Curiouser and Curiouser

It was Sunday, December 1, 1991, and Sylvester Turner was as close as an African-American has ever been to becoming mayor of Houston. The election was six days away, and while an upcoming Houston Chronicle poll would show him trailing slightly in his runoff with Bob Lanier, Turner seemed to be gaining momentum. That day he was to get the editorial backing of the Chronicle, an endorsement that sealed his candidacy with the imprimatur of the downtown business establishment, or at least the dwindling portion that favored the monorail project Lanier opposed. At worst for Turner, the race looked to be close, and he was expected to emerge from the contest with a bright political future.

But that afternoon, on Channel 13's 5:30 news broadcast, the station opened a report by Wayne Dolcefino on a bizarre insurance scam by posing a question that to this day remains unanswered but continues to haunt Turner and Channel 13: "What role did Houston mayoral candidate Sylvester Turner play in this tale of multimillion-dollar fraud?"

Dolcefino's story was this: Sylvester Foster, described as a male model and hairdresser, faked his death in 1986 by staging a boating accident off Galveston, allegedly with the help of two other men, Keith Leslie Anderson and Russell Reinders. Three days earlier, Foster had signed a will drafted for him by Turner that named as its executor Dwight Thomas, a long-time friend of Foster's who, five years later, happened to be staying in a northwest Houston home Turner had rented to meet the residency requirement to run for mayor. (The house Turner owned, and in which his wife and daughter lived, was outside the city.) Turner represented Thomas in probate court proceedings to have Foster declared legally dead and in attempts to collect on Foster's life insurance policies, and they allegedly pursued efforts to obtain the money even after evidence surfaced that Foster had pulled a scam. Foster, as Channel 13 discovered, was alive and imprisoned in Spain.

In addition to the suggestion that Turner had been involved in something crooked, the Channel 13 report, by its references to a "male model" and "hairdresser" and its film of the man Turner supposedly was sharing a house with, left viewers with another impression: that Turner might be gay. The cumulative effect of Dolcefino's story was to plant the idea in the minds of many voters that there was a different and darker side to Sylvester Turner than the one on the sparkling resume he had proudly presented to the public: the poor boy from Acres Homes made good, the Harvard law school grad and chairman of the county's legislative caucus.

Turner angrily denied he was part of the scam (he also later denied he was gay and said that for most of the campaign he had actually lived with his wife, outside the city) and accused Lanier's campaign of handing the story to Channel 13 and Lanier himself of hiring a private detective to investigate his background. Lanier's camp denied planting the story; Channel 13 was subject to angry denunciations by black ministers and leaders, who claimed Dolcefino's story was an attempt to destroy Houston's first viable black mayoral candidate. Turner lost to Lanier by eight percentage points, black ministers called for a boycott of Channel 13, Turner's wife sued for divorce on the day Lanier was sworn in as mayor and Turner eventually filed a libel lawsuit against Dolcefino and Channel 13.

The story of Sylvester Foster's charade hasn't advanced much since then, though Keith Anderson, one of those on the boat when Foster staged his death, has said in a deposition for Turner's suit that Foster told him that Turner was involved in the scam. But recently, Turner's lawyers have opened a pre-trial line of inquiry on the story behind the story, renewing questions about the Lanier camp's connection to the Channel 13 report and casting one of the station's follow-up stories in an unflattering light. Likewise, material that Channel 13's lawyers have made part of the public record suggests that Turner's political troubles may have had their origin in his own home. Three years later, the murky tale, as Alice said shortly after going down the rabbit hole, has gotten curiouser and curiouser.

In outlining their new sub-plot, Turner's lawyers (including school trustee Ron Franklin) have introduced a new character, Peary Perry, a former Houston cop and private investigator who had a long business relationship with Lanier, performing security work at Lanier-owned apartments and installing alarms at Lanier-controlled banks and savings and loans. He also served on Lanier's election committee and did some volunteer campaign work. The Perry connection to Lanier continues: Perry, as he acknowledged in a deposition for Turner's suit, is the chief officer of Municipal Collections Inc., which has a contract with the city to collect delinquent parking tickets and, according to city records, has been paid $1.7 million on the contract since last year. Perry, who declined comment for this story, also acknowledged to Turner's lawyers that he has had past business associations -- "less than a dozen" -- with locally famous private eye Clyde Wilson, who in 1991 identified himself as the source of Dolcefino's story. That relationship also continues: Perry, in his deposition, said he uses Wilson as a "consultant" on the Municipal Collections contract.

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Jim Simmon