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'Gun for Hire' Had Many Clients : Bumbling Gang of Killers Left Trail of Death, Terror

September 06, 1987|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | Times Staff Writer

BENTONVILLE, Ark. — Doug Norwood believes killers will return to stalk him again.

He thinks about them constantly and always carries his .357 magnum. His house is loaded with electronic gear to warn him if an intruder is about. Although he knows the gang that tried to kill him is locked up, Doug Norwood cannot rest easy.

He won't go out at night because darkness is a killer's friend.

Norwood is a deputy county prosecutor in this small town in the northwest corner of Arkansas. He is short, his hairline is receding, he wears glasses and shows the beginning of a paunch. Hollywood would not pick him for the movie about the gang, but in this story Norwood is one of the central figures. So is the cop who finally believed him.

When the police had done their work, when the confessions were in and the pieces were finally fitted together, the story was one of killings and bombings, and, sometimes, of the work of a bunch of bumblers.

Murders had been planned in a seedy Tennessee strip joint by men and women gone bad. Perhaps worse was that, on the strength of a three-line ad in Soldier of Fortune magazine, these people had attracted as much business as they could handle.

The ad read: "GUN FOR HIRE: 37-year-old professional mercenary desires jobs. Vietnam veteran. Discreet and very private. Bodyguard, courier and other special skills. All jobs considered."

Larry Gray saw that ad and called. He wanted Doug Norwood killed for dating Gray's estranged wife, Cathy.

Albert Thielman saw that ad and called. He wanted his wife, Mary, and their three children killed. He was willing to blow up an airliner with 154 people aboard to get the job done.

Robert Spearman saw the ad. He wanted his wife, Anita, killed.

The list of potential clients' names was long, and some of the calls were passing strange. A man in Rochester, Minn., wanted a chicken shed in Fertile, Iowa, blown up to settle an old score.

At one point, Mary Alice Wolf called the number, but the woman she wanted killed in her hometown was spared because she was deemed too pretty to gun down.

"I don't know what it says for us as a country--to run that kind of ad and get that kind of response," said Tom Stokes, who helped coordinate the investigation out of Atlanta for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Widespread Crimes

Stokes was talking in the summer of 1987, after federal authorities were fairly certain that they had accounted for all the crimes committed from Minnesota to Florida, for all the damage the gang had done.

Norwood certainly hadn't any reason to worry back in the summer of 1985--or so he thought. The former Florida prison guard and policeman was then a 30-year-old law student at the University of Arkansas in the Ozark foothill town of Fayetteville. On the morning of Aug. 30, his nightmare began.

Norwood lived in an apartment complex in Fayetteville that was nicknamed "the Law Quads." At 8:30 that morning, he was on the phone to the financial aid office when there was a knock. When he answered, still talking on the phone, two men stood in the door.

Norwood motioned them to come in. When he hung up, they told him they were private investigators looking into the background of another law student.

Used Stun Gun

Then, everything happened in a blur of motion--one man charging with an electric stun gun and Norwood lashing out in defense with a kick to the chest that broke four of his attacker's ribs, the struggling to break free, the other man aiming Norwood's own rifle at him, the bullet smashing into his shoulder, his flight down the long balcony outside, more shots, taking a bullet to the leg, jumping a drainage ditch, collapsing in a parking lot, pleading with a man and woman nearby for help.

Yet, as Norwood watched, his shirt soaked with blood, the couple coolly got into a car and drove away. Had it not been for an employee at the Hogwash coin laundry and bar, who called an ambulance, the gang might have completed its mission right there.

Norwood would survive the two bullets, but he would not rest easy from that day on.

In the following months, as police pursued the case, several things would come to light. One was that Larry Gray, a Tulsa, Okla., businessman, had instigated the attempt on Norwood's life because Norwood was dating his estranged wife. Another was that the couple standing in the Fayetteville street were part of the gang. In fact, Norwood would later identify the man as Richard Savage of Knoxville, Tenn., owner of the Continental Club strip joint there and one who had placed the ad in Soldier of Fortune.

And, in keeping with their bungling way of doing things, it later turned out that the two men who shot Norwood ran the wrong way to reach their getaway car.

Richard Savage was not always on the outs with the law. He used to be a part of it. He had a degree in police administration and three years' experience as a prison guard in Lexington, Ky., and he was a policeman in Lindsay, Okla., for six weeks in 1977, before he got out of law enforcement.

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