Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Amazing Tupper Saussy

By John Branston

MAY 18, 1998:  For 10 fugitive years, Frederick Tupper Saussy felt like he was “America’s Least Wanted.”

Convicted on federal income-tax charges in Chattanooga in 1985 and unsuccessful in his appeals, Saussy went on the lam in 1987 rather than begin serving a one-year sentence at the federal prison in Atlanta. Thus began a game of cat-and-mouse with U.S. marshals that would end last November outside his home in Venice Beach, California.

By then Saussy, 61, had begun to doubt that the government was still making much of an effort to find him. He was on his way to a quiet lunch with his 20-year-old son, an aspiring art student at Santa Monica City College. On a cool, rainy day, he opened the door to his garage, got in his car, and began to drive away when two cars suddenly blocked him in. A federal marshal got out, held up a badge, and asked if he was Frederick Tupper Saussy.

No, Saussy replied, he was not.

“That name had not been uttered for 10 years,” Saussy said this week in a telephone interview from the Taft Correctional Institute in California. “I had become another persona. But he had some science that could disprove that.”

In fact, it was not the first time Frederick Tupper Saussy had become, if not another persona, at least a very different person. (Editor’s note: Saussy’s coauthorship of James Earl Ray’s book Tennessee Waltz was the subject of a Flyer story April 30th.)

He was a 1958 graduate of the University of the South in Sewanee, where his fraternity brother, Patrick Anderson, remembers him as one of the most popular boys on campus, a musician, and cartoonist for the campus paper. His first job was as a prep-school teacher at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville. He married a teenager named Lola Haun, a Fifties girl with looks, family money, and a Corvette.

“I was in the wedding party, and it was a huge wedding,” says Anderson, now a novelist in Washington, D.C. “There were endless parties that the most famous people in town were giving for them.”

The couple had two children and a house on posh Belle Meade Boulevard. Saussy became a successful advertising copywriter, known for his clever jingles and eccentricity. He and his wife had a pet monkey they named Thelonious Monk.

Saussy in the early ’60s, when he was charming Nashville.

“He came and charmed Nashville,” recalls author David Halberstam, who knew Saussy when Halberstam worked for The Tennessean in the early 1960s. “He played the piano and married a beautiful woman. They were the golden couple. Everything seemed to be his.”

A talented jazz musician, Saussy began to concentrate on songwriting. He had a minor hit, “Morning Girl,” which was nominated for a Grammy, and wrote other songs performed by the Nashville Symphony, Chet Atkins, Perry Como, Ray Stevens, and others.

But the marriage ended in 1972, the songwriting career stalled, and the clever wordsmith who penned corny jingles for Purity Dairy turned his attention and skills to more serious matters. It was at about that time that Saussy was audited by the IRS. When Anderson ran into his old friend in the mid-Seventies, all Saussy wanted to talk about was taxes and the monetary system.

“I think it’s tragic he got off on this political kick,” said Anderson. “He is, in my opinion, a totally non-political person. He was living in a fantasy world. I don’t think he had any sense of what he was doing or what the consequences could be.”

In 1976, Saussy and his second wife and their 2-year-old son moved to Sewanee, seeking an idyllic, protected life on the mountaintop. He made money doing advertising and selling his watercolors. And he became enamored of Irwin Schiff, whose book The Biggest Con was something of a bible of the tax movement.

Saussy would become, by turns, a self-styled theologian, restaurant owner, ghostwriter of James Earl Ray’s biography, King assassination conspiracy theorist, anti-government pamphleteer, and radical opponent of the federal government’s taxation and monetary authority.

His life as a fugitive apparently also had its share of surprising and colorful twists and turns. His flight was supported, if not assisted, by Jim Garrison, the late New Orleans prosecutor and famous JFK assassination conspiracy theorist. “Blowing about as the spirit led me” and going by various aliases, Saussy spent time as a religious counselor, pianist, computer handy man, homeless person, Bible student, and patron of public and university libraries from Seattle to Key West to Nashville. He played piano in various nightclubs. He was in Washington, D.C., a few years ago when the Statue of Freedom was removed from the dome of the Capitol. Five years ago he abandoned the hairpiece he was wearing as a disguise and began living a relatively normal life with his third wife, Nancy, in Southern California. Some of the people who cared for him knew his identity; others did not. One of those who did was a fellow fugitive who got caught and gave federal agents information that led to Saussy’s capture.

“It was not the miserable existence one’s imagination is prone to depict,” he says. “I was never without a keyboard or music. If you had walked through Rainier Center Mall in Seattle’s downtown during the summer of 1988, you’d have seen me playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations on the Steinway grand that sits in the atrium.”

In an eight-page letter and the first interviews he has given since his capture, Saussy discussed his flight, his prison routine, and his life on the lam (or on the Lamb, as he says in reference to his Christian faith) which he plans to describe in detail in a book. He seemed cheerful, upbeat, and at peace with himself.

“Tupper had to come back at some time,” he says.

After he was captured last year, Saussy spent several months in lockdown in Atlanta, where he passed time writing and reading the Bible while in virtual solitary confinement. At Taft, a low-security prison near Los Angeles, he is choir director and unofficial inmate counselor and prison minister. His former attorney, Lowell Becraft, says Saussy will probably have to serve a total of about 20 months in prison.

“I’m spending my time productively,” Saussy says. “It’s a marvelous experience. The fields are ripe for harvest and there is a lot of harvesting going on.”

He was delighted to find a piano in the chapel at Taft, and has been giving voice, composition, and piano lessons to several promising inmates. One of the worst things about Atlanta, he says, was that he had to go five months without playing the piano, the longest such stretch in his life.

He has not necessarily changed his views on government but seems to be planning a law-abiding life when he gets out of prison. If he is not exactly repentant about his pre-fugitive days, he does have misgivings about butting heads with federal authority.

“I had been reduced to an angry, frustrated voice that had no hope of ever being clearly brokered through channels of information most people trusted,” he says. “Worse, I was beginning to discover that my approach was all wrong.”

He had been neither a good Christian nor an effective citizen. Prison was no place for him to take his civil activism and view of morality. What he needed, he believed, was “a term in the desert, like the Apostle Paul.”

So he ran, but not until he puckishly filmed himself outside the Atlanta prison “reporting directly to the institution” as ordered.

Saussy’s refusal to file income-tax returns got him in trouble in the first place. Technically, he filed a Fifth Amendment return, a discredited tax dodge that was popular with tax protesters in the 1970s and early 1980s. He also issued something called PMOC, or “Public Money Office Certificates,” and used them instead of money to pay for some services while living in Sewanee.

In the early 1980s, the federal government began cracking down on outspoken tax protesters, whose numbers were then estimated even by the IRS at 40,000 or more. Small towns in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas were havens for tax protesters, one of whom, a fugitive named Gordon Kahl, was killed in a shootout with local lawmen and the FBI near Walnut Ridge in 1983. Saussy said he knew of Kahl and his Arkansas sympathizers but did not share their racist and violent views. He also supported a group of Memphis tax protesters led by Franklin Sanders who were tried and acquitted on tax charges in 1991.

Saussy himself was convicted on only one count of failure to file tax returns. But he drew attention to himself with his courtroom antics and his outspokenness, prompting U.S. District Judge Thomas Hull to tell him, “You’re so intelligent it hurts you.”

Due partly to Garrison’s influence, Saussy began to fear that security guards at the federal prison in Atlanta “could easily liquidate me”–a rather grandiose claim for someone facing a one-year sentence on a misdemeanor count. But coupling those fears with his suspicions about prison attacks on his new pen pal James Earl Ray and his general disillusionment with the federal government, Saussy chose “disappearance, or civil death.”

Following his video stunt outside the prison, he flew to Dallas and on to California by private plane.

He is vague about exactly how he supported himself.

“Whatever I needed was just there,” he says. “I would do computer work for people without ever submitting a bill. I haven’t submitted a bill for services since the early 1970s. If a person cares to reward me, I thank the Lord for it.”

He maintained telephone contact with his family and a few years ago began living with his wife in California. He changed his appearance only when he was paranoid about getting caught, but relaxed when there seemed to be no concerted effort to find him.

“I considered myself America’s Least Wanted,” he says.

His travels even took him back to Nashville, he says, and he corresponded with friends there and in Chattanooga. He remains something of a hero to some of them.

“He’s one of the people who can help make the country back the way it was when it was in its greatness rather than when it was declining,” says Jim Woods, an old friend from Tullahoma.

He is not, however, remembered as fondly by everyone in Sewanee. Rusty Leonard, an attorney in nearby Winchester and resident of Sewanee, says his involvement in one of Saussy’s tax schemes cost both him and his father dearly. Leonard’s father, a physician, went to prison for filing Fifth Amendment tax returns. The younger Leonard pled guilty to a single misdemeanor count of failing to collect taxes on his former business.

“Tupper pointed us in the direction and let us make our own mistakes,” Leonard says. “I got myself in my own mess. My criticism of Tupper is that his entire motivation was in his pocketbook, either making money off what he was doing or taking advantage of someone. He’s a brilliant man, but he did hurt a lot of people.”

Leonard lost an election for Circuit Court judge last week and believes he would have won if not for the cloud that was cast over his record.

There are only 393 fugitives currently in the IRS Criminal Division’s database, according to the IRS. But Saussy’s involvement with this little band proved to be his undoing.

“There’s a saying in prison, ‘shave ten, nail a friend’,” he says contemptuously of the captured fugitive he believes turned over a phone number that, with a little detective work, led to his capture.

Saussy acknowledges his role in the strange transformation of James Earl Ray from assassin to political prisoner. After pleading guilty to King’s murder in 1969, Ray soon recanted and unsuccessfully sought a trial. For the next 29 years until his death last month, he put forth various conspiracy theories and persuaded, among others, King’s family, the Rev. James Lawson, and several Memphis ministers of his innocence. The request to reopen the case has now reached U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, who was in Memphis last week visiting the site where King was shot.

In the mid-1980s while imprisoned in Tennessee, Ray apparently became aware of Saussy’s anti-government views from newspaper stories about his trial. He sent Saussy a typed postcard asking if he would help write his autobiography.

“Both Ray and King were sacrificial victims,” Saussy says. “I never asked James why he chose me, but I believe he sensed a common denominator among the three of us.”

There followed a box of 175 handwritten pages that became the basis for Tennessee Waltz – a book stylishly edited and generously interwoven with Saussy’s own literary, intellectual, and philosophical musings.

Saussy denied authorship in a foreword to the book, and Ray’s obituaries last month dutifully gave the confessed assassin a bogus book credit. But in an interview, Saussy admits he wrote parts of the book himself and rewrote or edited the rest based on interviews and letters from Ray. It was financed by a reader of his newsletter named Milton and his wife who detoured from a cross-country trip to visit him unannounced in his office in Sewanee.

“I deliberated prayerfully over whether I should claim credit for ‘as told to’ status, and concluded that James had been taken advantage of by enough vain mercenaries,” he says.

As it turned out, Ray did not return the favor. After the book was published by Saussy in 1987, Ray disavowed parts of it and sued Saussy.

“If certain facts were not correctly presented, he had only himself to blame, as he owned the stamp of approval,” Saussy says.

The lawsuit was later dropped, but a makeover edition of Tennessee Waltz, retitled Who Killed Martin Luther King?, was later published. It too ran into controversy because of unauthorized blurbs on the cover. Newspaper columnist Carl Rowan, King associate Andrew Young, and King’s son Martin Luther King III told The Washington Post in 1991 that they were quoted without permission and did not advocate the views expressed in the book. Young and Martin Luther King III have since become conspiracy supporters.

Saussy still thinks Ray was innocent.

“He [Ray] was not up to an assassination,” says Saussy. “I’m sure if he had sniffed murder in the errands he was running he would have run the other way. He just didn’t want trouble.”

Saussy says he does not personally know Lawson or Ray’s attorney William Pepper, but he admires them and their work. Pepper, he says half-seriously, “should found a James Earl Ray School of Law specializing in criminal defense of indigent political targets.”

And if he is wrong about Ray?

“Then I’ve been conned,” he says. “No man’s opinions are infallible.”

Last December, when Saussy returned to Chattanooga for sentencing, he briefly passed by some reporters. He smiled at them and said, “I believe in happy endings.”

After half a year in prison, he thinks he has found it, even if it is not exactly the one his old friends once imagined for him.

“I want the government to get its pound of flesh,” he says. “And I want to be safe behind my shield of Christian faith.”

Weekly Wire Suggested Links

Page Back Last Issue Current Issue Next Issue Page Forward

News & Opinion: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

Cover . News . Film . Music . Arts . Books . Comics

Weekly Wire    © 1995-99 DesertNet, LLC . Memphis Flyer . Info Booth . Powered by Dispatch