By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
You'll hear that the ladies of one region are better than another because they're Catholic and don't care for divorce, or conversely, because they're atheist and don't mind it. "Beauty pageants," one company proclaims, "are the national pastime of Colombia." Another company has anointed itself "an international humanitarian agency," out to make a profit, of course, but also to help poor countries and single mothers. And on the World Wide Web, yet another service offers a game that seems to speak for the industry: match the nude body with the head and get a free gift.
Or forget the head -- who needs it?
The owners of these companies tell stories about one another that range from not answering the phone to drunkenness and prostitution. Over the Press' fax machine, a message arrived that could have become a novel. The name of the company and the owner were printed at the top, and beneath it, the charge read:
"Brought a Russian girl to the U.S. and beat her -- she left to go live with topless dancers."
All of this came by way of a reporter's inquiry into T.L.C. The questions led eventually to Miami, where Mark Bodiford said, "There's a lot of bad feeling between us and T.L.C." You can read about it every now and then in his International Friends catalog.
Bruce says T.L.C. was started when two amigos saw an opportunity no one was exploiting. Bodiford disagrees, and says Latin America was International Friends' turf first. Whether Bruce's Cancun tale is true or not, Bodiford is pretty sure the two amigos started their company by sending secret agents into the ranks of International's customers. In this way, T.L.C. acquired a catalog format to copy, and the addresses of dames and dudes to entice away.
In the June 1992 International listing of men, there's the smiling face of Bruce's sidekick, James Smith, who was 48 at the time and was looking for a traditional Latin lady no younger than 18. Nearby, Bodiford believes, were the photos of two more of Bruce's friends. And at the bottom of the page, to fill space, there was a handsome mug of Tito Gato, a gray tabby.
According to Bodiford, most of the men in the listing, and Tito Gato as well, later received T.L.C. brochures offering to help them find Latin mates. Many of the ladies who wrote Bruce's friends were enlisted into T.L.C., Bodiford believes, as were other women who originally appeared in the International catalog.
By that fall, James had found his Martha through International Friends, and Bruce, a man named Julian Flores and Houston policeman Chris Sherman had married, respectively, the sisters Gisela, Diana and Miriam Bucardo. T.L.C. was evidently still short on stock, however, because the following spring, in the first edition of T.L.C.'s catalog, Martha and Miriam were offered as marriageable ladies.
Gisela's application, meanwhile, was received by International Friends three months after her marriage. As Bodiford said, "She's fine!" and after her photo was published in the winter of 1993, she probably attracted a lot of suitors. Her husband replied to each one.
"Thank you ... for writing Gisela Burcardo," Bruce White began, misspelling his wife's last name. "I am writing to you for three reasons. 1) To thank you for the sincere cards and/or letters you sent to my wife 2) To wish you good luck in meeting your spouse through an International Correspondence service, and 3) to offer my magazine/services in addition to others subscribed by you before."
I was an innocent virgin when he married me," Gisela told her divorce lawyer.
She arrived in October 1992 and began missing her family immediately. When Bruce was at work, which was most of the time, Gisela was alone in the house, and when he was home, they were unable to speak. If Bruce had something to tell her, he would call his secretary and have her translate over the phone. In this way, they lived together as husband and wife. Gisela said no one told her about contraception, and she became pregnant in that first month.
Bruce had an extensive pornography collection that he insisted on showing off, she testified. She told her lawyer that he drank from seven in the evening to three in the morning and often shouted at her. He wouldn't let her attend English or driving classes, or go to church. He called her "primitive, stupid and useless." He told her to fold those catalogs, get to work.
"He required total obedience to his wishes," she recounted to her lawyer, through an interpreter. "If I did not obey him, he said he would return me to Honduras."
In August 1994, when Bruce left for a business trip to Panama, Gisela says he left with the threat that he would bring home another wife. She believed him. She sold her clothes and shoes; Bruce told the court she took his high school class ring and his $3,000 coin collection. Gisela bundled up her year-old daughter and left the land of the free to return to Honduras.