What's up with Wesley? An indictment for tax fraud, an affinity for extremist groups, and a private militia, for starters
In the 1998 film U.S. Marshals, the sequel to The Fugitive, Wesley Snipes took part in a cemetery shoot-out, performed a Tarzan-style rope swing from the roof of a skyscraper onto a moving train, and took a special agent hostage. But those who'd been hoping for a real-life Fugitive sequel when he was arrested in December for tax fraud and conspiracy would be sorely disappointed. Despite a long flight from Namibia, he appeared well-rested and characteristically reserved in a charcoal suit and matching blue shirt and tie that set off his graying Van Dyke.
Two tense months had passed since a judge unsealed an indictment by a Florida grand jury alleging that the 44-year-old actor had not paid the IRS a dime since 1999. Having relied on the advice of radical tax activists, Snipes allegedly attempted to defraud the government with $14 million in bogus bills of exchange. For most of that time, until surfacing in the Namib Desert, where he'd been filming an apocalyptic western called GallowWalker, Snipes had remained out of sight. Noting that Namibia's lack of an extradition treaty with the U.S. has made it a haven for high-profile Americans fleeing justice, media reports described him as "on the lam." Snipes's silence only served to fan the speculation. In fact, shortly after the indictment was made public, his attorneys began intense negotiations with prosecutors regarding the conditions of his appearance. On December 8, he boarded a chartered jet from Namibia for a flight to the U.S., emerging 27 hours later to turn himself in to IRS agents-and, later, face a crowd of reporters outside the federal courthouse in downtown Ocala, Florida.
"Little cold out here," he said with an uncomfortable laugh as he stepped forward to address the scrum. "Big difference from Namibia." But with the temperature in the mid-60s, blaming the weather seemed a stretch. The tax charges alone could land Snipes in prison for up to 16 years-enough time in an orange jumpsuit to chill anyone's blood.
The conditions of the actor's release were surprisingly lenient: After posting a $1 million bond, he was allowed to return to Namibia to finish shooting. J.J. MacNab, an expert who is writing a book on the fringe anti-tax movement, found the arrangement odd. "It's the only case I can think of where a defendant facing very serious charges was released to fly off on a private jet to a country without an extradition treaty," she says, questioning whether Snipes-who at press time was scheduled to be back in the states on January 10 for pretrial hearings-would actually return.
But federal charges aren't the half of it. In the past few years, Snipes has stumbled into a host of other legal entanglements. In 2002, he was sued by a former prostitute who claimed he'd fathered her child (the case was dropped when the actual father was identified). The following year, Chase Manhattan seized his sprawling $1.7 million home in a gated Orlando community and sold it at auction to recoup unpaid debts totaling $700,000. Around the same time, the state of California issued a lien against him for $67,000 in overdue taxes. Then, last July, powerhouse Hollywood agency UTA, which has represented the actor since 2002, sued to recover $1.5 million in fees it claims he owes.
Of course, Snipes isn't the first performer to mishandle his fortune. But records obtained by Radar paint a troubling portrait of an actor who appears to have associated himself with not one but two radical extremist groups, each with a long history of criminal activity. In addition to being advised by Eddie Ray Kahn (pronounced "Kane"), an IRS antagonist since 2000, Snipes appears to own a fraudulent trust of the sort that recently earned anti-tax activist Arthur Farnsworth a conviction for tax evasion (he is scheduled to be sentenced in Pennsylvania later this month). It's not the best company to be keeping if one seeks to maintain good standing with the U.S. government.
But what makes the case truly bizarre is the anti-tax movement's deep association with anti-Semites and white supremacists. According to Heidi Beirich, deputy director of the Intelligence Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center-an organization that monitors hate groups and has been tracking tax protestors since the mid-90s-the movement has long been a magnet for bigots. "The whole idea goes back to the Posse Comitatus, a racist anti-government sect that flourished during the farm crisis of the '80s," she says, adding that anti-tax activism was later embraced by the Patriot movement and armed militias that bubbled up during the Clinton years. David Cay Johnston, who has covered the subject for the New York Times, adds that the traditional spouters of anti-tax rhetoric have been angry white males. "Typically they have encountered some huge failure in their lives for which they blame the government," he says, adding, "Almost everyone involved is white."
Tellingly, after Snipes turned himself in to authorities, it didn't take long for his anti-tax brotherhood to disavow him. "[Snipes] is Black and can not claim any part of the constitution for their rights," opined one poster on a prominent protestor message board devoted to the issue, adding that, as a black man, Snipes was obliged to pay taxes. "Constitutions pertain 'ONLY' for white Europeans and nobody else."
Further complicating matters are his reported ties to a bizarre Georgia-based black nationalist cult, the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors-an apocalyptic organization that preaches a ripped-from-the-X Files mélange of UFO lore, Egyptian mythology, Afrocentrism, and conspiracy theory. The group is led by self-styled prophet Dwight "Malachi" York, who in 2004 was sentenced to 135 years in prison for a litany of convictions including tax evasion and the sexual abuse of more than a dozen children of his disciples.
Joining his client at the courthouse to address the media, Snipes's lawyer, Billy Martin, limited his remarks to the tax charges and took no questions. Martin, a partner at the influential law firm Blank Rome, is an expert litigator and master spinner who successfully defended NBA forward Jayson Williams in the killing of a hired limo driver, and represented the family of Chandra Levy. He told the press that his client had been victimized by "unscrupulous" advisers and vowed that a trial would vindicate him.
To even veteran Hollywood observers, Snipes's behavior is mystifying. How did the Bronx-raised black actor get mixed up in a movement that preaches anti-government paranoia and outright racism? Snipes's representatives declined repeated requests for comment, and several of his high-profile friends (including Rosie Perez, John Leguizamo, and Spike Lee) also refused to speak about the matter. But Snipes's unusual life story-and a grandiose self-image he has cultivated since childhood-may hold some clues to his plight. After rocketing from poverty to become one of the industry's top black leading men, Snipes has often found himself drawn to a variety of what his longtime friend screenwriter Barry Michael Cooper calls "Yes-people, whether they are in politics, religion, or New Age theory."
The firstborn in a large family (he tersely told one reporter that he had "eight or so" siblings), Snipes seems to have always thought of his life in mythological terms-worlds apart from the South Bronx, where his mother pieced together a living as a teacher's assistant. "I think of myself as a young prince from a long line of royalty," Snipes boasted to People in 1991. "My sign is Leo. A Leo has to walk with pride. When he takes a step, he has to put his foot down. You walk into a room and you want people to know your presence, without you doing anything. I think I have kind of a natural magnetism." His talent was apparent early on, and his mother sent him to New York's well-regarded High School of Performing Arts, but Snipes was also drawn to the streets of the South Bronx. "Wes had one foot in the world of Juilliard and another on Southern Boulevard," says Cooper, who cowrote New Jack City.
In the early 1980s, Snipes won a Victor Borge scholarship to the mostly white State University of New York at Purchase, where he "felt like mold on white bread," as he told Ebony. After graduating in 1985, Snipes married his first wife, April, and converted to Islam. He then moved to Manhattan and began his acting career with a minor role in the 1986 Goldie Hawn vehicle Wildcats. His big break came in 1987, when he won a part in Michael Jackson's video for "Bad."
Directed by Martin Scorsese, "Bad" has a cartoon thuggishness that must have seemed ridiculous to someone with Snipes's background. But when Cooper spotted the actor on MTV, he was convinced he'd found the lead for New Jack City. "I said, 'That's Nino Brown,'" he recalls. "I was sure that he was actually from the streets." Though the suits at Warner Bros. were dubious, Cooper threatened to remove his name from the credits if Snipes wasn't cast. After beating out Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker, Snipes meticulously prepared for the role by researching the life of Washington, D.C., crack kingpin Rayful Edmund, and in a strange but inspired move, cut his hair into an angular, upward spike to resemble, as Snipes told Cooper, "the spine of a black panther."
Produced on a budget of $8 million, the film was a runaway success, earning $50 million at the box office. Sixteen years after its release, it remains so iconic in the hip-hop world that rappers from Def Jam's Juelz Santana to Diddy's Atlanta prot&eacture;gé Yung Joc reference it in their rhymes. "Wes was the paradigm," Cooper says. "Guys like Jay-Z model their swagger after him." Savvy about the perils of typecasting, Snipes wisely plunged into a slew of less predictable roles, playing an architect who falls for a white coworker in 1991's Jungle Fever, a savvy street hustler in 1992's White Men Can't Jump, and a drag queen in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar in 1995.
By then, he had become one of Hollywood's most bankable male stars, and a regular tabloid staple. As his face began popping up on magazine covers from Ebony to Newsweek, his asking price rose to $7 million per film, putting him neck and neck with Denzel Washington for the title of Hollywood's leading black actor. But all the adulation was starting to take a personal toll. After divorcing his wife April, who won custody of their young son, Jelani, and breaking with Islam-which he described as a temporary lifeline that had served its purpose-he seemed increasingly detached from reality. He began traveling with a menacing 15-person posse he later named the Royal Guard of Amen-Ra, after the Egyptian air deity and king of the gods. Some of his old friends were alienated by his increasingly high-handed behavior. Cooper remembers running into Snipes and his entourage one night at New York City's Coffee Shop on Union Square. "At that point, fame had really affected him," Cooper says. "His attitude was: 'I'm a star and I can't be touched.'"
The stunning success of the Blade movies-a sci-fi trilogy in which Snipes plays a half-human-half-vampire vampire slayer-further inflated the actor's ballooning ego. The first Blade sequel performed so well that UTA, which had signed Snipes in 2002, brokered a $13 million payout for his part in the film's third installment, Blade: Trinity. Though it was the largest fee Snipes had ever commanded, the actor seemed less than appreciative. According to UTA attorney Bryan Freedman, Snipes paid only half of the agreed-upon 10 percent commission for that film, and stiffed the agency of its cut outright on subsequent films, including Middle Man and The Shooter, which jointly earned the actor another $9 million. Snipes has never responded to the UTA suit, Freedman adds. Instead, in the spring of 2006, he left the agency and has yet to engage a replacement.
Somewhere along the line, Snipes seems to have become involved with the Nuwaubians, then headquartered in Putnam County, Georgia, though the exact nature of his relationship with this group is unclear. In 2000, a Nuwaubian representative told the Macon Telegraph that Snipes was an "avid" member, and the cult boasted of its relationship with Snipes on its website. Noting that the star "is a proud Nubian/Nuwaubian," the site added, rather portentously, "He is moving to Putnam County, and with him comes more money and power. All Nuwaubians will join his elite force for training. We will stop at nothing to drive the evil out of Putnam County."
At the time, the actor's representative denied that Snipes was "even remotely" affiliated with the sect, but his attempt in May 2000 to purchase 257 acres adjacent to the Nuwaubian compound for use as a training camp certainly raised eyebrows. Snipes sent his brother-whose name, oddly, is Wesley Rudolph Snipes-along with martial arts expert Steve Muhammad to Georgia to represent him in the deal. The pair approached police and zoning board officials and announced that they wanted to open a training camp for the Royal Guard of Amen-Ra. "They came to my office and said that they intended to turn the property into some kind of military training ground," remembers Putnam County sheriff Howard Sills, "but the last thing I needed was a damn school for mercenaries right next to the Nuwaubians."
Meanwhile, an Internet job posting said the Royal Guard had 200 openings for "an elite team of highly trained men and women who will provide the following services: Inter-national and domestic risk management; intelligence and protective operations; VIP/executive protection to dignitaries and celebrities; special event security; counter-surveillance and counter-terrorist measures."
Sills grew even more alarmed after an application Snipes's representatives sent to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms requesting the right to utilize weapons on the property turned out to contain false information (claiming, for instance, that the group already owned the property). Though Snipes offered to pay several times the market value for the parcel, the sale was eventually nixed by the local zoning board after Sills testified against it. The sheriff remains convinced that Snipes's determination to buy the land was related to the Nuwaubians. "If all he wanted to do was buy a piece of property," Sills says, "he could have gone to another county and gotten a similar property for one-tenth of the price."
How Snipes first got involved with the criminal cult remains a source of puzzlement. The group was started in the late 1960s in Brooklyn, where York-a prophet, spiritualist, and according to the group's website, "author of over 350 books" on subjects ranging from Egyptian architecture to alien abduction-lectured to a small band of followers, preaching, among other things, that the world would soon end; that the devil cast a spell thousands of years ago to keep black people spiritually ignorant; that York is an extraterrestrial from the planet Rizq; and that malevolent aliens walk among us, poisoning our minds via pop culture. Despite York's more outlandish claims, however, some of his teachings appear to have struck a chord with black nationalists-including rap pioneer Afrika Bambaataa and hip-hop artists such as Mobb Deep's Prodigy and MF Doom-eager to assert links to the ancient Egyptians. This aspect of York's teachings may have caught Snipes's eye as well.
In 1993, with money donated by hundreds of followers, York relocated the group to a 476-acre property in Putnam County, where he built the village of Tama-Re, a sprawling Egyptian-themed complex of pyramids, obelisks, and statues of Egyptian gods, which he declared a sovereign nation. Unsurprisingly, the compound, also known as the Egypt of the West, ran afoul of local building codes, bringing constant battles with local law enforcement. "The first major altercation occurred when building inspectors showed up and were met by armed individuals who refused to allow them onto the property," Sills recalls. "Another time I went out there and two armed guards stood in front of my vehicle and would not move. I believe that Mr. York wanted a Waco situation."
Possibly, it was through the Nuwaubians that Snipes found his way into the radical tax protestor movement. The cult issued millions in false bills of exchange to the IRS, a technique pioneered by the Montana Freemen, a white supremacist Christian Patriot group whose 1996 standoff with federal agents in Montana led to the longest federal siege in modern U.S. history. Surprisingly, given their racial and political differences, the Freeman and the Nuwaubians found common cause in a shared dislike for government and a penchant for conspiracy theories.
Tax expert J.J. MacNab claims that in 1999, four members of the Freemen traveled to Georgia to teach the Nuwaubians how to process phony bills of exchange (often checks falsely drawn from the U.S. Treasury). Sills, the Putnam County sheriff, confirms interaction between the two radical groups. He says that while visiting the compound in 1999, he met a high-level Freeman named Everett Leon Stout, who was notorious for issuing phony warrants for the arrest of law enforcement officers and eventually issued one for the arrest of Sills himself. In 2002, Stout was indicted for fraud, and in 2004 York was sentenced to more than 100 years in prison for rape and child abuse. His followers remain devoted, however. In November, a handful of deputies in Clarke County, Georgia, sympathetic to the Nuwaubian cause, were fired for giving imprisoned members of the group preferential treatment, and the theme of the 11th annual Nuwaubian Ball, held at Atlanta's Fox Theater on December 29, 2006, was "The Noble and Illustrious Rev. Dr. Malachi Z. York is Innocent!"
It's not hard to see why the anti-tax gospel might have appealed to Snipes, whose seven-figure payday on Blade II would have entitled Uncle Sam to about a one-third cut. Looking to avoid the massive bill, he somehow hooked up with Kahn, whom the actor's lawyer now blames for Snipes's predicament. The folksy 63-year-old accountant was a far cry from the high-powered moneymen who usually oversee the finances of Hollywood's A-list. Kahn operated his practice, American Rights Litigators, from an office above a Victorian costume shop in Mount Dora, Florida, with his wife, Kathleen "Kookie" Kahn. Kahn was a passionate advocate of the so-called 861 Argument, which maintains that Americans may be taxed only on wages earned from a foreign company. Though this fanciful interpretation is frequently cited by radical tax protestors, the IRS has always dismissed their assertion as fraud. Courts have invariably agreed. "The batting average of tax protestors in the courtroom is .000," says New York Times reporter David Cay Johnston. "Every court that has heard the arguments of the tax protestors has rejected them as nonsense."
Ominously for Snipes, prosecutors have won serious jail time for defendants in a number of recent cases. "The government has gotten very serious with these people," observes Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center. "Snipes hasn't paid taxes in years, and I think there's a pretty good chance he'll do time. They sent Richard Hatch to jail, right?"
If the case does end up in court, as seems increasingly likely, Billy Martin's contention that Snipes was an unwitting victim of unscrupulous advisers will be difficult to maintain. The actor didn't help matters when he sent an Orlando Sentinel reporter an impassioned e-mail in which he pointed out that "being a black male that asks questions doesn't help the situation." Calling himself an "artist and scholar seeking truth through diligent study and spiritual practice," he added, "Perhaps people like that have now become the enemy of the State." He also took the opportunity to direct the reader to several popular tax protestor websites.
Even more telling was the strange notation that Snipes scrawled on the Conditions of Release form he signed: "All rights reserved without prejudice." Among their other arcane legalistic beliefs, radical tax protestors maintain that including the words without prejudice is an indication that a contract was signed under duress. Whether Snipes intended to signal that he considered the contract invalid is another question that may be answered in court.
If he does end up before a jury, Snipes can always rely on his famous leonine charisma, which, judging from his appearance in Ocala, remains very much in effect. Working in his favor will be the still bewildering notion of a famously Afrocentric star getting mixed up with the radical right. As one tax protestor recently noted on a movement message board, "There is no jury ... in the world that will ever believe that Wesley Snipes made friends with and conspired with a known white supremacist to willfully fail to file his taxes."