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Mike Nixon knew how to make a big entrance.
It can be hard sometimes to upstage the antics at the floating party bar that is Lance's Turtle Club in Seabrook -- where six-figure yachts and speedboats align the dock, handy for partying couples to duck into for a quick whatever -- but Nixon never failed to do it.
From far off, the biggest stereo on the lake could be heard thumping out Prince's "Pussy Control," and heads would turn to watch the approach of Nixon's 50-foot-plus yacht, the Living Extra Large. The boat's deck would feature a half-dozen or so stunning women, all attired in matching thong swimsuits purchased by Nixon.
With the flair of the expert boatsman he was, the 54-year-old Nixon would glide the yacht to a stop at the most prominent place on the dock. And the party would really get started.
Nixon indeed knew how to make a big entrance. He also knew, apparently, how to make a big exit.
On the night of August 27, his 40-foot speedboat, the Living Extra Fast," collided with a barge in the Houston Ship Channel near Redfish Island. The barge captain told investigators he had picked up the boat behaving erratically and had flashed a strong spotlight on it as it approached. He said he saw no one on the boat, which was continually circling ever closer to the impossible-to-stop barge. Eventually the Living Extra Fast banged side-to-side with the barge and then sped off, damaged, into the dark.
U.S. Coast Guard crews and Nixon's fellow powerboaters searched in vain for his body. Knowing tidal currents and just how long it takes a sunken body to bloat and rise to the surface, investigators could pretty much pinpoint where and when the corpse might emerge.
It never did.
Within days word circulated that shortly before the incident, officials of a Minnesota bank told Nixon they were foreclosing on their $4 million loan to him.
And the legend of Mike Nixon took yet another turn. "I haven't spoken to anyone who doesn't think he's alive somewhere," says one member of the Clear Lake boating community.
"We're just kind of chasing ghosts at this point," says Donald Gould II. "I have no information that says he's not at the bottom of the Ship Channel, but everything sure smells funny."
Gould has a special interest in finding Nixon: He represents Minnwest Bank, which lent Nixon $4 million in February so his Delta Crane Company could purchase and then sell or lease out large cranes for factory and warehouse use.
Nixon was "brought to the bank by a legitimate" company Minnwest had done business with, Gould says. And Nixon seemed like a good bet -- he had 17 years on his own in the crane business after 16 years working with heavy equipment for Brown & Root, according to bank documents.
The February agreement called for the cranes to be used as collateral for the loan, and Nixon dutifully filed invoices and balance sheets showing he had begun amassing inventory. Now the bank is trying to find out if those cranes ever existed.
"We believe he colluded with people to make it look like there had been a sale," Gould says. "He'd go to a friend in the crane business and tell them, 'I've got a buyer and a seller lined up, but they just hate each other and if they found out they were doing business with the other guy they'd cancel the deal. So can I run it though your company, and I'll give you $500 or $1,000 for your trouble?' " (Others say the "gratuity" might have gone as high as 10 percent, in deals worth $600,000 or so.)
The friends might not have known they were part of a scheme to defraud the bank, an acquaintance of Nixon's says. But the ruse would create enough paperwork to keep the bank happy -- at least until August, when it sent Nixon a notice of default saying he had missed the latest filing of a financial statement, had not allowed required inspections of inventory and might have lent himself money from the loan.
In the meantime, Nixon -- the King of the Lake, to some -- continued living large.
He'd been making waves in Clear Lake for a long time. In the early 1990s he disappeared for a while (once again followed by rumors of a soured business deal), but by 1995 or so he was back. For a while he tried to fit in with the Clear Lake chapter of TOPPS, the Texas Offshore Performance Powerboat Squadron, a group of 100 or so speedboaters who sponsor charity events and safety programs.
"Mike learned fast that TOPPS is more of a middle-aged, married-couple boat club as opposed to a divorced, single-men boat club," one boater says. "He'd show up with a bunch of girls with their tops off, with their clothes off or whatever, and everyone, especially the wives, got sick of the guy."
He left TOPPS in 2001 -- causing a bit of a civil war between those who supported him and those who wished he'd go away -- but he didn't slow down at all. (The "civil war" also keeps boaters from wishing to be quoted by name.)
On big weekends at the Turtle Club, for instance, the boats can be lined up four or five abreast at the dock, and the partyers clamber over the other boats to get to the bar.
"I was climbing over his boat one time and the hatch was open and there was this woman with five guys on her," says one boater. "She's moaning and all, but five minutes later she's out of the boat screaming, 'You fuckers!' So I don't know what was going on."
Nixon loved being the center of attention, and was genuinely liked by a lot of people. "He was a really good guy that most everyone loved," says the boater familiar with the TOPPS episode. "He'd spend money on people. If people needed money, he'd loan it to them. He'd do everything in the world for you if you were a friend."
But the diverse views of Nixon quickly emerged on a message board on the KHOU-TV Web site after the station reported the accident.
"He left all TOPPS in mourning and is headed to more drinking and drugs; those in mourning will only regret [losing] the free drinks and X," one anonymous poster said.
"No! Mike did have friends that were not paid for," said another. "Yes I believe he is alive and yes I believe he was not honest with some of his business dealings but with me he was always honest and above board."
Minnwest Bank would disagree.
In a suit filed after the crash in Harris County District Court, Minnwest Bank attorneys state that allegations may be forthcoming about "forgery, fraud, civil conspiracy, perjury and knowingly filing false records." (No criminal charges have been filed and, despite rumors, the FBI is not involved in any search for him, agency spokesman Bob Doguim says.)
On August 5, the bank sent Nixon a notice of default, giving him ten days to rectify the paperwork problems. Some folks on the lake claim rumors began circulating at that point that Nixon was planning another disappearance, although others dispute that.
At any rate, on the night of August 27 he gassed up his boat at the Three Amigos fuel dock and told employees there he was taking it out for a test before a planned trip to Lake Travis (a trip for which, it turns out, there's no record of the usual boat-slip reservation he used).
People who saw him that day noticed nothing unusual. What was unusual to many was that he went out into the Ship Channel alone that night. In terms of his personality and his boating safety habits, one says, such a move was entirely out of character.
"One thing he couldn't ever be was alone," the boater says. "If everyone was too tired on a Sunday and wanted to go home, he'd go with them. He could never go to his apartment and be by himself. And he was never on that boat alone. If he was out at night he'd have a spotlight and someone to hold it, looking for crab nets or obstructions."
That night was different. It was an emotional period, no doubt, for Nixon -- besides the bank notice, it was close to the anniversary of the death of his teenage son in a motorcycle accident 15 or so years earlier; it was also getting close to his own 55th birthday.
What happened in the Ship Channel isn't clear, except the fact that the powerboat was doing doughnuts and a long, elephantine barge could do nothing but head straight toward it.
And a body wasn't found.
And the legend of Mike Nixon, King of the Lake, grew ever larger.