Billy Cannon, the 1959 Heisman Trophy winner while at LSU, subsequent pro star and Louisiana's No. 1 resident legend by far, had just ducked furtively into a waiting car parked behind the Federal courthouse in Baton Rouge last Friday. Moments before, Cannon, 45, had pleaded guilty to participating in a counterfeiting scam that ranks among the biggest ever uncovered in the U.S.—at least $6 million in $100 bills.
As the white Lincoln, driven by Cannon's old friend, Ray Termini, started to race away, its path was blocked by a flatbed truck. Finally, Termini was able to slip around and speed off. Cannon, who was sitting in the front seat, looked over and said, "Ray, as a getaway driver, you get an F." In the back seat, Cannon's attorney, Robert L. (Buck) Kleinpeter; Kleinpeter's son, Loren, also a lawyer; and Billy Cannon Jr., a safety and linebacker at Texas A&M, at last allowed themselves a small laugh.
Indeed, until July 9 it had seemed that Cannon, an orthodontist whose practice grossed more than $300,000 a year and whose performances on the football field are the bedrock of LSU's enormous gridiron tradition, had lived a life that graded A +: married to his high school sweet-heart, father of five brainy children, successful in his profession and in real-estate investing, idolized beyond belief. "This is the goofiest thing I've ever seen happen," says John B. Oggero of Houston, another old pal of Cannon's. "Something has caused this man to go bananas. It's like there have been two Billy Cannons—the real one and the bad one."
True. Often he's the warm, wry and whimsical man who told Buck Kleinpeter the other day, "Did you know you can tell it's a phony $100 bill if Ben Franklin has braces on his teeth?" Periodically, though, Cannon evidences a baffling dark side. On the whole, however, that part of him has been variously denied, excused or ignored because of his accomplishments during those glorious years at LSU.
In 1958 Cannon led the Tigers to an 11-0 record and the national championship, the only one in the school's history. The following season, against Ole Miss, Cannon won the game with a celebrated 89-yard punt return in the fourth quarter. To make the runback he had to break Coach Paul Dietzel's firm rule against fielding a punt inside the 15. Cannon hauled in the ball at the 11, took three steps, cut left and then ran past, over and through seven defenders who had clean shots at him. Every year, during the week of the LSU-Ole Miss game, that run is shown incessantly on TV throughout Louisiana. It still sends chills up the spines of the Tiger faithful.
Maybe, goes one theory, that one run—without it Cannon never would have won the Heisman—ultimately made him too big a hero, and coping with the adulation eventually became too much for him. "The problem is us, the fans," says Oggero. "We demanded too much of him." Don (Scooter) Purvis, who played behind Cannon for four years at LSU, says, "I wonder if Billy realized what he was and what he had."
For the last two to three years, which turn out to be the period in which Cannon was involved in counterfeiting, his friends had been worried about his erratic behavior. Says Oggero, "The rest of us would be together and say, 'Now why's he acting weird? Why is he this-a-way with us?' " Cannon stopped returning phone calls. He'd fly off the handle or stare into space. Termini asked him recently why he was so uptight, and Cannon replied, "I've got some problems, but they can be worked out."
To be sure, Cannon has a long history of unsavory behavior. He grew up in the tough North Baton Rouge section. His father was a janitor. Cannon attended Istrouma High, where all the kids from blue-collar families went. In the 1955 yearbook the picture of the basketball team shows Cannon smiling angelically while unobtrusively rendering a crude hand gesture. For weekend sport, says former Istrouma High Principal Ellis (Little Fuzzy) Brown, some of the guys would go downtown "and slap the queers around." On June 11, 1955 Cannon and three buddies went down to the corner of Laurel and Third streets. A man made a proposition, and, says Brown, the man and Cannon went to the man's apartment, where Cannon worked him over. The man, according to young Billy's story then, asked what he could do to keep the situation quiet and offered Cannon a bottle of liquor. However, the man later charged Cannon and one of Cannon's friends with stealing the liquor ($11.95), and both pleaded guilty. They received suspended sentences of 90 days and were put on probation.
Shortly thereafter, a repentant Cannon appeared before the congregation at the Istrouma Baptist Church and said, "I know I made a mistake. Have faith in me. I will make good, you'll be proud of me, and you'll never be disappointed." Says Clark Ross, Billy's old Sunday school teacher, of the adult Cannon, "I'm shocked. Human nature is most unpredictable. I guess he got his priorities mixed up."
Another unusual situation developed during Cannon's senior season at LSU when, though his team still would play in the Sugar Bowl, he secretly signed a contract with the Los Angeles Rams. To get him, Pete Rozelle, who was general manager of the Rams at the time, spirited Cannon away to Philadelphia, hid him under the name of Billy Gunn and signed him in late November to a three-year deal worth $50,000. But under the goalposts at the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1960, Cannon signed another contract, this one with the Houston Oilers of the new AFL. That deal was worth $100,000—an astounding figure at the time—and included promises of gas stations that would sell Cannonball Regular. A lawsuit ensued, which the Oilers won. The judge ruled that Rozelle had taken advantage of a "provincial lad untutored...in the ways of the business world."
Cannon went on to help Houston win two league titles, and he led the AFL in rushing in 1961 with 948 yards. A back injury and dissatisfaction with the Oilers got him traded in 1964 to Oakland, where he was switched to tight end. In 1970 the Raiders released him, and he joined Kansas City. Cannon played one year there before retiring, having twice been named All-AFL.
Unlike many pro athletes, Cannon had prepared for life after his playing days. He studied dentistry at LSU in his off-seasons, and according to Dr. John P. Harbour, who is purchasing Cannon's practice, Cannon has become "a heck of an orthodontist." All along, though, some of the people Cannon chose as friends raised eyebrows. Among them is Edward Grady Partin, a former business manager of Teamsters Local No. 5 who's doing time for obstructing justice. Cannon was employed by the Teamsters during high school and maintains close ties with Partin. In the late '70s Cannon even served as president of a Teamster-affiliated union that was being established in the local Department of Public Works. Another buddy was former State Agriculture Commissioner Gil Dozier, who's now serving an 18-year sentence for racketeering and extortion.
"Billy's a lousy judge of character," says Oggero. "That's his big weakness." Adds Jack Fiser, who is writing a history of LSU, "He seemed to associate with people who had a peculiarly low ethical threshold. But on the other hand, we don't expect anyone to fill a job honestly around here. The Protestant work ethic has worn out. Things that shock other people don't shock us much."
Cannon displayed questionable ethics again in 1980 when he sent a telegram to all 26 big-league baseball teams telling them not to draft Billy Jr., a fine prospect at shortstop, because Billy had decided to go to college. Subsequently, the Yankees, who were apparently told by Cannon that Billy might play pro baseball right away, drafted him. New York was set to sign him when Commissioner Bowie Kuhn said no, on the grounds that other clubs properly felt they had been misled. Cannon reportedly was pushing for a $350,000 signing bonus for Billy.
Records of the 19th Judicial District Court of the Parish of East Baton Rouge show Cannon has been a party to at least 38 civil lawsuits over the years. On May 20, for instance, a judgment was handed down against him for failing to pay a $137,803.17 debt on a condominium. On April 22 he was ordered to pay $87,880.80 on a loan he took to buy a Mack truck. Oggero insists many of the suits, including these two, were cases in which Cannon co-signed notes for others and that the property wasn't even his.
Finally, he has had a falling-out with LSU. He was furious with former Athletic Director Carl Maddox over the location of his six seats at Tiger Stadium. They're on the 50-yard line, but on the east side—the visitors' side—and Cannon wants to be on the LSU side. More recently, Cannon thought a lot of local folks were mad at him because Billy Jr. enrolled at Texas A&M instead of LSU. "That's not true at all," says one Tiger football source. "It was a relief in a way because we knew Billy would be on our ass all the time, second-guessing us."
None of these incidents, however, explains why Cannon became a counterfeiter. His friends insist he wasn't motivated by greed. Hardly a high liver, he considers boiling crawfish at home with Dorothy, his wife of 27 years, a big night. Desperation evidently didn't drive him, either, say his friends. Among Cannon's property holdings is a 20-acre lot—on which most of the counterfeit loot was found—that's worth more than $1 million. He owns a small shopping center valued at $500,000. He's one-fourth owner of 47 prime acres near his home; his share is worth at least $1.5 million. His cut of a Houston office building comes to $200,000. Cannon owes very little on any of these investments. Friends agree that if Cannon had to pay off all his debts right now, he would be left with a net worth of $2 to $3 million. In short, there doesn't seem to be any concrete explanation of Cannon the counterfeiter.
According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Rand Miller, Cannon met with a neighbor, John Stiglets, a convicted counterfeiter, in January 1980 to discuss a counterfeiting scheme. Six months later Cannon gave Stiglets $15,000 to buy a printing press to get started. The work on the bills—the plates were quite good, says Miller, but the quality of the paper was poor—was done in a warehouse in Cleburne, Texas. On April Fools' Day 1981, Stiglets delivered approximately $1 million in counterfeit $100 bills to Cannon, who had them shipped to William Glasscock in Pensacola, Fla. Glasscock, who planned to put the bills into circulation by selling them for a fraction of their face value, is being held on counterfeiting charges in lieu of $2.5 million bond. By September 1981, Stiglets had sent another $5 million in bills to Cannon.
Authorities began to unravel the scheme late last year when several of the bogus bills showed up at a Baton Rouge shopping center. An investigation eventually led the Feds to suspect Cannon and others. On July 7 an informant told authorities a big sale was being arranged by two of Cannon's accomplices, Timothy Melancon, a general merchandise broker from Thibodaux, La., and Charles Whitfield, who says he has several businesses, including a hog farm in Florida and shrimp boats. Both men have been charged with conspiracy to possess and deal in phony money. Last Saturday, Melancon also was indicted for conspiring to import and distribute 340 pounds of marijuana. Further, said the informant, Melancon had been in touch with Cannon, who had been under 24-hour surveillance for more than a month.
At noon on July 8 Melancon picked up Cannon at Cannon's office and then drove in an erratic, evasive manner to a spot down an unmarked dead-end road off Jones Creek Road on the outskirts of Baton Rouge. There Cannon pointed out where he had buried some of the money. After returning Cannon to his office, Melancon picked up Whitfield, and the pair headed back to the Jones Creek Road lot. Their speed ranged from 30 to 80 mph. They stopped by the side of the road, made some U-turns, went up dead-ends, stopped off at three convenience stores, drove through residential sections. Never did they notice the eight-car tail of law-enforcement officers following them.
"If they saw it on James Bond," says Miller, "they did it." Five times they drove past the road to the lot before taking the turn. After digging up approximately $2.2 million in counterfeit money, they drove to an office-building parking lot. Melancon left and was soon arrested. Whitfield stayed, tossing two plastic garbage bags with the ersatz loot into a Dempster Dumpster.
Whitfield waited for the purchaser—an undercover agent—to show up, which he did at about 9 p.m. Whitfield thought he could sell about $2 million, but the buyer said he only wanted $1.2 million at 20 cents on the dollar: $240,000. The agent also said he didn't have the cash with him. He then departed, supposedly to get the money, and shortly thereafter Whitfield was taken into custody.
Later that night approximately 10 Secret Service agents and others, including Miller, went to the snake-infested Jones Creek Road lot to dig for more money. They had only two shovels, and they dug for several hours. Finally, Secret Service Agent Mike James called out, "I think I've got something here." He dug down a foot and found two large red Igloo coolers, now empty but believed to have contained the money Melancon and Whitfield had picked up.
About 10:30 a.m. on July 9 Cannon stopped by the lot to show it to a business associate. Four of the lawmen had remained on the property through the night. Cannon asked them what was going on, was told they had a search warrant, and left. Cannon, who owns several thoroughbreds, then drove to Jefferson Downs racetrack near New Orleans.
In midafternoon that day one of Cannon's daughters knocked on Buck Kleinpeter's door and said, "Some men from the Secret Service want to arrest my daddy." Says Kleinpeter, "I knew the Secret Service deals with two things, protection of the President and counterfeiting, and I knew Billy hadn't been with the President." When he returned home at about 4 p.m., Cannon was arrested. He wanted to plead guilty right away, but Judge Frank J. Polozola told him to think over his decision.
Cannon immediately cooperated with the government, showing officials where an additional $2 million was buried in two large coolers in the ground next to his office. He drew a map of the area on the Jones Creek Road property where another $750,000 or so in counterfeit money was buried. Later, an agent returned and said, "Billy, I'm a little embarrassed, but even with your map we can't find the money." Replied Cannon with a laugh, "If you can't find the money with a map, maybe I should withdraw my plea." The money was quickly found, the trouble with the map having been that Cannon had omitted a crucial tree from the drawing. Miller says that without Cannon's assistance the only way the buried counterfeit money would ever have been found would have been to "plow up Baton Rouge."
In rapid order, Cannon fingered Stiglets, who pleaded guilty on Friday to two counterfeiting charges, as the printer and Glasscock as a prime purchaser and accomplice. Cannon will testify for the government in related cases and will be sentenced himself later. In return, he'll almost certainly not receive the maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Nobody knows how much of Cannon's funny money got into circulation. The best guess: $100,000 to $200,000.
Several months ago a worried Cannon told Stiglets, "Somebody has mentioned my name to the Secret Service. I think I'm in trouble." Said Stiglets, "You better burn the money." Later, Cannon told Stiglets, "I guess they forgot about me." But Stiglets knew better: "If they ever get your name," he said, "they never forget you. If you did it, you're gone."
Cannon, on advice of his lawyer, won't talk about the case. Meanwhile, Cannon's friends remain at a loss to explain why he committed the crime. "Maybe it's a chemical imbalance," says Oggero. "Maybe somebody was holding a gun to the head of a family member," says Purvis. Friends don't feel, however, that Cannon was involved with drugs or gambling. "I just don't know," says Boots Garland, LSU's longtime track coach, "but I do know he's one of the best SOBs ever made." Termini stares a questioner hard in the eyes and says, "People who know Billy Cannon will never lose faith in him."
RONALD C. MODRA
Twenty-four years after this dazzling punt return secured the Heisman for him, Cannon faces a jail sentence and a hefty fine.
RONALD C. MODRA
Kleinpeter, Billy Jr. and Kleinpeter's son escorted Cannon (left) from the courtroom.
RONALD C. MODRA
Cannon buried $2.2 million in bogus bills under this shed on his Jones Creek Road lot.