Making a Killing

In the '70s, Walter Waldhauser arranged four contract murders. Nearly 20 years later, he has a new name and a new line of work -- but he still generates a profit from death.

In Dallas's high-rent West End, on the fourth floor of the marble-halled Paramount Building, Michael Lee Davis was fumbling through a stack of papers in his office's reception area. The vice president of Southwest Viatical, he looked up hopefully when a visitor entered the office. A viatical company buys the life-insurance policies of the HIV-positive for pennies on the dollar, then collects the full insurance benefit when the client dies. This visitor might be a potential client, a new source of profit.

It's not the first time that Davis has tried to make money from the deaths (and life-insurance policies) of others. Roughly 20 years ago, when his name was Walter Waldhauser Jr., he helped carry out the contract killings of four Houstonians, including a 14-month-old boy shot in his crib. Now, after serving less than ten years in prison, Waldhauser has exchanged his prison whites for a snappy blue pinstriped suit.

It's a chilling thought for the lawman most responsible for sending him to prison.

"If I knew that this guy had a life-insurance policy on my life, and he was the beneficiary on it, I'd be scared to death," says former homicide detective Johnny Bonds. "I'd feel like a walking dead man. Because he will kill you for money."

On the morning of July 6, 1979, a housekeeper made a grim discovery when she arrived for work at the Wanstrath family's house. The long body of John Wanstrath was slumped in his living-room easy chair. His wife, Diana, lay at his feet. Both had been shot in the head. So had their adopted infant son, Kevin, whose body was still in his crib.

Johnny Bonds and his partner, Eli Uresti, arrived at the house in Memorial a short time later. They noted that despite the violence to the bodies, the house seemed relatively in order; nothing appeared to have been stolen. They assumed they were investigating a murder/suicide, that John Wanstrath had killed his wife and son, and then himself.

Bonds followed crime-scene protocol by first observing the bodies without moving them. Next, he began looking for the murder weapon. On his hands and knees, the detective searched under and around the easy chair but found nothing. Still unconcerned, he figured the gun must be lodged between John Wanstrath's large frame and the inside of the chair. He waited for the medical examiner to arrive and move the body.

But even then, there was no gun to be found. Bonds and Uresti changed their minds about how the Wanstrath family had died: It must have been a murder for hire.

Unfortunately for the detectives, Dr. Joseph Jachimczyk, Harris County's flamboyant chief medical examiner, had his own theory about the deaths. Jachimczyk authorized what he called a "psychological autopsy" that involved studying everything from the food the family ate to the music they listened to. He concluded that Diana Wanstrath had been suffering a bout of depression, and had killed both her husband and son before shooting herself.

From the beginning, Bonds and Uresti didn't buy that theory: It failed to explain what had happened to the murder weapon. As the detectives' public disagreement with the popular chief medical examiner escalated, Bonds found himself transferred from the homicide division to internal affairs -- the Siberia of the police department.

Still, he continued to work the case.

The Wanstraths' bodies were discovered on a Friday morning. On Saturday, The Houston Post ran an account of the murders in a front-page story by reporter Rick Nelson. Later that day, Nelson received a call from a man who refused to identify himself. It would be almost a year and a half before Nelson learned that the caller was Don Chaline, a gambler and small-time crook (see "Death of an Informant," Houston Press, July 24, 1997). Anonymously, Chaline told the reporter that, although he could not prove there was a connection, Diana Wanstrath's brother, Markham Duff-Smith, claimed to have had their mother killed four years earlier.

And in fact, in 1975, Trudy Zobolio had turned up dead in her River Oaks home, strangled with a pair of pantyhose. The medical examiner's office had ruled that death, too, a suicide.

Chaline also told the reporter that there had been a middleman in the Zobolio hit -- a guy who was into real estate and collecting coins. Nelson turned the information over to Bonds. To the detective, the informant's story sounded credible.

During questioning, Bonds remembered, Duff-Smith had talked about his dead family members without emotion and indicated that the interrogation was a great imposition. Bonds began a closer of examination of Duff-Smith's background and business dealings.

He found that in addition to standing to gain financially from the deaths of his relatives, Duff-Smith was running a scam on insurance companies. According to Bonds, Duff-Smith would take a job selling insurance, and convince his friends to insure their lives for amounts up to $500,000. The friends never made payments; Duff-Smith would simply make the first payments himself and pocket his sizable commission. When the policies were eventually canceled because the premiums were not paid, the insurance company would plan to recoup its commission from Duff-Smith's future commissions. At that point, Duff-Smith would simply quit, go to work for another insurance company, and start the same scam all over again.

Those facts interested Bonds, but they did not prove that Duff-Smith was responsible for the deaths of his mother or the Wanstraths. Besides, Duff-Smith had an alibi for the night the Wanstraths died.

The investigators decided to seek the coin-collecting realtor, making their way through Duff-Smith's known associates until they came across the name Walter Waldhauser Jr. Bonds found out that Duff-Smith, Waldhauser and their wives had had reservations to go to Las Vegas on the day the Wanstraths' bodies were found.

The detective figured it was time to pay Waldhauser a visit. During the interview, Bonds fished for information just as he had with Duff-Smith's other friends. He casually mentioned that he'd heard Waldhauser was a coin collector.

Waldhauser said, "Yeah, how'd you know?"
Bonds knew then that he had his man.
But he still had to prove it. Over the next year, he dug into the lives of Duff-Smith and Waldhauser and discovered that they were the biggest con men he'd ever run across. In addition to Duff-Smith's insurance scams, which Bonds says Waldhauser was a part of, the two men were also fascinated by organized crime. Waldhauser sometimes passed himself off as a Mafia attorney, even though he didn't have a law degree.

More than a year after the Wanstraths had been killed, Waldhauser and his wife separated, and his wife allowed the police to search their home. In a large pile of garbage, investigators came across five letters from Waldhauser to one Allen Wayne Janecka.

A background check revealed that in 1979, about two months before the deaths of the Wanstraths, Janecka had been present during the murder of a southeast Houston drug dealer, but had never been arrested or charged in the case. The killer was a young guy named Richard Bufkin who, after being granted shock probation, was already a free man. In November 1980, Bonds located him working on a delivery truck in Corpus Christi.

Bonds asked Bufkin whether Janecka had ever talked about killing anyone else. And the kid replied yeah, that Janecka had had some Mafia deal, that a Mafia lawyer knew a guy who wanted his sister and her husband and baby killed.

"That's when I knew we were home," remembers Bonds. "After I got that piece of information, within a month we had everything."

In March 1981, Waldhauser signed typewritten statements admitting that, on behalf of Duff-Smith, he had hired Janecka to kill Duff-Smith's mother, sister, brother-in-law and nephew in exchange for a cut of Duff-Smith's inheritance, which included benefits from the family's life-insurance policies. Waldhauser told police that he'd been an active participant in the Wanstrath killings, spraying the faces of the two adults with Mace. And according to Janecka, Wanstrath had even held Diana Wanstrath to the floor while Janecka shot her in the head.

Waldhauser confessed to another murder plot as well. Waldhauser said he, Duff-Smith and Janecka had intended to kill Lowell Leggett, a drinking buddy of theirs. They convinced Leggett that they were going to open a restaurant on Lake Conroe and would make him the manager. To protect their investment, they said, they needed him to take out a $500,000 life-insurance policy naming them the beneficiaries.

"They were going to kill him," says Bonds. "They had already set up the corporate papers, and they were going to take him out on Lake Conroe to scout for a location for the restaurant, and then drown him."

In 1981, a Harris County jury found Duff-Smith guilty of having his mother killed. In 1993, he was put to death by lethal injection. Janecka is currently awaiting execution for the murder of Kevin Wanstrath.

But in exchange for his confessions and a plea of guilty to three counts of capital murder, Waldhauser received what Bonds calls a sweetheart deal: three 30-year sentences to be served concurrently. In 1990, after serving less than ten years in prison, Waldhauser was paroled.

Bonds's obsession with the Wanstrath case had destroyed his first marriage and almost cost him his career; there was no way he was going to forget the killers. He thought Waldhauser had gotten off too lightly -- and worse, that he is a threat to kill yet again.

Bonds characterizes Waldhauser as extremely cunning, a criminal void of emotion who enjoys playing games.

"He is potentially as dangerous as anybody I've ever dealt with in my life," says Bonds. "I have tried to keep up with him as best I can, because I know this guy is going to do something else."

Although he managed to avoid the death penalty, for all intents and purposes, on April 23, 1990, Walter Waldhauser Jr. died and was reborn as Michael Lee Davis. Less than a month out of prison, he legally changed his name and somehow changed his Social Security number -- wiping out his identity as a paroled murderer.

According to a spokesman for the Social Security Administration, it is possible to get a new Social Security number legally -- but such cases are rare. Waldhauser's situation, he says, "doesn't sound like one of those."

For about three years, Bonds lost track of Waldhauser. During that time, Waldhauser/Davis moved to Arizona and was accepted at the law school of Arizona State University. He made good grades, completed his courses and was on the verge of accepting his diploma.

After a story in the Arizona Star revealed Davis's past as a convicted murderer, university officials blocked his graduation on the grounds that he'd lied on his application.

Once again, Bonds lost track of Davis, knowing only that he'd relocated to Dallas. Then, from out of the blue, Bonds received a phone call that made him worry that Walter Waldhauser Jr. -- a.k.a. Michael Lee Davis -- was again up to no good.

In early 1997, Bruce Marshall, an easygoing patrol officer in Garland, a Dallas suburb, began considering a career in health care and enrolled in a biology night class at Dallas's Richland College. Most of the students were obviously fresh out of high school; Marshall, 46, quickly pegged himself as the oldest student in the class. But then he noticed another man approximately his age.

A couple of nights later, the class divided up into groups of three for a lab. The other older man asked Marshall if he'd like to be one of his lab partners. Marshall agreed, as did a young woman.

The man introduced himself as Mike Davis, and during a break, he asked Marshall what he did for a living. Marshall usually doesn't volunteer that information -- he's heard too many complaints about traffic tickets and bone-headed cops. So he said that he was a sanitation worker, and considering the human trash he'd dealt with, he didn't consider that answer a lie.

But he could tell that Davis didn't buy it. And for the next several weeks, Davis pestered Marshall to reveal his job. Each time, Marshall replied that he was a sanitation worker.

After about a month, Davis laughed and said, "You know, Bruce, you can find out about anybody if you know how to use a computer."

It dawned on Marshall that Davis might have been running computer checks on him. So Marshall came clean and admitted that he was a cop.

"He looked at me," remembers Marshall, "and he said, 'Oh, are you really?' And I thought to myself, 'Man, you are so full of shit.' I wasn't telling him anything he didn't already know. He just wanted to hear me say it."

Davis seemed to go out of his way to develop their friendship. Repeatedly, he suggested that the two of them and their wives get together for dinner.

He also encouraged Marshall to keep up his pursuit of another career. "He often told me that I was too smart to be a cop," recalls Marshall. "And I'd say, 'Gee, thanks -- I think.' "

Davis claimed to be an attorney, but was evasive about the sort of law he practiced. He claimed to have attended several law schools and said he graduated from Arizona State. But, he said, he was tired of being a lawyer.

He explained that he was taking biology because he was considering medical school. He said he'd once been involved in a case where a consultant was both a doctor and a lawyer, and the guy pulled down huge fees. (That claim is actually not that far from truth: Dr. Jachimczyk, the county medical examiner who investigated the Wanstrath case, holds degrees in both law and medicine.)

"My first thought was that he could do it," says Marshall. "He seemed that sharp." Davis exuded a strange charm, and seemed always to be the center of attention during class.

Still, Marshall felt something was odd. Davis liked to give the impression that he was a high roller, and boasted about having his $40,000-a-year paralegal transcribe the class lectures that he always taped. It also troubled Marshall that he could never contact Davis directly. Davis always carried his cell phone, but every time Marshall called, he had to leave voice mail.

Despite those misgivings, Marshall finally accepted Davis's invitation to get together with their wives for dinner. The two couples spent a pleasant evening at a Mexican restaurant in northeast Dallas.

In late February, Marshall and two other Garland police officers responded to the report of a bank robbery in progress. One of the officers was killed during a gun battle. Devastated, Marshall dropped the biology class.

Davis saw Marshall's name in the newspaper account of the holdup, and called Marshall to say he was praying for him. A few days later, Davis and his wife, Beverly, brought the Marshalls ice cream from Baskin-Robbins. Before leaving, Davis made a point of telling Marshall's wife, Margaret, how much he cared for her husband.

The Marshalls were touched, and over the next few months, began to see Mike and Beverly Davis more frequently. But the more they saw of them, the more things didn't add up.

Though Mike and Beverly were becoming frequent guests at the Marshalls' -- perhaps a little too frequent -- they never invited the Marshalls to their home. The Davises claimed their house was a dump in a dangerous part of Dallas they described as "Little Mexico." The Davises heaped extravagant praise on the Marshalls' decidedly middle-class home. (Marshall half-expected them to say, "Gosh, indoor plumbing!") Inevitably, just before leaving, Beverly would break down and cry at the thought of having to return to her own home.

All the while, Marshall wondered: If Davis was such a high roller -- if he could afford to pay a paralegal $40,000 a year -- why didn't he simply move to a different neighborhood?

Beverly Davis's stories also grew fantastic. She claimed to be the estranged daughter of Houston millionaire Jack Blanton. She also claimed that she and an ex-husband had been wildly successful in the aloe vera business. But her husband, she said, frequently beat her -- beat her so severely that her face had to be surgically reconstructed. After their divorce, he supposedly made off with their aloe vera fortune.

That summer, the Marshalls' concern about their new friends peaked.
One night, Mike Davis was driving the foursome to dinner in his faded red Chevy Lumina. Through the rear-view mirror, he made eye contact with Bruce Marshall. He asked if Marshall was carrying a gun.

Marshall said no, he wasn't.
An awkward silence followed.
Beverly blurted, "So I'm the only one in the car with a gun right now."

After almost soiling himself, Marshall asked Beverly if she had a concealed-weapon permit. When Beverly said she did, Marshall's wife asked if she could see it. Beverly refused, saying she never showed her permit to anybody.

"There's not a person in the state of Texas who isn't pleased as punch to show you that they've got a permit to carry a weapon," says Marshall. "I knew that something was very wrong."

The next day, Marshall resolved to discover the truth about Mike and Beverly Davis. He remembered Mike's comment that you can find out a lot about a person on a computer.

In his patrol car, he logged onto his mobile computer and tried to search for Beverly's driver's license. In Texas, when an officer runs a computer check on a driver's license, the driver's gun permit will also pop up, if he or she has one. After a good deal of searching, Marshall found Beverly's license under "Beverly Cottrell," her name from her first marriage; he thought that was odd, since Beverly and Mike had been married over a year. Marshall waited for the attached information about the gun permit, but nothing appeared on the screen. Beverly didn't have a permit.

She had lovingly described the palatial estate that she and her former husband supposedly owned in Richardson. Bruce and Margaret drove to Richardson to check out the house at the address listed on Beverly's driver's license. It was a nice enough house, but certainly not the mansion Beverly had described.

Margaret called a well-placed friend at Southern Methodist University to check out Beverly's claim to be the daughter of Jack Blanton, a major SMU supporter. The friend reported that Blanton has no daughter named Beverly and has never heard of Beverly Davis.

Bruce and Margaret now figured they should also take a look at Mike and Beverly's current home, to see whether it was the hellhole they described. A few months earlier, the Davises returned from a trip to New Orleans with a present of candy for their new friends. At the time, Marshall had asked Davis for his home address so he could send a thank-you note; Davis later acknowledged receiving the note. Marshall and his wife drove to the location on Skillman Avenue. Instead of a house, they found a P.O. box.

Bruce wondered, "Who is this guy?"
In September 1997, Bruce Marshall celebrated his 45th birthday. During the celebration, Mike Davis let it slip that his birthday was also in September, but refused to say exactly what day. From past conversations, Marshall knew that Davis was a year younger than himself. Armed with that information, Marshall began searching for Davis's driver's license. Calculating that Davis had been born sometime in 1953, Marshall entered the name Michael Lee Davis into his patrol car computer 365 times -- once for each day of 1953. He found nothing.

In mid-September, Marshall turned to the Garland Police Department's intelligence division. Suspecting that Davis was a con artist, the intelligence officers offered to set up surveillance on Davis.

Marshall started to accept their offer. But then he got home, and thought, "Hell, I'm a cop. I can follow this guy myself."

Bruce told Margaret about his plan. She grimaced, then agreed to help.
The Marshalls were scheduled to have dinner with the Davises on Saturday night. That day, Bruce Marshall borrowed a friend's car and parked it in a neighbor's driveway.

The Davises picked up the Marshalls, and the two couples drove to an Italian restaurant in Plano for dinner. Afterward, as usual, the Davises insisted on going back to the Marshalls' house.

Around 1 a.m., Mike and Beverly finally took the Marshalls' hints that it was time go. The Marshalls walked them to the front porch and waved good-bye. But as soon as the Davises turned the corner, Bruce sprinted across the street, jumped in the borrowed car and followed the mystery couple to a house at 10553 Galena in Dallas -- a simple corner house in a safe-looking neighborhood.

The next day, Bruce Marshall drove to Richland College, hoping to uncover Davis's school records. According to the registrar, Davis had specifically requested that no information about him be released, so she couldn't allow Marshall to see the records. But knowing that he was a cop, she said that if he'd sign a release, she'd try to answer any questions.

Marshall asked for Davis's date of birth, and the clerk told him September 1, 1976 -- which would have made Davis only 21 years old. Next, Marshall requested Davis's driver's license and Social Security numbers. The clerk replied that Davis had not listed either set of numbers with the school, and had randomly been assigned a number. The address he'd given the school turned out to be another postal drop box.

Marshall decided to return to the Garland Police Department's intelligence division, hoping for a more sophisticated background check. Busy with other projects, the intelligence officers turned Marshall over to the division's secretary and asked her to see what she could find.

While the secretary accessed the department's databases, Marshall called the Richardson Police Department to verify Beverly's stories of having been savagely beaten by her ex-husband. An officer with Richardson's family violence unit came back with two reports. No one was arrested in either incident, and neither showed that Beverly had been injured -- much less hurt so seriously as to need facial reconstruction.

"Who's scamming whom?" Marshall wondered. "Is Beverly scamming Mike? Is Mike scamming her? Or are they both scamming me?"

Meanwhile, the clerk continued to run background checks on Mike Davis. She found that Davis loved post office boxes -- so much so that he had rented about a dozen during the past few years. But every time she tried to route his name to the next level of her computer search, she faced a blank screen. She asked Marshall if Davis might be in the federal witness protection program. Marshall replied that for all he knew, Davis might well be.

Several more hours turned up little of significance. Finally, the secretary found a Social Security number for Davis. With approval from her boss, she next made a discreet call to a contact at the Internal Revenue Service. The contact told them that Davis had had a couple of low-paying jobs and was currently working for a company named Southwest Viatical, located at 3101 Carlisle, in Dallas's Oak Lawn area. To Marshall and the secretary, the name signified nothing; neither knew what a viatical was.

Back at the computer, armed with the Social Security number, the secretary discovered that Davis had applied for, and received, a new Social Security number. She told Marshall to wait in her office while she went next door to the department's main computer center and ran a criminal-history check on the original Social Security number.

Marshall was passing the time, shooting the bull with intelligence division officers, when the phone rang. The secretary's voice quaked with excitement. She told Marshall not to leave, that she'd found something. He assured her he wasn't going anywhere.

In a few minutes, she returned with the news: Davis's name really is Michael Lee Davis, but it used to be Walter Waldhauser Jr. And in 1980, Walter Waldhauser had been charged with four counts of capital murder and had pled guilty to three.

Suspecting a data-entry error, the Garland cops placed a call to Houston's homicide division. There had been no error.

"Jesus God," thought Marshall. "This guy has been in my home. He knows where I live."

He was eating his lunch and trying to absorb the news when he received a message on his pager. He dialed the number and spoke with Johnny Bonds -- now with the Harris County District Attorney's office.

"I understand you've met my old buddy, Walter," Bonds said.
He briefed Marshall on the Wanstrath killings. The briefing didn't make Marshall feel any better.

Bonds asked Marshall if he was going to tell Waldhauser/Davis what he'd discovered. Marshall said he didn't know. But if Marshall chose to confront the killer, Bonds had a request. "Be sure to mention my name," he said, "because he hates my guts."

Marshall contemplated his next move. He chose not to confront Davis -- but for his own satisfaction, he opted to take his investigation one step further.

Marshall recruited a friend who fancied himself an amateur detective. On a Friday morning in early October last year, the two drove to Davis's house and waited for the ex-con to leave for work. After almost losing him in traffic, the two men trailed him to a two-story atrium-style office building on Carlisle -- the address of Southwest Viatical.

Marshall's friend followed Davis inside the building. After a few minutes, Marshall got nervous.

Finally, his friend returned, excited. After entering the building, he'd seen Davis and another man in a second-floor office. He checked the building directory, which listed Southwest Viatical as one of the second-floor tenants. As he studied the directory, someone from a downstairs office asked if he needed help. He replied that he was curious what a viatical was. The man explained that a viatical buys the life-insurance policies of people who are terminally ill -- usually AIDS patients -- for a fraction of what the policy will pay the beneficiary. When the person dies, the company collects the full benefits.

Marshall still didn't know what to make of his discovery, so he called Bonds.

"I became concerned," says Bonds. "Because a viatical doesn't make any money until someone dies. And Walter Waldhauser is a guy who doesn't like to wait on his money."

Bonds contacted the homicide division of the Dallas Police Department. A detective there was sympathetic but told Bond what he already knew: Without any evidence of a crime, there was little he could do.

"The problem is that homicide is reactive, not proactive," says Bonds. "They work from the body back. They don't go out looking for bodies."

Bonds decided his best option was to let potential customers of Southwest Viatical know exactly who they'd be dealing with -- and with that in mind, he tipped me to Waldhauser's new life, and suggested I check him out.

Which I did. Documents on file with the Texas Department of Insurance name Mike Davis as the vice president of Southwest Viatical. I told the department that Davis is actually Walter Waldhauser Jr., and that he played an integral role in killing four Houstonians, in part for their insurance money.

"Oh, my God," replied the spokesman.
Nor is Davis the only Southwest Viatical officer with a criminal history. State records list Hoyt Steven Wauhob as president and sole owner of Southwest Viatical. According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, from January 1986 to August 1988, Wauhob served one year and eight months of a 20-year sentence; he'd been convicted of running a speed lab in Harris County. Wauhob spent a portion of that time at the prison system's Diagnostic Unit -- the same facility where Waldhauser/Davis spent almost ten years of confinement.

It's not clear how the pair found their way into the viatical industry. But viaticals' attractions to the twosome are obvious: The new industry, born in the mid-'80s, offered high potential profits and next to no bothersome government oversight.

Not until 1995 did the Texas Legislature place viaticals under the regulation of the state insurance department. But rather than regulate, what the department actually does is register viaticals. Each year, the state requires a viatical to renew its registration by paying a filing fee -- but there's apparently no penalty if a viatical fails to register. According to a department spokesman, the only remedy available to the state is to seek a court order to have the company cease and desist -- a remedy the state has yet to seek.

In 1995 and '96, Southwest Viatical registered itself. But, according to insurance department records, there's no evidence that Southwest has registered with the state in either 1997 or 1998.

In its filings with the state, Southwest Viatical listed itself as a viatical broker -- a company that matches someone wanting to sell a policy with a viatical settlement company, which actually buys the policy and collects the eventual benefits. But according to an industry source, Southwest has held itself out to be both a broker and a settlement company. And since Southwest hasn't registered with the state in the last two years, it's hard to say which side of the street the company has been working.

According to its state filings, during 1995, the company completed 59 viatical settlements through a Waco-based viatical settlement company, Life Partners, Inc. -- one of the largest viatical companies in the country.

Life Partners founder Brian Pardo confirmed that his company has done business with Southwest Viatical, but added that the companies' business relationship was discontinued after the retirement of Southwest's founder, Wes Crowder.

The source describes the viatical industry as a small world where there are few secrets. "The new management has a very bad credibility problem within the industry," says the source. "Part of the problem is that Wauhob has a real taste for the high life."

Wauhob and three other employees of Southwest Viatical did not respond to the Press's phone calls or a list of questions delivered to Southwest's office. It's not clear whether they know anything of Davis's past.

As for the industry source, he was unfamiliar with Davis and the fact that he had been convicted of insurance-related murder.

"I don't think they would go around killing people," he said. "That would be a little too obvious."

Johnny Bonds, on the other hand, wasn't so sure.

Bonds checked with the people most likely to have had contact with Southwest Viatical: the Dallas AIDS community.

The HIV-positive come to AIDS Resource Center of Dallas for emotional support as well as health and financial information. Until recently, the center distributed Southwest Viatical's bright yellow brochure. Calling itself "Dallas's Largest and Oldest Viatical Company," Southwest encouraged the reader to get the straight dope on viaticals from its own Mike Davis.

Bonds contacted Craig Hess, the center's client services program director. Hess, in turn, put me in touch with one of the center's volunteers, who asked not to be named. In exchange for $25,000 cash, the volunteer signed over his $100,000 life-insurance policy. And, he said, Southwest is currently paying the premiums of a second life-insurance policy that he also plans to sell to the company. -- "so don't put them out of business."

Asked how he found out about Southwest Viatical, the volunteer said he was referred through a client of the AIDS Resource Center who had also done business with the company. The volunteer refused to reveal the name of that client -- who, he says, is now dead.

These days, Southwest Viatical is headquartered in the restored Paramount Building -- also home to UPN television's Channel 21 -- in downtown Dallas's high-rent West End. I recently stopped by without an appointment.

I knocked on the door of office number 490, then opened it. A man stood behind the receptionist's desk, riffling through papers.

"Mike Davis?"
"Yeah," he replied. "What can I do for you?"
I said I was doing a story on his company and his life as Walter Waldhauser.

He studied my business card, and I thought he was about to deny any knowledge of a Waldhauser.

"By the way," I added, "Johnny Bonds says to tell you hello."
Davis/Waldhauser moved his eyes from my card to my face. He forced a grimace into a slight smile.

"Well, that's nice," he said slowly. "But I'm going to have to pass."
I glanced around the reception area, focusing on its aquarium. "You've got a real nice place here," I said, trying to prolong the conversation. "Business must be good."

"Business," he replied, "is very good."
He walked into a side office, and I showed myself the door.

E-mail Steve McVicker at steve_mcvicker@houstonpress.com.

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