Al Gore   Letter 09   13-Sep-2000   Is your uncle a cocaine distributor?
"Federal and Tennessee state law enforcement officials have targeted Whit LaFon, Vice President Al Goreís uncle, in a narcotics distribution and money-laundering scheme involving powder and crack cocaine and thousands of dollars of profits which covers much of southwest Tennessee." ó Tony Hays
  September 13, 2000

Al Gore, Vice President
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC    20500

Al Gore:

The following 12-Sep-2000 Savannah Journal article implicates your uncle, Whit LaFon, in ó among other things ó narcotics distribution, money laundering, vehicular homicide, and having "set in motion one of the largest environmental and archaeological nightmares in Tennessee history."

At the same time, the article portrays you as being close to your uncle, seeking his advice and being guided by him, which closeness is demonstrated in your appointing him to the Veterans for Gore national steering committee; and it portrays your uncle as continuing to play an active role in your fundraising, and as invoking your name to gain impunity in his various illicit dealings and misdeeds, as in the statement "Don't you know who my nephew is?"

To the many people all over the world who will be affected by the outcome of the approaching United States presidential election, would you be able to say something to quiet their unease at the indications that your committment to drug enforcement and to the rule of law might be less than total?

Lubomyr Prytulak

External link to the Savannah Journal

Savannah Journal Special Report
Updated September 12, 2000 10:20:29 PM
Al Gore's Uncle Whit LaFon Allegedly Tied to Narcotics Smuggling Near Hardin County Island
By Tony Hays, SavannahJournal.com

Federal and Tennessee state law enforcement officials have targeted Whit LaFon, Vice President Al Goreís uncle, in a narcotics distribution and money-laundering scheme involving powder and crack cocaine and thousands of dollars of profits which covers much of southwest Tennessee.

The investigation involves the FBI, the Inspector Generalís office at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Tennesseeís 24th Judicial District Task Force and the Tennessee Highway Patrol.

According to state and local officers, a seaplane, allegedly containing narcotics, frequently lands on the water in southern Decatur County, Tenn., near Swallow Bluff Island on the Tennessee River. The drugs are transferred to four-wheelers via motorboats. The four-wheelers then scoot out from LaFon's compound and haul the drugs to delivery points.

Federal law enforcement officials have confirmed both the investigation and its targets Ė retired judge Whit LaFon and a state chancery court judge.

Presidential relatives have historically been the focus of media attention. President Lincoln suffered enormous bad press over his Southern-born wife, Mary Todd Lincolnís, rebel sympathies and outrageous spending habits, habits that prompted her to play fast and loose with the White House accounts and payroll. Billy Carterís public drunkenness and associations with such questionable rogues as Mohammar Qaddafi brought his brother Jimmy numerous public relations headaches. More recently, Roger Clintonís drug arrest and self-professed addiction have called into question President Clintonís own denials of drug use.

Yet, in covering what has admittedly been one of the most powerful vice-presidencies in American history, the media has ignored Goreís Tennessee roots and especially his uncle Whit LaFon, a man who by Goreís own admission has exerted tremendous influence at critical points in his life. LaFon, now 81, brother to Alís mother, Pauline LaFon Gore, was first a state prosecutor and then judge for many years. It was LaFon who played a decisive role in helping convince the young Gore in 1970 that he should enlist in the Army and serve in Vietnam. According to LaFon, Gore and his family have been frequent visitors to LaFonís Swallow Bluff property. Gore continues to seek out LaFonís counsel and advice; he recently appointed his uncle to the national steering committee of Veterans for Gore.

As Al Gore vies for the presidency, and as the FBI develops its case, Whit LaFon deserves much closer scrutiny.

In times past, LaFon, a cousin of former governor Ned McWherter and brother-in-law to the senior Gore, was part of the Murray political machine in west Tennessee. Composed of Congressman Tom Murray, brother David, who was the state prosecutor in Jackson, Tennessee for 41 years, and LaFon, the trio of power brokers were said to control the western third of the state. "They had a hammerlock on everything," said O.H. "Shorty" Freeland, former patronage chief under Governor Ray Blanton. "Nothing went on that they didnít control."

The FBI probe centers on LaFonís remote, rustic cabin, situated high on a bluff overlooking the river. Itís the last and most secluded cabin of a string of four on a deadend road, and the only one equipped with a metal dock and staircase on the sheer-faced rock bluff. One early attempt by a reporter to interview LaFon resulted in a grizzled, bearded guard loosing an entire 30 round magazine in the air from what appeared to be a Hechler and Koch MP-5 submachinegun, the type of weapon recently shoved in the face of the terrified six-year-old Elian Gonzalez.

During a subsequent interview with LaFon, a frail, white-haired man, in his fortress compound on the Tennessee River, LaFon made numerous statements and then attempted to place them off the record. Asked whether he was involved in the narcotics trade, LaFon became visibly angry. "I donít know what youíre talking about,íí he said initially. His face reddened and he doubled over, clutching the front of his shirt. Later, he added, "I never had anything to do with drugs in my life.íí

Local residents have reported sightings of night-time seaplane landings in front of LaFonís cabin for more than a decade. But organized surveillance by law enforcement did not begin till this year.

At a January meeting of local and federal lawmen, two FBI agents were quick to name LaFon and another individual as "possible protectors" for the cocaine distributors and money laundering scam. Due to the political sensitivity of the case, federal agents were using local lawmen, agents of the 24th Judicial District Drug Task force, a multi-county organization, to obtain documents and data that didnít require federal search warrants.

But even before organized surveillance began, two lawmen had kept LaFon in their sights for nearly five years. "They come in on Friday nights, between about 7 and 9," said one officer, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The boat will be waiting at the base of the bluff. The plane comes in without lights. It touches down and the boat goes out. A couple of minutes later, you hear the 4-wheelers. The whole thing, from the planeís appearance to the 4-wheelers takes fifteen minutes max. The last report I had of a plane coming in was about three to four months ago Ė April 2000." That was about the same time we interviewed Lafon about drugs.

A recent drug dealer round-up in Hardin County, which borders LaFonís cabin, was held up for some six months, while federal agents sifted through the evidence, hoping to turn some of the suspects against LaFon and others.

In May the FBI told the officers that it would be dispatching an aircraft from a location in Virginia for detailed mapping and surveillance of the area around LaFonís cabin. A federal official familiar with the investigation would only say, "I canít confirm or deny it happened (the flight), but if it did, the plane was one of ours flying out of Quantico, Virginia,íí site of the FBIís academy.

The cabin at Swallow Bluff continues to command major attention within the probe. While senior FBI officials confirm the investigation, they demur from revealing any timeframe for its conclusion.

The drug probe is just the lastest in a lifelong series of questionable activities that have drawn official attention to LaFon. Both in the 1970s, when LaFon was a state prosecutor, and in the 1980s, when he sat on the bench, federal authorities investigated him for Hobbes Act violations for allegedly taking bribes and being involved in criminal enterprises when he was a public official, according to a senior federal prosecutor. However, no charges were ever filed.

In addition to his brushes with the law, LaFon is known as a legendary racist in west Tennessee. LaFon routinely peppers his conversations with the epithet "nigger." This despite Al Goreís pointed attempts to paint his familyís civil rights record, going back to his parentís and uncleís generation, as progressive and ahead of the rest of the region.

During a 1991 sentencing hearing for an African-American who had been found guilty of rape his defense attorney introduced as a character witness a 75-year-old white man who had rented a house to the defendant, had frequently visited him there and over the years had become a friend.

According to the transcript, barely minutes into the witnessí testimony, LaFon chastised the defense attorney for having brought the white character witness into the court. "Listen,íí he told defense attorney Betty Thomas Moore, herself an African-American. "Iíve lived here not as long as him (the witness) but Iíve been in this county 60 years and I know the situation how it is, that most black people donít visit in white peopleís homes socially and vice versa.íí

Moore, now an elected state judge in Memphis, said that she immediately objected and LaFon called a brief recess, during which Moore advised LaFon that she intended to file a complaint against him. He responded by throwing her out of his office and directing the court reporter not to release a copy of the transcript of the sentencing proceedings, an action quickly overruled by the chief judge.

Marcus Reaves, then the public defender in Jackson, Tennessee, and an attorney who worked with LaFon on a daily basis, said bluntly, "There are two kinds of racists: racists and overt racists. LaFon is an overt racist."

LaFonís membership in Tennesseeís power elite went so far as to apparently allow him to escape punishment for killing someone.

On a March day in 1989, a black Ford truck driven by Whit LaFon plowed into 91-year-old Beulah Mae Holmes on a rural Henderson County, Tenn., highway with such force that her head went flying in one direction and the rest of her frail body in another. LaFonís vehicle then veered into the oncoming traffic, colliding with a car driven by Jerry Adams of Milan, Tennessee

The case file almost immediately went missing and key parts are still missing today. However, through documents pieced together from a variety of official sources, several inconsistencies in procedure emerged, pointing to a cover-up.

  1. A full toxicological screening, mandated by law in fatal accidents, requires 20 milliliters of blood and 40 milliliters of urine. Tennessee Highway Patrolman Mark Stanford, who worked the wreck, requested the appropriate samples, but only 10 milliliters of blood and no urine were delivered to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) lab for testing. Test results, labeled by the lab as incomplete due to an "insufficient" sample, showed that LaFonís blood alcohol level was "negative," an ambiguous term that can mean no alcohol was present or the level was below the legal limits. No screening was conducted for drugs despite state law.

  2. LaFon was transported to a Jackson, Tennessee hospital by a Henderson County deputy. Though LaFon showed no signs of injury, Tennessee Highway Patrol (THP) regulations required that he be transported by ambulance because of insurance liability. Also, according to current and former THP officers, a county lawman would not, in any case, have been dispatched out of his jurisdiction on such a task.

  3. Witnesses at the accident state that LaFon appeared to be staggering, and that his vehicle was moving at excessive speeds, something not mentioned in the official accident report. Soon after the fatal accident, word spread at the Henderson County sheriffís office and at the courthouse in Jackson that he had been drunk or was under the influence of a drug or both. A former Henderson County law enforcement official told us that beer cans had been removed from LaFonís truck by one or more of the officers responding to the accident.

  4. A state trooper says that it had been widely reported within his agency at the time that LaFon had been "under the influence" of a drug or alcohol or both . "We all knew that Mark [Stanford} didnít work it like it was supposed to be done."

According to his driving record LaFon was a menace on the highways. He was culpable in three accidents, including a hit-and-run involving another judge, before the fatal incident on March 3, 1989. After the death of Holmes, he was involved in five more collisions.

Compounding all of these elements is the fact that Stanfordís ultimate supervisor at the time of the fatal accident was Larry Wallace, then the uniformed head of the THP and well known for helping politicians out of trouble. Wallace was a political supporter of Goreís, and later became director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI), the statewide police force. According to Robert Lawson, then Tennesseeís Public Safety Commissioner and Wallaceís supervisor, "there wasnít a celebrity case that Wallace didnít become involved in."

While charges have yet to be filed in the current federal case, officers indicate that surveillance continues on LaFon and Chancery Judge Ron Harmon, the other party under federal investigation. Harmon, a Gore supporter, lives to the south of Swallow Bluff in Savannah, Tennessee.

In response to written and oral requests to discuss his relationship with LaFon and other Tennessee supporters, Goreís office said that he would be unavailable for an interview.

And as Gore basks in the recent glow of the Sierra Clubís endorsement of his candidacy, the media, both national and local, has also ignored the growing environmental controversy surrounding the vice-president, Whit LaFon, and a Tennessee River island containing ancient Indian mounds and three endangered species of mussels.

By liberally using his nephewís name, LaFon set in motion one of the largest environmental and archaeological nightmares in Tennessee history. And according to one developer, Al Gore was physically present during discussions between LaFon and representatives of the development company, discussions that involved Goreís role in bypassing state and federal regulations governing erosion control and the desecration of Indian burial grounds.

LaFon developed a plan for a 21 unit luxury development, including a private airstrip, on a long, narrow island in the Tennessee River, containing three, 800-year-old Indian mounds. Brochures were printed and newspaper advertisements placed, but LaFon and the R.H. Hickman agency of Jackson, Tennessee shopped their plan for developing the island to local realtors. According to Lexington, Tenn. developer Larry Melton, he was associated with a company that bought the property from LaFon, based on that planned resort, amid assurances that LaFon would "use his political connections to cut through the environmental redtape."

The 69-acre island lies just below LaFonís cabin on Swallow Bluff, the same cabin currently targeted in the federal narcotics investigation. According to Tennessee State Archaeologist Nick Fielder, the property holds two small burial mounds and one large temple mound as well as a layer of "village material," the remnants of an 800 year old village. It has been included as a historic site under the National Historical Preservation Act since 1914.

LaFon bought the property in 1967 for $1. Over the years, the island remained relatively unchanged, although LaFon occasionally farmed it and raised a herd of goats. LaFon told developer Larry Melton that Vice-President Gore and his family have frequently visited Swallow Bluff, and the island was once a favorite playground for Goreís four children.

In early 1999, according to LaFonís plan, each condo was to be built on stilts to thwart floodwaters and to provide hangar space for private planes. The resort was expected to be a high dollar development with only 21 units.

Hickmanís agent and LaFon started shopping Swallow Bluff Island to area realtors. Crunk Realty, of Savannah, and others passed on the project. "We just didnít see anyway to overcome all that [the environmental and archaeological issues]," said realtor Jeff Wilkes, of Crunk.

But LaFon and Hickman had better luck with developers Walden Blankenship and Larry Melton. According to Melton, whose son and daughter were partners in a development company called Blankenship-Melton, they were approached by Jerry Norwood, a R.H. Hickman Realty agent and Whit LaFon to purchase Swallow Bluff Island. "They [LaFon/Hickman] already had the concept," Melton said. "All we had to do was run with it."

The project wasnít that simple though. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and the U.S. Corps of Engineers have strict erosion control guidelines, complicated by state environmental pollution laws, that spelled trouble and great expense to any development effort on the island. Compounding all that was the delicate issue of the Indian mounds, already protected by state and federal law.

Hickman and LaFon had an answer for that too. "I was sitting there when Hickman told Blankenship that LaFon would use his political connections [Gore] to cut through the redtape, to take care of the TVA and the state on the environmental stuff," Melton claimed. According to Melton, as company representatives expressed their concerns about the state and federal agencies, LaFon said that they shouldnít worry. "Donít you know who my nephew is?" Goreís uncle allegedly stated.

The Gore connection was further spelled out in a memo written by Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) official Jack Wade, detailing a telephone conversation with Larry Melton. Wade wrote, "He [Melton] also said that Al Goreís kids were playing along the river bank while he met with Whit LaFon and Al Gore. Heís claiming that it was their [Goreís and LaFonís] idea and that they orchestrated the sale of the Swallow Bluff Island and the project."

Blankenship-Melton bought the property in March 1999 and set construction to begin around July 1. Almost immediately, the problems began.

A chronology of events shows:

  • July 8 ó TVA staff sees crews digging out the island banks and informs them a permit is needed.

  • July 14 ó Work is under way without a permit. TVA repeats that a permit is required.

  • July 29 ó TVA says to halt all work until the permit is approved.

  • July 28 and Aug. 3 ó Developers are notified that disturbing the burial sites will constitute desecration of a cemetery, a criminal offense.

  • Aug. 2 ó The state receives a complaint and finds parts of the banks stripped of vegetation and artifacts, with what are possibly human remains exposed.

  • Aug. 16 ó The corps issues a "cease and desist"order. It calls for stabilizing the shoreline.

  • Nov. 4 ó No visible vegetation is left on the banks. Evidence of continuing work. No erosion correction.

According to state archaeologist Nick Fielder, the construction crews had sloped the bank at a 45 degree angle, sending erosion spiraling out of control. Soil and village material was slipping off into the river, and nearly half of the great temple mound had collapsed into the current. In even more blatant disregard for regulations, the bull dozers themselves were shoving parts of the mounds into the Tennessee River.

The state scheduled a "show cause" hearing on December 8, 1999, but no one from Blankenship-Melton appeared. TDEC officials with water quality assurance in Jackson finally contacted Walden Blankenship and arranged for an on-site meeting. It never happened. On January 18, 2000, officials discovered that the burial mounds had been dug into with shovels.

At that point, on February 2, TDEC Commissioner Milton Hamilton issued an order, demanding that construction be halted and erosion control measures put in place, slapping the developers with $234,000 in fines and damages. But even that failed to bring the recalcitrant company in line.

Larry Melton offered a reason for their noncompliance in his February 22 phone conversation with Jack Wade of TDEC in Jackson. "He [Larry Melton] is upset," Wade wrote in a memo, "that Judge LaFon is backwatering and claiming no connection to the project," referring to LaFonís earlier promises to use Al Gore to take care of problems with the TVA and the Corps of Engineers. A month later, Walden Blankenship and Larry Melton issued statements blaming those two agencies with creating the erosion problem.

In an interview with us, Melton explained that LaFon had repeatedly used Goreís name as the avenue to "make the environmental problems go away." "Thatís why we bought the property," Melton said. "The development had already been advertised. Gore was supposed to handle the red tape."

Wade was even more emphatic in an interview. "Iíve worked with these guys before, and when he [Melton] said that he met with Gore and LaFon, that the development was their idea, and that the Gore kids were running around on the river bank as they talked, I believed him. He sounded sincere." The state official also noted that in previous work with Blankenship-Melton, when problems were discovered, "weíd just send a notice of violation and they would take action. But this time was different. They acted as if they had protection."

R.H. Hickman, owner of R.H. Hickman Realty, denies that he was involved in any such way. He said "One of my agents, Jerry Norwood, handled it for Judge LaFon, and we simply listed it and fielded offers. It was just a regular real estate transaction." Attempts to contact Norwood were unsuccessful.

"They just flew in the face of reason," said Leaf Myczack, Tennessee head of the environmental group "Office of the Riverkeeper," about what the developers did to Swallow Bluff Island. Myczackís organization has filed an injunction against the State of Tennessee in an attempt to make them collect the fines from Blankenship-Melton. "This is such a blatant case that we picked it to make a stand on," said Myczack.

According to two state officials, Melton told them that during the time the grading of the island was underway, "You donít understand; this is for Al Gore. This is for Goreís children."

A look at the sale of the property also supports a continuing LaFon and possibly Gore interest in the development. LaFon sold the island for $100,000, half the appraised value of $200,000, prompting some realtors to speculate that LaFon might have maintained a financial interest in the project. Additionally, according to Melton, it was a cash transaction, no loans, no mortgages, and no public paperwork. And only Goreís influence could make the venture profitable

Melton, who appeared before the state water quality board at a June 28 hearing, continues to publicly maintain that LaFon reneged on his end of the deal. According to Melton, LaFon cut the deal with Walden Blankenship, assuring Blankenship of Goreís support. Blankenship, who attended the state hearing, disappeared during a break, perplexing everyone at the meeting. Repeated efforts to reach Blankenship have been unsuccessful. At Blankenship-Meltonís Lexington office, located in a strip mall along a busy highway, the electric meter has been pulled and newspapers cover the glassfront and door. The telephones as well have been disconnected. There was no forwarding address.

Judge LaFon, who continues to play an active role in Goreís fundraising, denies any connection with the project after he sold the property.

On July 5, the water quality board confirmed Commissioner Hamiltonís earlier ruling. Melton, through his attorney, Howard Douglass of Lexington, Tennessee, has indicated that he will appeal the decision.

And Swallow Bluff Island, where Vice-President Gore and his children have romped and played among the Indian mounds for more than three decades, lies stripped naked, quickly disappearing into the river.

According to archaeologist Nick Fielder considerable damage has already occurred. "But, if they had been allowed to continue with their plans, they would have completely destroyed it as an archaeological site," he asserts. Fielder says that the division of archaeology will now pursue the criminal statute covering desecration of human graves against Blankenship-Melton or whoever illegally opened the graves. "Thatís the next logical step."

With the dissolution of the Blankenship-Melton company, and Larry Meltonís and Whit LaFonís refusal to step forward and take responsibility for the damage, local observers wonder whether the taxpayers will ultimately pay to preserve whatever is left of the island. These same observers also question Al Goreís commitment to the environment in the face of his alleged role in the desecration of these priceless mounds and fouling of the river.

And while Gore delves into Texas to discredit George W. Bush, the media continues to ignore the misdeeds in Goreís own backyard.

(Reprinted courtesy of Accuracy in Media, Inc.)

Copyright © 2000 SavannahJournal.com

Published online at www.savannahjournal.com/news/lafon.html by the Savannah Journal at www.savannahjournal.com, at which location further information on Whit LaFon can be found.