Escargot A Go-Go

Gene Weaver always had a big idea. Selling snail dreams was to have been his last hurrah.

They say Gene Weaver could sell you the hair on your head. He says he's already done that. He's sold Taiwanese wigs, peddled cashew trees in Belize, even pushed cactuses in the Mexican desert.

He was in his early fifties when he began working on his latest big idea. That's when he devised "The ABC's of Success." Wealth and happiness can be all yours, he wrote, if you only apply "the simple ABC formula:

Get A big idea.
Get the Blueprints, the know-how behind it.
Get Ceaseless, continuous determination."
And where did that get Gene Weaver? Back in the Harris County Jail.

Through the Plexiglas partition now, he was smiling that winning smile, the one that says the dealing has begun.

"My lawyer didn't want me to talk to you," he said. "But I told him, 'How can it hurt if I tell the truth? They think I'm Attila the Hun out there.' "

So he made a pitch for innocence. It was done in 15-minute intervals -- a visit here, a phone call there, the guard calling the time. It was a brilliant pitch, all in all. Weaver said he's no con man. He said he's an incompetent man.

Do you buy that?

"He may not be the most intelligent guy," says his lawyer, Winston Cochran, "but I think he sincerely believed with a break, he could make it big."

With snails?
"It would have tickled him pink."
The ad began appearing in the Business Opportunities section of the classifieds about three years ago.

"How to Get Rich Slowly," it read. "You can build a small fortune farming snails."

The snail in question was the Helix aspersa, a brown mollusk with yellow stripes about the size of a small plum. There are those who like to dine on Helix aspersa -- sauteed, usually, in butter and garlic -- but Gene Weaver's snail farmers, by and large, were not among them. They were the sort of people who sent emus and ostriches to graze beside the Texas Longhorn. They were folks who could see gold in a creature of most any variety and limitless wealth in any pair. They lived in a world in which one and one could make four, and 16, and, pretty soon, maybe a millionaire.

"Hell, if they're crazy enough to eat them," says Earl Clinkinbeard of Snyder, "I'll raise just about anything."

In this case, the head of the Harris County District Attorney's consumer fraud division eventually inserted himself between those who hope to get rich placing ads in the Business Opportunities section and those who expect to get rich responding. With the Weaver snail trial looming, Russel Turbeville would not discuss the finer points of the case. But he thought it would be interesting to see Weaver presented as a fool, since by the nature of the crime, the man was smarter than his victims. It's an old drama that was done pretty well, Turbeville thought, in The Magnificent Seven.

A band of outlaws plunders an unarmed village until, one bright afternoon, one brave man steps in front of the galloping horses. Stop, Yul Brynner says. Innocent people deserve better. But Eli Wallach is stunned. The outlaw leader spits the words of his immortal line: "If God did not want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep."

And that's when the war started between the good guys and the bad guys.

"To succeed you have to fail," Gene Weaver says. "Edison tried 10,000 times before he turned on that light. Was Edison a failure?"

He is six feet, four inches and 230 pounds. His eyelids sag over his eyes in a hound-dog way that belies his energy. He was always chipper. When he called, he would announce himself as "Pee-Wee Herman," and when he wrote, he would punctuate his letters with smiley faces. Through the Plexiglas, Weaver was always smiling.

"This was going to be my last hurrah," he says. He was going to ride snails into the sunset. Like the worms he sold before them, like everything else, snails were "a now product," said Weaver. And he was that kind of salesman -- avant-garde. The deals of his lifetime were always the result of research, he said, of looking around and making an assessment of the world and trying to find a place to fit in. He never quite found his niche, but it wasn't from lack of effort. Weaver always had a big idea.

"It was never a driving ambition to have a lot of money," he explains. "It was like I could see things before they were coming, brand-new deals no one had ever done -- trends."

His life began, as far as he's concerned, with a Sno-Cone stand his freshman year at Amarillo Junior College. It was the late 1950s, and $175 was a sizable sum, but he took out the loan, bought the stand and paid the debt after three months of working like a demon selling Sno-Cones.

School lost its appeal sometime after that. No one needed to teach Weaver how to make money; he believed he knew. Sales became a religion of sorts. He read the success stories, read all the motivational books. He came to believe, as he said, that "nothing happens until you sell something." From the way he tells it at the age of 55, he's never held a salaried job. What he earned was always what he sold.

He claims to have been one of the first wholesalers of wigs and hairpieces. Hairdressers wondered why they should sell hair that doesn't grow, and Weaver coolly explained that each wig-buyer would then have two heads of hair to style. With this approach, he was making $4,000 a week in 1965, he said, driving a new car, playing a lot of golf. Then Monsanto came along with synthetic hair, and his wig market went bust.

After that, Weaver learned the United States eats a lot of cashews but doesn't grow any. He tried to sell investors on the idea of cashew groves in Belize. He thought maybe he'd get rich on cashews, but something happened, and he didn't.

Then he learned tequila is made from cactus, and he hatched the idea of a 100,000-acre cactus farm in Mexico. This was before Jimmy Buffett's "Margaritaville" made tequila famous. Weaver thought maybe he'd get rich on cactuses, but something happened, and he didn't.

By the 1970s, Weaver was living in Phoenix, selling real estate. Not the pedestrian split-level-home-with-the-sign-in-the-yard stuff. Weaver craved challenge: he would invite pleasant strangers to dinner, sip wine with them, make friends with them, and by the time dessert came around, he would have made them a fabulous deal on a piece of land 1,000 miles away. All this he would do for people he hardly knew.

"I sold this one guy some real estate down in Florida," he says, "and he went down there and found some land on it -- that's a joke!"

It was during this time that Gene Weaver met the love of his life. If you think his dad can sell, you should have met his mother, said their son. Eventually, she became a renowned seller of encyclopedias, but at the time, as Gene the Second explains, "she was really good at selling real estate, and he was, too, and so it was inevitable, I guess, that they meet."

Maybe they motivated people to do what they might not otherwise have done, Weaver admits, but that's what sales is all about, and it was all legal and ethical. He lived well for a time, but then the people who would buy faraway land gradually turned their interest to time-sharing condos, and about then, Weaver got out of real estate.

Turbeville, the current prosecutor, notes that until 20 years ago, when consumer crime divisions were created across the country, bad business deals were usually resolved in the civil courts. Nonetheless, as though in testimony to his fundamental good nature, Weaver likes to point out that he never went to prison until he was 40 years old. That was about the time he stumbled on the earthworm.

An actual worm industry exists in the United States now, and out in Oregon, a fellow named Red McClaren claims to be the largest worm farmer in the world. But worm people and snail people are like cats and dogs to each other, and McClaren wouldn't discuss any worm-snail connection.

"The worm is a legitimate animal," he declared. "I've worked a lifetime to clean up the worm industry, and now you come along and want to dig up dirt. Why? Why?"

If it has never exactly been a clean business, the worm trade certainly reached a level of prominence back in the '70s, after word got out that the president of the United States, a peanut farmer, had an uncle who was a worm farmer. There was a lot to read about worms after that, and Weaver was enchanted. "Everyone was hotter than hell about the environment," he says, and people had begun growing worms for purposes other than catching fish. Weaver saw an opportunity and came to Houston as proprietor of Worm Enterprises.

Selling worms would seem a daunting prospect, even to someone of Gene Weaver's talents, but it turned out to be the biggest deal he was ever involved in. People, it seemed, would buy anything.

He dealt in the Little Red Wiggler. In organic-farming magazines, he advertised worm-growing kits and said that if people would grow these wigglers, he would buy them back at $2.50 a pound.

Most of the records from the worm case have been destroyed by now, and the people involved have only vague recollections of it, but Weaver says he did in fact buy the worms back. He packed them in boxes and sold them to organic nurseries, where they would be displayed between the praying mantis eggs and the ladybugs. On the top of the box was a picture of an earthworm with a hat on and a straw in its mouth, and the words, "Digger Dan the Earthworm Man -- Makes Your Garden Grow Organically."

The business took in $3 million over three years, he said, and there were 16 offices around the country. Weaver began dreaming of subsidiaries, and as a result of these dreams, he opened Can of Worms Inc.

"This was going to be like the Pet Rock," he remembers. "It was a funny, ha-ha deal."

He was going to sell the cans of worms with worm jokes, worm recipes (Harvey Wormbangers) and worm T-shirts ("I got worms"). There would even be a worm racetrack. He got his worm growers to invest in the enterprise and promised them handsome returns. When the money didn't come, when Weaver didn't return, they filed charges.

The problem, says Weaver, was that Can of Worms didn't come out until November, when it should have been out in August to catch the Christmas demand. The problem, said authorities, was that he used money from Can of Worms to pay the debts of Worm Enterprises, with no apparent plan to repay the investors of Can of Worms. The prosecutor offered him two years, he said, but for once Weaver refused to make a deal. On March 11, 1980, he was found guilty of securities fraud and sentenced to seven years in prison. Just a bad business decision, he explains.

"Can I say something about the law? Intent is part of the law. I've never intended to rip anyone off in any deal I've ever been in."

When he was asked the name of someone who knows him well, he mentioned Frank Machock. This bewildered Machock. Back in the '70s, he and Weaver used to play golf together, but until just before the arrest, Machock hadn't seen Weaver in ten years.

"That's funny," Machock said. "Maybe I'm the most presentable, I don't know."

He looked something like G. Gordon Liddy. His hair was slicked back, and he wore a black windbreaker over a black turtleneck. With little to say about Weaver, Machock poked at his lunch and talked business.

"I get bored pretty easily," he explained. "About every two years, I have to start something new."

It was Frank Machock who manufactured the only real-fur golf-club cover ever available, he said proudly. He dyed it orange and sold it to UT fans -- made some nice change, until synthetic fur came out. After that, Machock dabbled in Houston nightclubs, scooter rentals in Cozumel, Indian casinos in California. He was thinking about investing in this snail thing, but after Gene's arrest, he began thinking other things. He settled down as the inventor and manufacturer of a gun holster that fits on the side of the bed.

"Know what our slogan is?" Machock asked. " 'Don't Come up Groping, Come up Smoking.' It just came to me!"

How 'bout that -- you and Gene are real birds of a feather, huh?
"Nah, Houston is full of people like us," he said. "Houston is full of businessmen."

Weaver was out of jail by December 1981, and pretty soon, he was back in Houston, selling work-at-home deals under the name Bill Jackson. It was storm windows and ceramic plates this time. He would appear with bits of aluminum and glass, the molds and the paints, and he would tell the nice people he would be back to buy the completed items. They would give him money and never see him again.

The problem, he says, was a misunderstanding about his parole that led to a violation, see, that led him to make a panicked getaway, leaving the nice people in the lurch. The prosecutor offered him 12 years, he says, but for the second time, he wouldn't deal with the prosecutor, and the jury wouldn't buy what he sold. On April 10, 1986, it was back to the clink, then, supposedly for 45 years.

Weaver says no one bothered him in prison, because he used to be a Golden Gloves boxer. He punched the air a few times to demonstrate, but his grin seemed more formidable than his fists. He seems to be able to grin through anything. And unless they came to him with a question, "like how to spell virgin," his fellow inmates largely stuck to their cartoons, he said, and left him to his self-improvement.

He spent much time in the library, writing his own appeals. When the appeals were rejected, he stayed in the library, reading about the outer world. It was in this way that Gene Weaver came upon his latest big idea. It all began with the meltdown at Chernobyl, he explains with a straight face. He read of the disastrous effect on European livestock and agriculture, and then he read of the enormous French appetite for snails.

"Boom! It hit me," he recalls. "Why not grow these snails over here!"
His path since then has been marked by clippings, receipts and brochures, and he has saved them all -- an advertisement from Opportunity magazine for a snail-shelling tool, the business card of a food distributor with a phone to each ear, even the sheets of prison scratch paper on which he calculated his imagined profits. All this amounts to wreckage, mostly, the sort of stuff you'd find floating in the captain's cabin after the ship went down, but Weaver displays it as evidence of honest intentions.

"This wasn't just something that popped up," he says. "It's something I researched for years."

His work made him a peaceful inmate, and if there is any luck in Gene Weaver's story, it is that he was convicted of peaceful crimes. By January 4, 1990, when he was released to make room for more dangerous men, Weaver had served less than five years of the 52 to which he had been sentenced.

Not too long afterward, at the end of a long chain of transactions, he found himself in an Abilene furniture store, bemoaning a rainy day to a comrade in sales. She gave him a little pep talk over the telephone that he'll never forget.

"She said, 'I thought the sun was always shining for an entrepreneur,' " Weaver remembers, "and it just hit me then. I thought, she's right. The sun's always shining when you're making things happen. I got off the phone and told my mama I'm going to do snails."

Out in Snyder, midway between Abilene and Lubbock, people generally don't know what escargot is, "unless you go in some high-dollar cafeteria," says Earl Clinkinbeard.

He found out one day while he was minding the bait stand in his house and reading the Thrifty Nickel. The ad said one farmer with a few gatherers could make $100,000 a year. Call today, it said, and Clinkinbeard did.

In the brochure that followed, the promised profit was $50,000 -- still a lot of money, so Clinkinbeard kept reading. "Snail farming is unique and prestigious," he learned. It's easy. It's reliable. With a free advisory service, it's "virtually no-risk."

"There's nothing more satisfying and gratifying," the brochure guaranteed, "than making money at home -- watching your bank account grow steadily each week, and having that secure and confidence-boosting feeling of knowing that you are actually 'making it' in life."

There was also a section on "The ABC's of Success," but how was Clinkinbeard to know the man who wrote it was a twice-convicted felon? Bring on the escargot, he said.

"I thought, boy, I'll be all right," Clinkinbeard remembers. "I'll build me a 20-by-100-foot greenhouse, and I'll be all right."

In the bare Dallas office of Snail Farms International, the phone began to ring. The people called from places like Big Springs and Double Oak, Sunset and Rising Star. The farmers thought they had the space for snail farming. A mechanical engineer hoped maybe he could switch careers. A geologist considered snails a hobby less expensive than emus.

You could choose Opportunity A or Opportunity B. The price of A was $1,490. Choice B was double the value at less than double the price: a load of manure, some peat moss, 100 pounds of calcium carbonate for strong shells, 50 pounds of special snail food, four breeding beds and 10,000 fertile earthworms to eat the waste of 1,000 fertile snails. All this could be yours for $2,790.

In the old van from the furniture store, Gene Weaver sometimes made the deliveries with Gene the Second and the son he named John Wayne. The boys were young and cocky and clean-cut, one customer recalls, but in his jeans and boots, even with his hair dyed jet black, Weaver looked "kind of haggard, like he's been down the road awhile."

He told the nice people he was going to find a cannery and can their snails and eventually sell them across the country and maybe up into Canada and over to Europe, too. They didn't think much about it, because the important thing was that Mr. Weaver was going to buy their snails at $4 a pound, and after that, as one snailer said, "he could throw them off a bridge, for all I cared."

Clinkinbeard bred the snails in his bedroom until he got his greenhouse built. "Spent $15,000 on that whole sum'bitch," he says. His place became a snail showcase, and Weaver would bring prospects over to show them he was running a bigtime, legitimate operation. The day after John and Nancy Hill drove up from Menard, they gave Weaver a check for Opportunity B. They were very excited. Snails looked like something they could grow with their pecans.

"We started looking for a greenhouse," Nancy Hill says, "and Johnny got to reading about snails, see, and he got to thinking about the sun on a greenhouse, and so we decided maybe we better go ahead and build a barn."

So they built the barn and waited for Gene Weaver to return. A retired preacher from Plains, Ray Goodman had also given Weaver his money and was hoping snails would save him from poverty. Meanwhile, other snail farmers had grown nearly delirious, for it had happened just as Weaver promised. There had been a snail baby boom. The walls were just crawling with money. Clinkinbeard guesses he had about 1,300,000 "of them rascals." At 100 to a pound, $4 a pound, he was sure enough going to make $52,000.

But when the ants came or when the rain fell or when they were just in the mood, the snails suffered greatly, and so in turn did their people. The farmers called snail headquarters with their snail emergencies. They rang and they rang, left message after message. Rarely was there any reply.

Where was Gene Weaver? He never did give the Hills their snails, never did give them to the preacher. Sooner or later, more or less, everyone reached the same conclusion about Gene Weaver. As Goodman says, "He's quite some distance from Christ, isn't he?"

In the spring of 1994, Weaver came to Houston for the climate -- not the heat, he says, but the humidity. Snails like that.

But the reason he left Dallas was that his snail farmers had gotten out of hand. They say they began selling breeder snails because he disappeared. He says he disappeared because they began selling breeder snails. He swears he didn't know the Hills and Goodman were without any snails at all.

Anyway, Weaver rented an office on Voss and started over in Houston. Escargot of Texas was registered in a friend's name, but it was Weaver's operation. It included himself, his namesake, two secretaries and a shadowy "snailsman" who went alternately by the names Bill McCarty and Bill Gorham, according to the son. Weaver himself borrowed the name Pat Ryan from a dead friend. All this they did to keep the Dallas group out of their business, he said, and he knows it looks suspicious, but what difference does it make?

"People do that all the time," he says. "John Wayne wasn't John Wayne. You are who you say you are." And whoever they were, they were all dedicated to the cause -- not to rip off the people of Texas, but to establish a new Texas industry.

A retired air traffic controller in Splendora, Ralph Lewis chose breeding snails over selling Amway. Charles and Betty Ghormley in Pasadena bought into snails to supplement income from their construction business. Like Clinkinbeard and others, they both built barns for their snails and grew them just as they were told, and when the snails began to die, they had the same problems finding Gene Weaver. Where was he now?

Well, he had been roaming the state for the sake of the snail, he says. He had found a farm in Crosby, and he was going to grow vegetables there hydroponically and feed them to the snails. And the snails were going to a cannery; he thought he'd found just the one. That's what brought him to Betty Ghormley's door last March, acting, she says, "like a man on the run." She was the single lucky snail farmer to sell any snails to Gene Weaver ("No one else called me," he says), and he keeps a copy of the check now among the evidence of his honest intentions. He hauled her mollusks down to a cannery in Donna, where they canned an experimental batch while Weaver snapped a lot of pictures. Now why, he asks, would he go to all this trouble if he was not sincere about snails?

He was arrested a week later.

As it turned out, there is, in fact, a fortune to be made in snails, but in the United States, perhaps only one man is poised to do it, and his name is not Gene Weaver.

Like so many others, Richard Fullington is a retired man who said he's "really bet the farm on these things." His distinction, if it is one, is that he's the country's leading snail expert. The United States spends about $80 million a year importing canned snails, he says. In Addison, Fullington's Escargot International is the only snail firm in the country growing, processing and selling fresh snails on a large scale. Only a year old, the company is struggling to keep up with demand, but Fullington hesitates to say this because it "just gives fuel to the damn breeder people."

"It's not a get-rich-quick business," he explains. "It takes a lot of work, it takes a lot of time and it takes money."

He claims he helped the state put Gene Weaver's "ass in jail." He told them Weaver's snail plan was doomed from the beginning: too many snails and too much waste in too little space. Fullington had seen the same setup many times before, except for the worms. The worms were supposed to eat the snail shit, Fullington observes, "but who's going to eat the worm shit? Somewhere or another, you'll end up with a pile of shit from something."

And so it came to pass that there was a great snail holocaust. The rains came one night and washed over Ralph Lewis' snails, and he felt sick in the morning when he found a swath of upturned shells 250,000 strong. It was fire ants who slew the Ghormleys' mollusks, and after that it was the heat, and then the filthy soil and finally, the insecticide in the new peat moss. The air grew thick with snail death.

In Fort Worth, the Texas Department of Agriculture finally convened a meeting of Gene Weaver's customers, and Fullington was on hand to tell them the cold truth about their snail dreams. "It was a real sad deal," he recalls, and then he spoke of the woman who came to him, saying her husband had been laid off and they had no money left, but they did have four snails and were hoping to make a new beginning.

If a farmer is able to raise his snails to maturity, eventually he learns that an unprocessed snail brings about a nickel on the current market, if you can get it to someone who will buy it. The snail farmer makes a decision at this point. He either begins converting innocent people into snail farmers, selling breeders for upwards of $1 apiece. Or he begins conceiving of The Final Solution.

In Wichita Falls not long ago, Johnny Twilligean and his neighbor solemnly dug a pit for 500,000 escargot "and just roasted 'em," he says. Alex Drobena in Marlin carried his creatures to the woods in five-gallon buckets and "set them free." As for Clinkinbeard, he was afraid his snails might make someone sick, so he didn't try to sell to any restaurants. Instead, the snails sit beside the worms on his bait stand, and he sells them now for $1.50 a dozen.

"Damn good fish bait," he says.
Ralph Lewis has not come to this point yet. After Weaver's arrest, he went ahead and finished his barn, and he's trying now to rebuild the herd that was destroyed in the flood. He's spent more than $20,000 so far and hasn't sold a thing, but he's hoping maybe snail eggs can be the next caviar.

The Ghormleys, too, are still growing snails, still hoping to get 60 cents apiece for them. They don't regret getting into the business. Shoot no, said Charles Ghormley. "Snails is no worse than Watusis."

What's that?
"Exotic cows."
Made any money on your Watusis?
"No -- not yet!"

On April 22, Gene Weaver is scheduled to go to trial on 32 counts of theft by deception. His parole has already been revoked, but he's risking the rest of his life in prison by once again not bargaining with the prosecutor.

"I know in my heart it wasn't my intention to defraud anyone," he explains.
He still believes he can make a fortune on the Helix aspersa -- says he'll give it another try just as soon as he gets out of here. If snails don't make him rich this time, Weaver's going into the funeral business, he says. He imagines his parlors in every strip mall. It'll be just like Office Max, except that instead of furniture, Gene Weaver will sell you a cheap casket.

He cupped his hands and held them forth.
" 'Look at this,' I'll say. 'Could I have money for this?' And I'll get money.

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