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Bumbling kidnap caper only missing a script

Jeff Muller, 59, of Newton, N.J., is shown after escaping from his captors, who had abducted him and drove him halfway across the country.

Associated Press

Jeff Muller, 59, of Newton, N.J., is shown after escaping from his captors, who had abducted him and drove him halfway across the country.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — This much is police blotter history:

A budding band of armed Missouri kidnappers drove to New Jersey, grabbed the wrong guy, hauled him back across five state lines and ended up with car trouble a hundred miles short of their destination. When their captive took advantage and tried to make a break for it, they beat him down, all in front of a convenience store clerk.

Note to the Coen brothers: The script to your next movie is right here.

The cast includes the self-proclaimed son of an infamous godfather of the Hells Angels, three bad-biker wannabes, a fellow burned in a construction deal out West and the straight man — an unassuming owner of a pet food store in Newton, N.J.

The whole cross-country caper is pretty funny, although before it ends, grim scenes unfold, including one in a Missouri kitchen where a man's fingers are blown off, terrorizing his wife, and the moment outside the store where the wrong Jeffrey Muller gets Tasered, beaten and thrown in a car.

Then there's this take: The three thugs try to convince the Ozark, Mo., clerk that the man screaming for help inside her store is crazy and they're just trying to take him to a mental treatment facility in Nevada, Mo.

She doesn't buy their act, 911 is punched into the phone, fade to flashing police lights.

"Comical and scary," said a New Jersey detective. Even without a wood chipper.

So, Joel and Ethan Coen, when can we do lunch?

• • •

At the heart of the story is a man named William "Billy" Barger, 48, of Nevada, Mo. He claimed to be a "patched," or full, member of the Hells Angels and the son of its founder.

The younger Barger talked of starting a new chapter of the motorcycle club and told Douglas Stangeland, 46, of Nevada, along with Lonnie Swarnes, 44, and Andrew Wadel, 21, both of Rich Hill, Mo., that they could join if they brought him money or Muller.

The Hells Angels connection added a dramatic element, especially after Bates County Sheriff Chad Anderson issued a news release during the investigation saying that Barger had recruited his Hells Angels wannabes to kill him and his chief deputy, Justin Moreland. Rich Hill is about 70 miles south of Kansas City in Bates County.

Two problems.

One was when Missouri investigators contacted Sonny Barger's lawyer. Barger, the former motorcycle club president, now lives in Arizona after a bout with throat cancer and a term in federal prison. He has no children and had never heard of William Barger.

The other problem?

"Funny thing," Vernon County Sheriff Ron Peckman said last week. "None of them owned a bike."

• • •

Replaying the story from court documents, it's not surprising that this caper began in a bar.

One night last fall, Roy Slates, 55, a Nevada, Mo., building contractor, sat drinking and bemoaning the loss of $400,000 in a Utah construction deal years before, in which one Jeffrey Muller reportedly defaulted on a loan. Douglas Stangeland listened to the story, then told it to Barger.

A deal soon was struck between Slates and Barger in which Barger would send his would-be gang members to find Muller and strong-arm money from him or, short of that, bring in the man himself.

In return, Slates agreed to pay them 25 percent of what they recovered, and he gave Barger $10,000 to finance the job.

On the night of Nov. 9, three armed men wearing ski masks barged into the rural Vernon County home of Charles Scammell, who runs a Kansas City-area construction firm.

They demanded information about Muller. Yes, Scammell told them, he had had business dealings with Muller 10 years earlier and thought he lived in New Jersey.

Before the visit was over, one of the intruders blasted Scammell's hand with a shotgun, taking three fingers.

After getting what they wanted, the men tied Scammell and his wife to kitchen chairs, told them not to tell the police and left. The crime went unsolved for two months.

Whatever information they got out of Scammell, it apparently wasn't much to go on.

• • •

On the morning of Jan. 8, a Friday, Newton, N.J., police received a call from Jeffrey Muller's wife, who said she had driven to their store, J&G Pet Food, and found it still dark. Her husband's Ford Ranger was there, but there was no sign of him.

Police noted that Muller's eyeglasses and sack lunch were on the ground. The area was secured, a canine unit brought in, a helicopter deployed. Not much to go on, until the Police Department got a call the next morning from Lake Ozark, Mo.

We've got your Jeffrey Muller, the Missouri officers told them. They also had Swarnes, Stangeland and Wadel.

Authorities in New Jersey said they think the men used a local phone book to find their man — who had a different middle initial, lived in a different county and was not the right age.

The snatch team apparently observed Muller before making their move. He said he had seen them in his store on earlier occasions.

The Missourians approached Muller as he entered his store, the victim told Newton police detectives, and asked his name.

"Jeffrey Muller," he answered.

They said he was going with them. When he refused, they Tasered him. Family members said Muller was told — falsely — that his wife also was a captive, but he was given no clue why this was happening to him.

"I sell dog food!" Muller yelled as he was wrestled into his captors' beige Malibu. They tied his hands and legs, and, waving handguns, demanded bank account information. Not hearing what they wanted, they pointed the Chevy west.

About 1,100 miles later, the car broke down early Saturday in Lake Ozark, a tourist town that has seen a lot, but nothing like this. Authorities said that by that time, it had dawned on the kidnappers that, yes, they had grabbed the wrong Muller — and he had seen their faces.

Two of the men went into a convenience store to try to find a remedy for their ailing car. Left alone with the third abductor, Muller fought his way out of the car and took off running. The two others tackled him and dragged him back to the car. But he slipped away again, this time making it into the store, shouting.

Minutes later, police cars rolled up.

• • •

Back in New Jersey with a black eye, Muller told the Star-Ledger of Newark that his determination to see his grand­children get married inspired his escape.

"That's what gave me the go to break loose. That's what saved my life."

Meanwhile, the right Jeffrey Muller has been told about events, said authorities, who offered no information on his whereabouts.

It could have been worse, said a Newton detective. His name is Muller, too, and the prosecutor in the case is named Mueller.

"We've had a good time with that around here," the detective Muller said, chuckling.

Stangeland, Swarnes and Wadel are charged in New Jersey with kidnapping Jeffrey Muller and in Missouri for kidnapping, assault and armed criminal action in the Scammell home invasion. Swarnes is in New Jersey, and Stangeland and Wadel appeared in Miller County, Mo., Circuit Court earlier this month for an extradition hearing.

Barger also is charged with kidnapping in the Scammell case and with Slates could face more charges in New Jersey, Sussex County officials said.

On Feb. 4, authorities in Vernon County charged Slates with concealing a felony and hindering prosecution in the Scammell case.

"Seemed that no matter what these fellows did, nothing seemed to go right for them in this deal," Peckman said.

As he told the New York Post: "Makes for a good movie."

Bumbling kidnap caper only missing a script 02/27/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 26, 2010 8:26pm]

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