Editor’s note: Mary Jacoby, a Washington, D.C., journalist and Arkansas native who’s written extensively for the Arkansas Times about Ted Suhl and his now-closed facility for youth treatment once known as the Lord’s Ranch, has done some research about the Suhl family history.
At his federal trial in Little Rock, Ted Suhl testified that his late father, Bud, founded the Lord’s Ranch in 1979 after moving to Arkansas and converting to Christianity. We all know the story from that point on: The Suhl family, helped by then-Gov. Mike Huckabee, grew wealthy administering austere “Bible-based” psychiatric treatment for poor kids on Medicaid, until Ted was charged and then convicted in July of bribery-related offenses. He’s appealing.
But there’s always been something missing from this tale. What was the family patriarch, who died in 2010 at the age of 78, doing on that remote ranch in Warm Springs in the first place?
Bud Suhl was from California, you see. In the 1960s, he lived in the upscale Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles and the swank private Jonathan Club in downtown LA. Among his friends was a then-popular movie star named Audie Murphy, who starred in the hugely successful 1955 film “To Hell and Back,” based on Murphy’s experiences as an Army solider in World War II.
We know these facts thanks to a search of old Los Angeles Times newspaper archives. Those same archives reveal a likely explanation for Bud Suhl’s abandoning of his glamorous life in LA for isolated Randolph County in northeast Arkansas.
He was reinventing himself, as far away as possible from the scene of his crimes.
Bud Suhl, it turns out, was a felon. He and his mother were convicted in the 1960s of running fraudulent money-order businesses in California, diverting what in today’s dollars would have been millions to personal use.
Their criminal operation was front-page news in Los Angeles at the time.
On Feb. 6, 1964, a large photograph of Bud’s mother, Margaret Wierman, dominated the front page of the Los Angeles Times, next to a story about how federal marshals had finally reeled Bud in after two weeks on the lam for testimony in a bankruptcy case related to the collapse of his money-order businesses.
The next day, the Bud Suhl story again dominated the Los Angeles Times.
“Money Order Official Takes 5th Amendment 78 Times,” blared the two-deck headline that led the paper on Feb. 7, 1964, above a photo of a 34-year-old Bud Lewis Suhl, described in the article as “chubby,” “wavy-haired,” and frustratingly silent.
Under questioning from an attorney named Irving Sulmeyer representing the federal receiver appointed to handle the bankruptcy of Suhl’s money-order businesses, Suhl gave his name and his address in Bel Air.
“But that’s all the information Sulmeyer got in 50 minutes of questioning the pink-faced witness,” the article said.
By Dec. 8, 1964, the Times was reporting that Suhl and an associate had turned themselves into the FBI. A few days before, his mother and a man described as her son-in-law had been arrested. All were under federal indictment for a related check-kiting scheme that caused a bank Suhl and his mother owned in Mendocino County to go under, the newspaper reports said.
The sensational case featured testimony from Murphy, the movie star, who told a bankruptcy judge that Suhl had loaned him $60,000 in 1961 (about $482,000 in today’s dollars).
“He got into trouble and every friend he has jumped overboard,” Murphy testified about his former pal, according to a newspaper account.
In 1966, Suhl began serving a 2- to 20-year sentence in California prison after being convicted on state charges including one count of conspiracy, 16 counts of grand theft, and three counts of violating the California corporations code, according to the contemporary newspaper accounts. He had previously been sentenced to up to 10 years in federal prison on related mail fraud charges.
It wasn’t possible to learn how long Bud Suhl served in prison. Calls to the California state penal system and the federal Bureau of Prisons turned up no information: The records were too old. An attempt to track down the case files also wasn’t successful.
The two money order firms Suhl owned were called Security Currency Ltd. and American Currency Ltd. Both went bankrupt in 1964 after, authorities alleged, Suhl and his mother diverted $427,000 – about $3.3 million in today’s dollars — to personal use, leaving thousands of low-income clients with worthless money orders.
The mother-son duo were also charged with manipulating accounts of a bank they owned in Mendocino, Calif., where the money order funds were held, causing its collapse.
“The tragic thing about all this is that it’s the poor people who get hurt,” Assemblyman James R. Mills told the Times in a story published Jan. 26, 1964.
We asked Ted Suhl’s lawyer, Rob Cary, for comment and will update this post if he responds.