 1130 on March 22, 2005; 2130 on March 20, 2005; and before). Fred is a fine old gentleman who like Gene Patterson (who went on to become the editor of The St. Petersburg Times) served in Patton's Third Army in France. "What is this Paddock thing all about I asked him? Were those guys bookies or what?" Fred said that they were bookies but as far as he could recall no one was ever arrested--at least not before or after WW II. (He was gone for four years during the War and can't speak to that time frame.) He explained that it was difficult to arrest anyone because it was not, in those days, in violation of federal law to run a horse betting parlor and that the city of St. Joseph did not have an ordinance against it. It was however in violation of state law--but it was difficult for the police to prove they were doing it. Since there was no state oversight of the illegal operation I asked him whether it had been possible for results to have been rigged. He said no because all bets had to be made before the start of the race. When I pursued and said but suppose someone with insider information placed bets just before the window closed, already knowing the outcome. Fred said that did not happen because "people were not that stupid to be caught that way." Fred asked me what I was working on and I said an article on Sembler. He asked me if I'd send him a copy of my article, and I said I sure would.
So there you have it.
In 1985 it had been discovered that almost all of the old police reports
from the 30s, 40s and 50s had been damaged by flooding of the basement
of the record's office and have been destroyed. Not by a general,
area flood, but by water damage to that one building. Furthermore
the index to arrests records may have been altered, or omitted. If
nothing funny or illegal was going on then why didn't Western Union
phone the race results directly to the cigar store? And if they were
phoned to Partnoy's office across the street, then how did he relay
them to The Paddock? The police thought that Partnoy was phoning the
results across the street, but even in those days phone lines could
be taped. Could there have been a runner who carried the results across
the street. Do you see the potential for fraud, beyond illegal gambling,
in an unregulated horse betting business. If you already know the
results 10 minutes before final bids are accepted you could potentially
place bets accordingly! There is a text book, modern-day case where
a sophisticated computer technician intercepted race results just
seconds before nationwide posting and altered betting files to place
major bets on the known winners.
Today Mel Sembler's company is trying to build a multi-million dollar shopping mall in Winter Garden, Florida. But Sembler has met with massive resistance. According to the website stopfowler.com/Semblerlies.html Sembler has launched a discussion forum for people to discuss the issues for and against the shopping center. But, according to this site, some of the names advocating for the shopping center are fabrications. In 1985 Sembler changed the name and mission of Straight, Inc. to Straight Foundation, Inc. to protect himself from civil suits and from criminal prosecution, and also to protect the money and property. He created a new organization called Straight, Inc. and let it be stated that the new organization had been around since 1976 which is a lie. He wanted his cake and he wanted to eat it too. What man would brag about his father-in-law and let his own father die in obscurity. Almost all American males go through life signing documents under the name they are born with. This may not be true of Straight's former national clinical director Virgil Miller Newton. Today he is known as Father Cassian Newton. Melvin Floyd Sembler used to be known as Buddy Sembler. Now we know why he does not mention his roots in St. Joseph. But was Buddy Sembler a nickname or was it his born name. If his birth name then why did he change it. What does he know about The Paddock? Hopefully Bradbury can clear up this matter during depositions of the Semblers.
On December 1, 2001 Scott Lauck of Medill News Service published the story "St. Joe native is envoy" in which he wrote that Fred Slater had contacted Sembler for the article. Lauck wrote that Mr. Sembler was so close to Bush I that he helped him pick out the carpet for the Oval office. Of Bush II Sembler said, �The president wanted to send a close friend of his family to Italy, so I was the guy.� Slater said that Sembler was �quite an athlete . . . In fact, the girls considered him a hunk.� Mr. Sembler said his father's up-by-the-boostraps life (he came to America when he was nine from Besarabia, a region now part of southwestern Russia, and became a prizefighter) inspired him. �I�m second-generation American, and I�ve been an ambassador not once, but twice!� Sembler bragged to Lauck.
(Marti Heath and Sammie Monroe first pointed us to the St. Joseph news articles on Benny Sembler in 2003 or 2004.)
2. Trebach, Arnold, The Great Drug War, p. 40. St. Petersburg Times, 1-30-83, p. 1B. Georgia Emmon's of Clearwater, FL witnessed the incident--St Petersburg Times, 1-30-83, p. 4B.
3. Deposition of Leigh Bright for Fred Collins, Jr. trial. March 7, 1983.
4. Baum, Dan, Smoke and Mirrors, p. 158; The Tampa Tribune, 11-11-90. Attorney Karen Barnett, 813-229-1111, handled Norton's case and three others.
5. St Petersburg Times, 1-30-83, p. 4B.
6. St Petersburg Times, 2-5-82.
7. St Petersburg Times, 4-23-81, p.1B. St Petersburg Times, 7-7-81, p. 6B.
8. St Petersburg Times, 7-7-81, p. B1.
9. This is a violation of Florida Statue Chapter 397.041
10. Trebach, Op. Cit., p. 57-59. For Writ of Habeas Corpus in interest of Arletia Schauteet see Newton's deposition for Fred Collins' trial, pp. 87 - 89.
11. Sarasota Herald Tribune, 6-9-83, p. 9A S.
12. Trebach, op. cit., pp. 57-59. St Petersburg Times, 1-30-83, p. 1B. Brandenton Herald, 8-4-83. The Herald cites settlements with a LuAnn Jones of Sanford and with Hope Hyrons.
13. St Petersburg Times, 8-11-83, p. 5B.
14. Brandenton Herald, FL, 9-17-83. Brandenton Herald, 9-8-83, p. B1. St. Petersburg Times, 9-7-83, p. 4B.
15. St Petersburg Times, 9-19-83, p. B1.
16. St. Petersburg Times, 9-19-83, p. b1. West 57th Street 1-21-89, "Kids of America: Caring and Concern."
17. Trebach, op. cit., p. 62.
18. Sarasota Herald Tribune, 10-9-83.
19. St. Petersburg Times, 6 -11-85. Straight settled with this Hillsborough County woman for $37,500.