Albion Monitor /Features

The Crucifixion of Kevin Elders

by Cynthia Cotts

Three nights a week, he disappears into a pine forest to attend sessions at the BridgeWay, a substance abuse clinic

Contrary Joycelyn and Kevin Elders to popular belief, Kevin Elders is not behind bars -- the son of the former Surgeon General is out on bail, pending appeal. "I'm taking it one day at a time," Elders says. "I know that I don't have to put a needle in my arm to solve my problems, and that feels good." The six foot 29- year old lives in Pine Bluff with his brother and drives to Little Rock every day, where he manages rental property owned by his parents. He's still driving his red Nissan 300 ZX. But has learned to slow down.

Three nights a week, he disappears into a pine forest to attend sessions at the BridgeWay, a substance abuse clinic where he has been in treatment since July of 1994. His first day at the mountain top clinic, he tested positive for cocaine. "I had to detox for awhile," he says, "But I didn't go through the withdrawals. I was healthy as a horse when I walked in."

Elders must take a urine test in the Pulaski County courthouse every two weeks, and, the good news is, he's been testing clean. "Today is my ninety-first day of sobriety," he boasted in a rare interview last October. The bad news is, the first time he tests positive again, prosecutor Chris Palmer is threatening to revoke his bond and pack him off to the state pen.

The curious drug deal took place during the summer when Dr. Joycelyn Elders was up for confirmation and under close scrutiny

It hasn't been easy for Elders to come clean. On July 18, 1994, this handsome young man wearing glasses and a black suit took the witness stand in Pulaski County Circuit Court, holding on to his innocence for dear life. He had been caught selling a small amount of cocaine in the presence of a narcotics detective and charged with one count of delivery -- his first offense, and a felony in state court.

Just before trial, the prosecutor offered Elders what he called "a sweet deal," a plea bargain that could have gotten him out of jail in seven months. But Elders refused to plead guilty, claiming he had been set up, and he refused to give up the name of his dealer. Asked why, he testified, "I would rather not be shot."

Under oath, Elders did cop to being an addict and to injecting cocaine for three years. Sure, he had shared drugs with his friend Calvin Walraven. And yes, he had sold him cocaine on July 29, 1993. But he swore he had been entrapped -- lured into a criminal act he wouldn't have committed otherwise. Throughout the month of July, Walraven kept pressuring him, saying he was desperate to score some cocaine. "Calvin had called me several, several times and I kept telling him, no," Elders testified. then he called and said, "Kevin, if you don't do this [he threatened] to go to the press about my personal life."

The curious drug deal took place during the summer when Dr. Joycelyn Elders was up for confirmation and under close scrutiny by Congress and the press. Given her prospects, Kevin found the blackmail scheme "frightening" and he decided to get it over with. Afterward, he did not speak to Walraven again, and told no one what had happened.

Walraven also testified -- a 24-year-old with dyed hair who had to be coaxed out of a private psychiatric clinic he had checked into the week before. But the prosecutor did a great job of covering up the instability of his star witness, requesting that TV crews be banned from the courtroom and claiming the man had a simple case of stage fright. Walraven was upset, Palmer told me, because "what he wanted to do was to get a friend to stop abusing cocaine. Doing that set into motion a machine, and suddenly this machine was making him appear in front of the national media and testify, which he didn't expect."

Under cross examination, Walraven admitted that he was taking Xanax, a tranquilizer, that his doctor was treating him for "a number of mental conditions," that he had been on Xanax for two years and had seen a psychiatrist since he was eleven. He admitted that during July 1993, he called Elders "once a day at least," asking him to score some cocaine. "I kind of ragged him about it," he said, until July 28, when he called Elders one more time, wanting to know "if he could get me anything."

Major discrepancies in Walraven's testimony

This testimony contradicted Walraven's earlier statement to police, which claimed that Elders had called him on July 29, said he was "back in the business" and "asked me if I wanted to purchase any cocaine." Nobody seemed to have noticed, but there was a major discrepancy between Walraven's testimony, and describing Elders as a reluctant source, and his police statement, describing Elders as an aggressive salesman. In fact, Walraven had dictated the statement to Little Rock Police Detective Kyle King, who typed it up for Walraven's initials. King had enlisted Walraven as an informant in 1993.

The case was heard by Judge John Plegge, a motorcycle racer who in 1993 called mandatory sentences for first-time offenders in Arkansas "horrendous." But the judge was unimpressed, and in two hours he found Elders guilty. "The defense has to prove entrapment by a preponderance of evidence...I don't think you've done that," Plegge told Elders' attorney, Les Hollingsworth, who said he was "mildly shocked." But Kevin Elders left the room smiling, as if a secret angel were standing by.

No such luck for Walraven. Ten days later, he was found dead in a house in Hot Springs, with a bullet through his head and a nine-millimeter pistol by his side. His death was ruled a suicide, and a source identified as "close to the investigation" told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that Walraven had just tested positive for HIV and had begun frantically calling an AIDS hotline.

Meanwhile, Elders had been fired from his factory job, and was living full-time at the BridgeWay, a kind of monastery for drug abusers. "My doctor knows what a fight I put up, but he was able to get me through it," Elders says. "I just had to get my mind thinking clearly." On August 29, after the judge handed down a ten-year sentence, Elders' father cried openly, but the young man kept smiling as he boarded a bus full of prisoners and spent the night in a new county jail. He had to sleep on the floor because, according to a spokesman, "We had no room."

Eight days after Dr. Elders called for legalization of drugs, the Little Rock police issued a warrant for her son's arrest

The next day, the Surgeon General petitioned Judge Plegge to release her son on bail. Asked if she thought he would commit another crime, she answered, "We hope not, but then -- you know, I don't feel that -- as far as that was a crime, no." What she meant, according to an acquaintance, was that she doesn't consider her son a cocaine dealer on the basis of one sale to a friend.

Bond was set $10,000, and Dr. Elders posted the required $1,000 fee. She must have felt partly to blame. After all, some people think the police arrested Elders in retaliation for her political views. They point to a peculiar sequence of events: On December 7, 1993, Dr. Elders commented at a press luncheon, "I do feel that we would markedly reduce out crime rate if drugs were legalized." Eight days later, in the midst of a media frenzy, the Little Rock police issued a warrant for her son's arrest.

The police didn't have a current address for their suspect, so they announced it to the press, triggering a call to Dr. Elders, who was the first to break the news to her son. "It floored me." said the young man. "I didn't know what was going on. I had forgotten that I had done this. And so here I was thinking, 'Oh, Lord, what have they got on me?' I was thinking, 'That's wrong, that's not me, this is the media trying to do something to hurt my family.'"

Palmer denies any political motivation. He points out that police usually do not issue warrants on drug cases until the informant who helped make the case has gone public. And that's what had happened here: In early December, Walraven had appeared in federal court in connection with another case, "I took a long, hard look at it," Palmer says of the Elders case. "I assure you, if I thought there was something political about any of it, I would have stopped it right at the beginning."

The Elders case surfaced in December 1993, about the same time Walraven's other target, Paul Harvey, was indicted on a marijuana trafficking charge. On December 15, arrest warrants were issued for both Paul Harvey, and Kevin Elders. And while Palmer suggests that Walraven's court appearance in connection with the Harvey indictment triggered the decision to arrest Kevin Elders, it might have been the other way around. Harvey's file in the U.S. District Court reveals little of any interest, and Harvey's attorney declined to comment on the case.

For now, there's no proof the Little Rock narcotic's squad launched a vendetta against Joycelyn Elders, although she did suggest studying a policy that would put them out of business. But it is possible that after her December 7 comments, someone powerful decided to green light the cases against both her son and Paul Harvey.

It appears the prosecution withheld information to cover up for a less-than- credible witness

Conspiracy victim or not, Kevin Elders is definitely a casualty of the drug war. Some of the cruelest elements of the U.S. drug laws are mirrored in the Arkansas statutes, to wit: Paid informants are considered reliable witnesses, prosecutors can punish a defendant who refuses to plead guilty, and judges have no power to reduce a mandatory sentence.

These elements all came into play in the Elders case. but the kicker was an Arkansas law that dictated a ten-year mandatory sentence for selling up to an ounce of cocaine. and while Walraven had asked Elders to sell him an eighth of an ounce (3.5 grams), the cocaine entered as evidence only weighed 1.85 grams, which is less than a teaspoon. Kevin Elders got ten years for two grams.

Another irony: Just two weeks after Elders' conviction, the state law was amended to allow a suspended sentence on a felony such as cocaine delivery. But in this case, the judge ruled that the old law applied.

On closer inspection, the case against Kevin Elders gets very suspicious. Walraven's testimony is inconsistent on key points, and it appears that the prosecution withheld information to cover up for a less-than-credible witness. If the judge had been told the full story, he might have given more credence to Elders' defense.

There was once person he trusted too much: Calvin Walraven

Little Rock is almost as segregated as Montgomery, Alabama once was. The public high schools weren't integrated until 1972 -- by court order -- and, by now, most of the white students have fled to private schools. Most of the golf clubs don't allow black members, and voters did not elect a black judge until 1991. The state had no Civil Rights Act until 1993. Today, twenty percent of Pulaski county is black, of whom a third live below poverty level. On average, black residents earn $7,000 per year.

A few blacks make the crossover, but very few. Elders' mother was one of the lucky ones: She left the cotton fields on a scholarship at 15, was the only woman to graduate from University of Arkansas Medical School in 1960, and was named state health director by Governor Bill Clinton in 1987. Her husband, Oliver, is a retired basketball coach; their elder son, Eric, a public school teacher. But baby Kevin was star-crossed, perennially overweight. High school records show he was an average student, except for straight A's in band and choir.

By the time he entered college, Elders' parents had moved to a 15-acre ranch near Pine Bluff, where they gardened, swam and kept horses. After completing an M.B.A. he started working as a factory supervisor in North Little Rock. And he continued to acquire nice things, including the 300 ZX and a bungalow on West Capitol Street. But he was also a devout Methodist. "My parents made it easy for me to have a good heart," Elders says. "I always had everything that I needed, and some of the things I wanted. I wanted to make sure that everyone else around me was able to prosper by some of the things that I had."

Everyone agrees that Elders was a sweet, trusting young man. But there was once person he trusted too much: Calvin Walraven. Elders remembers meeting him at a Christmas party in 1990. "He seemed like an okay guy, and he and I started talking and we developed a friendship." At the time, Elders was in graduate school and Walraven had a job selling cars. "I might see him once or twice a month when I come up for weekends...It started off with just having some drinks, going out to a bar to play pool. I don't recall how we started getting into cocaine, and shooting cocaine." But they did.

Some time later, Elders realized that Walraven was "just not a good type of person" and he decided to end their friendship. He blames it partly on drugs. "Me being an abuser -- your mind is clouded, you can't distinguish a good character from a bad character." And part of it fell to Walraven, who Elders describes as "smooth and cunning and baffling, and really able to manipulate people."

Today, looking back on the nightmare that followed, Elders says he can understand why Walraven took his life. "For him to set me up like that...If I did it like Calvin did, my conscience would be whuppin' my butt too."

She feels that Elders was set up, and was flabbergasted to learn the police had recruited Walraven

Calvin Walraven In Little Rock, Walraven's reputation as a con man was legendary, as were his blue eyes. (He wore tinted contacts to enhance them.) "He was a chubby fella with blond hair, fat cheeks," says a Little Rock businessman who lost money to him in a deal. "He passed for a jolly-looking, clean-cut fella, and you couldn't help not to like him."

But how could you trust him? "He was also a good liar, good con man," says the businessman, who claims that Walraven got fired from jobs twice for allegedly stealing money. This man says, "If the judge knew who Walraven was, he wouldn't have accepted his testimony."

Both the businessman and Elders say that Walraven stole money from a wealthy of woman in Memphis -- "Upwards of $50,000," says Elders. He recalls hearing the story from a girl who said her grandmother "needed somebody to talk to, and Calvin just eased his way into that. Her words to me were, 'He robbed my grandmother blind.'"

Kenneth Johnson owned the group house in Hot Springs where Walraven lived until his death. And while the absentee landlord didn't know this renter well, he had his number. "Calvin was cutesy, and he had a lot of personality that he could turn on," says Johnson, " but he was a con, a real smoothie con."

Then there's the woman who met Walraven at the University Inn, a motel near the University of Arkansas where he lived and worked as a maintenance man in 1993. "He had his good points," she says, "He could get along with anybody, but also, he was good a faking like he really cared about you. He was real good at covering stuff up."

Prosecutor Palmer met Walraven for the first time in July 1994, one week before the trial. Palmer likes to say that Walraven was a "volunteer" who helped bust Elders out of the goodness of his heart, to help a friend get off drugs. "That's not the Calvin I knew," says the man who rented to him. "He wasn't an upright, honest kind of guy," says the man who did business with him. And the friend from the motel says, "That is a complete and blatant lie! Calvin is a bullshitter, and he will say anything he can must to help himself out. He has never been one to try to help anybody."

In the spring of 1993, Walraven started working at the University Inn. "He didn't like the manager," says his friend, "And he started slacking up on his work. Eventually, he got involved with some drugs. He would let the hookers come up into his room if they gave him a little piece of crack. And he would sit up there and smoke crack with them all the time, and he got to the point where he had smoked so much that he went out of his mind."

Before that, she remembers, "He was already snorting cocaine and sniffing rush [amyl nitrite]. And of course he smoked pot," This woman prefers not to be identified for fear of retaliation by the police. But she feels that Elders was set up, and she was flabbergasted to learn the police had recruited Walraven. "That's what floored me," she said. "How is this man gonna get somebody off drugs if he's a crackhead himself?"

Such details escaped the prosecutor. "I have never heard or received any information that Calvin was abusing at the time he was an informant," says Chris Palmer. "When he was working for the officers, they wouldn't have used him if at any time they thought he was under the influence." Palmer says that's a call he trusts the police to make.

There were no charges pending against Walraven when he became an informant -- he was in it for "financial gain"

In June of 1993, about the same time Detective King signed him up as an informant, Walraven got fired from the University Inn. The manager gave him 15 days to vacate his room, according to both the businessman and the friend. The businessman says, "He was looking desperately for money, because he had no health insurance. He was broke."

According to Little Rock police spokesman Charles Holladay, there were not charges pending against Walraven when he became an informant -- he was in it for "financial gain." In Little Rock, confidential informants are typically paid $20 to introduce detectives to a "drug area," $100 if they help make an arrest. But the police refused to disclose how much they paid Walraven, or any other details -- despite the fact that such information is supposed to be a matter of public record. Holladay said the department didn't want to set a precedent by releasing the information.

Detective Kyle King says he first signed Walraven on June 16, 1993. "I came to work one day, "King testified, "and there was a note on my desk that someone wanted to speak to a narcotics detective." He dialed the number and was connected to the University Inn.

The informant told King about Elders the first time they met, according to Walraven's testimony. "We were sitting in a parking lot at K-Mart," he told the judge. "He wanted to know everybody I knew, and I told him everybody I knew, and I told him [about Elders]."

During the month when Dr. Elders' nomination was front-page news, it's hard to believe the name did not ring a bell with Little Rock police

As the summer began to unroll, President Clinton nominated Dr. Elders to be his Surgeon General. Walraven helped set up his other target, Paul Harvey, in a hand-to-hand marijuana buy that resulted in a federal trafficking conviction. Then he began plotting against Elders, a scheme that would lure him into a slow dance in Boyle Park.

The park, nestled in West Little Rock, is cool and dark with winding roads, few pedestrians, and little sound but the leaves and the crows. In the parking lot near the shelters known as Pavilions No. 1 and 2, single men often sit in parked cars. According to police spokesman Holladay, "There's some isolated areas within the park where criminal activity has been known to take place. There's been a murder, and a number of arrests by the vice squad."

On the evening of July 29, 1993, detective King met Walraven at home, searched his pockets, and gave him $250 in cash. They entered the park on 36th street and parked behind a red 300ZX in front of pavilion No, 2. "I got out of the truck, went around to Mr. Elders' car and gave him a big hug," Walraven testified, referring to his Judas kiss. Elders asked for another $25, which came out of King's pocket, and then drove away with the cash.

For twenty minutes, the cop and the snitch killed time as squirrels scampered among the pine cones. Finally, as they stood inside the pavilion waiting, Elders returned and parked below them. Walraven hopped down to the car, Elders pulled out a plastic bag, and then, "We did a key bump," Walraven testified. "It's where you open up the package of coke, you stick the tip of your key in and you snort it."

Walraven had warned King that he might have to do this, and the detective "just said, do what I had to do." That's a contradiction of police policy on informant's drug use during buys. According to spokesman Holladay, "We prefer that [informants] not do it, so that there's not the appearance of police approval."

Holladay insists this was a routine buy, and that the police "had no idea it was Kevin Elders until after the fact." But this was during the month when Dr. Elders' nomination was front-page news, and it's hard to believe the name did not ring a bell. Detective Robert Mourot, who had monitored the drug deal, testified, "Detective King advised me that he had set up a narcotics transaction...He said the bad guy which was supposed to meet him was Kevin Elders."

Elders and his family decided he would not plead guilty to something he felt he had been forced to do

Little is known about Walraven's whereabouts after July of 1993, or how he supported himself. But by the summer of 1994, he had moved to Hot Springs, where he was living with a couple of buddies in a house on Quapaw Avenue. On July 13, prosecutor Palmer and detective King met with Walraven at the Waffle House in Hot Springs. It was the week before the trial, and Palmer downplays any signs of trouble as they prepared their witness to testify. "Things went pretty smoothly," he recalls.

But actually, the prosecutor heard some things that ought to have tipped him off he had a rotten witness on his hands, one who might have had ulterior motives for targeting this defendant. When Palmer asked why the deal went down in Boyle Park, Walraven said, "It was just a queer thing." The informant went on to explain that he was gay, that he had HIV. Palmer says Calvin also claimed that he and Elders had been "close friends for a period of time."

Walraven must have had a bad night on July 13. The next day, he checked into Charter Hospital, a 60-bed psychiatric clinic northwest of Little Rock. The informant had been carrying a gun in Hot Springs, according to his landlord Kenneth Johnson, because, "he was very afraid of being killed." And now he was in a wild panic, afraid to testify and begging the defense team to get him out of it.

Walraven even went so far as to contact Dr. Elders in Washington, D.C. According to a letter from the Surgeon General to the judge, Walraven "called me at my office, had his psychiatrist call me at my office and home...He kept repeating, they [meaning the police] made him do it, they paid him to do it and they were after 'my son' because of me, and if he did not testify, they would 'blow his head off.'" Walraven's psychiatrist did not think he would testify, and she put him on a heavy course of Xanax.

On the Friday before the trial, Palmer called Elders' attorney, Les Hollingsworth, and suggested that Elders be tested for HIV. "I told Les, you understand that Calvin's gay and that he has disclosed [he and Kevin have] had a close friendship. And as a sideline, your client, I don't want to know one way or the other, but your client probably ought to be made aware of it. It may not be that they're gay. They may have shared needles, who knows?"

The same day, Palmer made his offer of a plea bargain: 42 months on a conspiracy-to-deliver charge. Hollingsworth may not have recognized it, but the prosecutor was making a veiled threat. On Saturday, Elders and his family decided he would not plead guilty to something he felt he had been forced to do. It was against his value system and his mother's. Finally, Hollingsworth called Palmer, asking him to scale back the charge to simple possession.

Palmer didn't appreciate this kind of behavior. He says he was so mad at Elders for not pleading, he was tempted to out him at trial. "To tell you the truth," Palmer said in a taped interview, "I considered it as a card to play...I could have put him under some severe pressure and said, 'If you don't plead guilty, I'll put this up at trial, and you'll have to go through it , and I'll expose you as being a gay drug abuser.'"

But the prosecutor held back, thinking to do otherwise would be "dirty pool." Nevertheless, when he cross-examined Kevin Elders, there appeared to be a threat in his words.

"And your relationship with Calvin, what was that relationship?"


"Is that it?"

"We're friends."

Kevin Elders knows he is the subject of rumors. He says, "If the prosecutor has me down as being a gay drug abuser, Calvin didn't say anything about it in the trial. If I'm a gay drug abuser, I didn't say anything about it. I told them, 'Yes, I am a drug addict.' I have no doubts about that. All this other gay stuff -- I'm not admitting to that." When asked whether he is gay, he laughs and says, "I'm as straight as I can be. If I were gay, being who I am, I wouldn't tell you."

According to another source close to the case, Kevin Elders does believe he was blackmailed. The source says that Walraven threatened to claim publicly that Elders was gay just at the moment his mother was on the line and the police department needed a high-profile bust to polish its image.

This scenario lends support to Elders' claim of entrapment. Police spokesman Holladay says there was no blackmail "to my knowledge," and prosecutor Palmer doesn't think Walraven could have convinced the media of anything. Yet Palmer put this so-called reliable witness on the stand in an attempt to prove that Elders was a drug dealer. "He said he was back in business," Walraven testified, after prompting by the prosecutor.

That statement, and the one drug buy, is the only evidence offered to support the depiction of Elders as a dealer, and even Chris Palmer admits it's not much. Elders testified that he was an addict, and the distinction is an important one. If he had been allowed to plead to a possession charge, he would be eligible for treatment under Arkansas' brand-new drug court program. Drug court, a concept developed in Dade County, Florida, offers drug offenders treatment as an alternative to incarceration. But in Arkansas drug court, no dealers are allowed.

Walraven commits suicide

Calvin Walraven was miserable on the night he died; Kenneth Johnson can see it now. "He came downstairs and I was in the kitchen, on the mattress on the floor," he says, "I had taken a sleeping pill. He was staggering around, slurring his words, and he kept dropping the gun. He talked a little and I said, 'Calvin, you go ahead and go upstairs...' Then my pill kicked in and I went to sleep. And when I went up the next morning, he was just a mess of blood with the gun lying next to him."

Johnson doesn't think there was any foul play, although the house was open and someone could have walked in. "He was just extremely depressed," says Johnson. Walraven had recently lost his boyfriend, a drag queen and former runner-up for Miss Gay Arkansas.

Johnson called the police at 6:40 AM on July 28. They found the nine-millimeter pistol, a wallet, and address book and two empty pill bottles. The death was officially declared a suicide, but Arkansas loves a good conspiracy theory, and Johnson says, "Everybody in Hot Springs thinks he was bumped off because he testified against Elder's son." Fingers point in all directions, but no one seems to have any proof.

Walraven was paid $155 for setting up the deal

Kevin Elders' appeal attorney is John Hall Jr., a veteran defender and friend of President Clinton. Earlier this year he petitioned the court to reopen the case, claiming the prosecutors had withheld information. On February 8th, the Arkansas Court of Appeals denied the petition. Neither Hall nor Hollingsworth agreed to be interviewed, and Dr. Elders' press secretary had no comment.

Hall is preparing an appeal to be reviewed in Arkansas Supreme Court. If it fails, Elders will go to prison, but probably no for ten years. At the earliest, he could be eligible for parole in two-and-a-half. Elders has a serene attitude towards his fate. "I had to give it to God," he says. "I said, 'God, you take care of this. If I have to go to prison and spread the word of Narcotics Anonymous, then that's what you need me to do right now.'"

In some respects, the Elders case is typical -- a petty drug offender gets the book thrown at him, on the say-so of an informant who was desperate and hell bound. But the peculiar combination of Kevin Elders' color, his lifestyle, and his mother's ideas, made him an irresistible target for a system that bears down on the most vulnerable. "I know how hard-headed and stubborn I was," Elders says. "But for some reason, out of all the people in the world, I had to go through this."

Whether there was any link between the Surgeon General's statements and her son's arrest has yet to be established. The police finally released their file on Walraven, which reveals he was paid $155 for setting up the deal. But the police resistance to release the file on their paid informant, coupled with a curious sequence of events, suggest an Arkansas-style cover-up that would lend itself to further investigations, if not a new trial. Kevin Elders and a supporter

A version of this article first appeared in The Drug Policy Letter published by The Drug Policy Foundation.

Albion Monitor October 30, 1995 (

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