BISHOP, Calif. — It would be difficult to write a better spoof of the energy frenzy than the tale that has been unfolding here on a small Indian reservation.
There is the pony-tailed convicted felon who came to this remote Eastern Sierra town with bodyguards, secrecy agreements and plans for a power plant that would reap millions in annual profits for the local tribe, require no fuel and produce no pollution.
There was the prototype: two boxes connected to a car chassis suspended off the ground. When a switch was flipped, the tires turned.
There were the company code names for employees: Falcon, Caesar, Cleopatra.
But it's not a spoof. It's the story of QSFG Research and Development Inc. of North Las Vegas and founder Michael J. Marshall, who has left a trail of angry investors, laid-off employees and allegations of fraud from Nevada to Hawaii.
Marshall is a silver-haired 47-year-old who boasts, in language grandiose to the point of parody, that he has invented a new technology that will power everything from cars to electricity plants and transform the energy industry.
Centuries from now, he declared at a groundbreaking here, "They will be looking back at us, this day right here. We are initiating the start. We are lighting the match."
He sold company shares at $25,000 a pop, signed a contract to build a 250-megawatt power station on the Bishop Paiute reservation and promised investors an energy empire.
In a brief telephone interview Friday, Marshall dismissed all the doubts and allegations.
"I don't care what you write because the truth is the truth. I'm only two weeks away from having a prototype showing I can run power stations. It does work. It does run," insisted Marshall.
"Where the Past Ends and the World's Future Begins," proclaims the brightly lettered sign on his now-closed office-warehouse in a North Las Vegas industrial park.
It is a phrase he used before, in New York state, where Marshall spent 2 1/2 years in prison for fraud and larceny. According to Cortland County files, the case involved $25,000 he took from an elderly man to patent an invention--apparently a "fuel-less generator" for cars.
After his release from prison in 1998, Marshall wound up in Las Vegas, where he incorporated QSFG last year. He started off with plans to outfit cars and trucks with his technology. When California's energy crisis hit, he switched to power plants, becoming one of many offering unusual solutions to the state's electricity problem.
"We're certainly hearing a lot more schemes. Not all of them are unreasonable," said Rich Ferguson, research director at the nonprofit Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies in Sacramento. "This particular thing sounds like a violation of fundamental physical law, so it's a little hard to take seriously."
Site at Reservation Has Legal Advantages
Last spring, QSFG sent letters to Las Vegas casinos and Native American tribes in California and Nevada, pitching "a groundbreaking advanced electromagnetic technology" with which the firm could build new energy plants and retrofit existing ones.
Marshall, who wears a long braid or ponytail, said he was part Cherokee. But his interest in tribal land extended beyond any Native American ties. The reservations are self-governing, QSFG representatives noted, potentially eliminating local and state red tape and speeding up the approval process.
A few tribes responded, including Bishop and nearby Benton. Marshall and his entourage paid them a visit in May.
"He reminded me of a used-car salesman," recalled Joseph Saulque, vice chairman of the Benton Paiute tribe. "He talked real fast. He sounded quite intelligent and up on what he was talking about. But he refused to let anybody see what he was talking about. He refused to let us see his alleged engine."
The Benton tribe didn't pursue the matter. But the larger Bishop reservation found Marshall's story too tempting to resist: the tribe could make as much as $15 million a year in exchange for letting QSFG build a nonpolluting power plant on three acres of their land.
QSFG signed a contract with the Bishop tribe May 31; the groundbreaking was in early June. Shaded from the high desert sun by a large blue-and-white tent, Marshall and a parade of his employees took the microphone like evangelists.
This was the technology of the new millennium, they told a small gathering. It was an historic moment akin to the Wright brothers and their first flight.
"There's what you call closet inventors--I'm one of them," Marshall said.
None of the speakers detailed exactly how the energy plant would work. There was mention of rotary power, north polarity and an electromagnetic engine.
All along, Marshall insisted his invention was a carefully guarded secret--so valuable that he required bodyguards.