Raoul Marvin was hunched over a 2-foot-long loaf of natural rubber in his attorney's office, slowly caressing the tar-colored latex on which his future now rides.
This, said the 50-year-old Oxnard engineer, is the fruit of guayule, a little-known desert shrub that he believes will someday take a giant bite out of the world rubber market.
Since 1983, Marvin claims to have harvested more than 16,000 acres of the rubber-producing plant in Ventura and Riverside counties, a feat that would far and away make him the most successful guayule farmer in the United States.
But the Ventura County district attorney's office says Marvin's rubber plantations are about as real as bounced checks. Officials, who slapped Marvin with 33 counts of grand theft and securities fraud, say there are no signs of guayule nor of the $250,000 he allegedly bilked from investors.
"Nobody has seen anything," Deputy Dist. Atty. Rebecca S. Dean said. "This was a blatant and brazen attempt to defraud."
The stout, silver-haired Marvin, who faces up to six years in prison, takes exception. "There's megabucks here," he said. "No one else has guayule like I have."
His trial--which began in late August in Ventura County Superior Court and is expected to conclude next week--has produced two widely disparate versions of Marvin's exploits in guayule, a crop that has been studied for years by the federal government but is not yet considered commercially viable.
Marvin, a 30-year veteran of the construction business who sees himself pioneering agricultural frontiers, says he fell prey to greedy investors who used misinformation to get him arrested and muscle him out of his company.
Investors, who say Marvin pocketed their cash, call him a personable but shrewd swindler who used his impressive knowledge of guayule production to extract money from a few dozen people without ever showing them a shrub.
"Like most con artists, he was a very likable guy," said William B. Barnett, a Santa Monica attorney who was an investor and legal adviser to Marvin. "He was always very believable. . . . But the fact is, all the money went to him and he hasn't shown us any land."
The story of Marvin's ventures in guayule (pronounced wy-OO-lee) begins in 1983 at the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where he says he struck a deal with the Sioux tribe to lease Indian lands in California at below-market rates.
Marvin, who says he is one-eighth Sioux, claims that he paid $60,000 to gain rights to 29,000 acres for 12 years. The agreement was made through the Western Tribal Assn., a pact that he says provides tribes access to Indian lands throughout the West.
From there, he traveled to a U.S. Department of Agriculture warehouse in Salinas, where he says he was able to purchase 14,000 pounds of guayule seed at a negligible price simply because "the federal government doesn't even know what the hell they have."
The final step, he says, entailed rounding up partners to provide some cash and their names to the land deal, which limited to 320 acres the amount of property that any individual could lease from the Indians.
With the help of Barnett, who sold the idea to many of his friends and relatives, Marvin formed the Guayule Research & Development Corp. and collected $3,200 from each of 25 investors. Later, he repeated the process, forming a second company, Guayule Farm Corp., and collected $4,200 from each of an additional 34 investors.
Each of the participants gave Marvin another $400 a year as a lease payment on the land.
Marvin, who stood to gain 90% of his company's profits, says he planted about 8,000 acres of guayule in 1983 in the Cuyama Valley, on the border between Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, and, in 1985, more than 9,000 acres in Riverside County east of Twentynine Palms.
"It just seemed like a really interesting and fun thing to do," said Marvin, who was raised in a small Iowa farming community. "The profit potential was terrific."
But Ventura County prosecutors say Marvin's stabs at rubber farming left only skid marks on the wallets of investors.
Despite his claims about leasing from the Sioux, company records indicate that investors were told that the property was being acquired through the Bureau of Land Management's "desert entry" program, which makes available barren federal land for agricultural purposes.
Regional officials for the BLM, however, say they have no record of Marvin having ever made application to the program.
Additionally, officials at the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation and the California office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs say they have neither heard of Marvin nor of the Western Tribal Assn. from which he claims to have leased land.
As for the seed, a USDA official in Washington who oversees "critical agricultural materials" says the federal government has a total of only 150 to 200 pounds of guayule seed for sale--at a price of $1,000 a pound.