On Maxine McNeeley’s 71st birthday, inmate Curtis Allgier sang her a love song he had written over the phone from the Salt Lake County lockup. “He’s got a good crooning voice,” she says.
Allgier, who faces a capital murder charge for the 2007 shooting death of corrections officer Stephen Anderson, and McNeeley had been exchanging weekly letters for several years. After her daughter Julia Wheelwright went to prison in 2007, McNeeley found herself in her own “solitary,” rarely leaving her low-income housing in Ogden. But such was her fascination with the now 32-year-old Allgier that she made a sometimes twice-weekly, six-hour round-trip trek by bus and TRAX to Salt Lake City to visit him in jail. She also attended his court hearings. “I looked forward to going down there, even on the coldest days,” she says. “I’m the darned pony express. Nothing deters me. He just became my joy.”
After her birthday, McNeeley sent Allgier a thank-you card. On the bottom of the card was printed, “You have put gladness in my heart,” taken from the Book of Psalms. “I really meant it,” she says.
A few days later, she received a letter from Allgier in which he raged at her for upsetting some of his female followers and for failing to do as he asked. In a postscript, he wrote, “Don’t send me Jew shit.” When she tipped the envelope upside down, dozens of pieces of her torn-up card tumbled out.
McNeeley says she is one of “the women in the shadows” who live on state assistance and whose lives have been scarred by the incarceration of those they love. Of her five children—three of whom she had with one man, two with another—four have been behind bars. Recently, 49-year-old Frannie Owens, who spent the past 24 years working the streets to fund her crack and heroin habit, served 30 days in Weber County Jail for a drug-related charge. Julia Wheelwright has served four years of a 15-year sentence in Utah State Prison for kidnapping her own daughter. Another daughter, Desiree, had just finished a months-long sentence of day-reporting to the Weber jail on a possession charge when the deeply troubled 30-year-old hanged herself on Nov. 17, 2010.
“It just bugs me that our daughters and sons and husbands and wives and loved ones can be put into a system where they are basically forgotten about,” McNeeley says. “Just because you go to prison doesn’t mean you’re a worthless human being.”
Desiree Wheelwright did not like Allgier. “Game knows game,” she’d tell her mother, meaning that one scam artist recognized another. McNeeley stubbornly refused to quit her contact with Allgier. “He is my hobby, so leave me alone,” she would tell family members who insisted she stop visiting a man one of them calls “a cold-blooded murderer.” Allgier is far more than a pastime to McNeeley. She believes “he’s worthy of forgiveness.”
An occasional stoner, McNeeley possesses a salty collection of street and jail slang any ex-con would admire. She sees beyond Allgier’s tattoos—the swastikas, Adolf Hitler’s face on his chest and the words “skinhead” and “property of Jolene” (his second ex-wife) on his forehead—to a man “who has a heart, who’s got a nice way to him.” Indeed, he gave her a new lease on life. She told Allgier, “I’ve been sitting on the shelf for 20 years, and you dusted me off.”
Allgier doesn’t trust the “Zionist media.” But in a number of letters in response to questions from City Weekly, the voluble neo-Nazi discussed not only his relationship with McNeeley, but also his beliefs, which mix National Socialism with a messianic self-perception. “The truth and the fact is, I’m an amazing man,” he writes. “My divine transformation from powerful Aryan man, to even more powerful Aryan God. Not in metaphorical, literal, very literally!”
Her relationship with Allgier is “the hardest thing to explain,” she says. “It’s almost like he’s all things to me. When he’s chastising me, it almost feels like your dad, and you cower. I’ve anguished over him something terrible.”
Allgier’s occasionally abusive letters reflect his intense dislike of people “swinging on his name,” as he told McNeeley. “I’m superior to all,” he ranted in one letter. “This is my world! I choose to allow motherfuckers to be in it. Ryde with me or collide with me! I don’t suggest the latter!”
But McNeeley’s passionate commitment to Allgier, for whom she ran countless errands to news media and lawyers, even complaining to Salt Lake County Jail Chief Rollin Cook about Allgier’s treatment in the jail, was severely tested by Allgier himself. After Wheelwright went to prison, he asked a female friend in prison to “stomp” her for speaking badly about him. He accused McNeeley of being a “race trader” for having children of mixed race and, in the wake of Desiree’s death, berated her in letters for not bending to his will, plunging her into an anxiety attack that left her bedridden for days.
But after the days of crying, of him having “dropped me to my knees,” she says, his rubbing her face in the tragedies of her own life has toughened her up. She quotes another inmate she corresponds with when she says, “Being down in the dirt hurts bad, but at least you know you’re alive.”
In the age of e-mail, Twitter and texting, McNeeley and Allgier’s story is, if nothing else, a testimony to the power of hand-written letters. “I don’t think he realizes how crushing his words can be,” she says. “He can reach right out from behind the bars and crush you to pieces.”
The Price of a Fix
When McNeeley opens a letter from Allgier addressed to Maxine, she knows she’s in for castigation. If it’s addressed to Lily White, she can expect more gentle fare. That’s a nickname she gave herself after getting to know Allgier. McNeeley grew up very poor in Ottawa, Ill., to what she terms “hillbilly parents.” Rich Jewish children would taunt her for her flour-sack clothing, and she’d retort, “You can kiss my lily-white ass.”
When McNeeley was 18, she fell in love with an LDS missionary who asked her to marry him after he finished his mission. McNeeley followed his instructions and took a prop plane to Salt Lake City. She worked for a phone company and stayed in the Beehive House for virtuous young women. But three weeks after she got there, the missionary wrote that the wedding was off. “He was my first love,” she says. “It took me a long while to get over him.”
The next year, McNeeley married Tom Owens, whom she met at a dance. They moved to California and had three children: James, Tammy and Frannie. After McNeeley left Owens in 1972, she struggled to find work and raise her increasingly troubled children. In their teens, at their mother’s request, James and Frannie moved to Hollywood to live with their wealthy father, while Tammy eventually moved to Pennsylvania and got married. James was in and out of prison until several severe beatings left him with brain damage, while Frannie spent seven years as a Hollywood street prostitute before moving to Ogden, where she has continued to turn tricks to buy drugs.
“Being a slave to heroin really gets old,” she says in a visiting booth via telephone in the Weber jail. “All you do is worry about getting money for your next fix.” McNeeley worries, on the other hand, that a large abscess on her daughter’s upper arm, where she injects heroin into the muscle, may result in Owens losing her limb.
In the mid 1980s, McNeeley met Rik Ballard Wheelwright, a Native American drummer. With Ballard, who was 18 years younger than McNeeley, she had two girls, Desiree and Julia, while in her early 40s. They lived for five months on the Fort Hall, Idaho, reservation. McNeeley was scared of the packs of reservation dogs that roamed the landscape. “The prettiest thing there was the sunset,” she recalls.
Ballard went out for cigarettes one morning, McNeeley says, and did not return. “If her dad only knew how broken-hearted Desiree was when he left and never came back,” she says. Desiree struggled not only with the loss of her father from an early age, but also her mixed race. Her mother recalls Desiree, a frown on her face, saying, “I don’t want to be brown. I want to be white like you and Julia.”
Allgier believes McNeeley betrayed herself and her race by having children with Ballard. In part, McNeeley agrees. “I just think it’s wise not to have mixed-race children.”
McNeeley’s life, she says, has been a “slow education” not only in poverty, but also, through her children, in how the judicial system can ride roughshod over the rights of those it imprisons. That education led to her advocacy and her relationship with Allgier, both of which she traces back to her daughter Julia.
In and out of juvenile detention facilities from when she was 14 to 18, Julia Wheelwright ended up in a proctor home, where troubled teens are cared for by experienced adults. But the Nephi proctor home’s basement had walls painted black and a nailed-down window. The woman told Wheelwright not to worry if her husband—an overweight man who wore a stained “wife beater” shirt—came into her room at night as he sleepwalked. Terrified, Wheelwright snuck out of the house and called her mother. McNeeley told the judge who’d sent Wheelwright to the Nephi-based couple of her plight, and he took her out of the home.
After a brief stint of being incarcerated as an adult, Wheelwright met Allgier, she says, in a halfway house. “He’s a really smart guy. He was not like how he portrays himself now.” After Anderson’s death, Wheelwright wrote a letter to Ogden’s Standard-Examiner, defending inmates’ rights to have MRI exams.
Shortly after, in August 2007, the then 25-year-old Wheelwright accepted a plea bargain for kidnapping her 5-year-old daughter from the child’s paternal grandmother, Dana Spens. Spens had gained temporary custody from Wheelwright and the child’s father, the then 36-year-old Mark Spens, both of whom were struggling with drug addiction and jail. Spens and her husband asked the judge to give Wheelwright and her boyfriend co-defendant, Donny Watters, the maximum sentence. The judge sent them to prison for 15 years each, recommending they serve the entire sentence. McNeeley, who had taken to wearing a black armband to signify her solidarity with drug-addicted inmates, was broken-hearted. She left the court in tears, telling a local reporter, “Nobody told [Wheelwright and her boyfriend’s] side of the story.” She added that inmates with drug issues cannot be rehabilitated until they receive treatment. “Some of the worst people can change.”
Dana Spens is unrepentant. She and her husband asked for the maximum because, she says, “We figured if she got a longer sentence, she could work on [her addiction issues] and [her daughter] could have a life every child deserves.”
McNeeley started writing to Allgier at Wheelwright’s request. But Wheelwright’s and Allgier’s friendship soon soured. He writes that he told her to do drug programs and classes in prison, to stay out of trouble, to work on her body, improve her mind. Instead, he writes, “She did the opposite, she got in fights, she got caught up with pills, she has had like over 50 write-ups.” He writes that, frustrated with her failure to follow his lead, he “cut her off. She started running her mouth, I caught word and my female Ryders [incarcerated supporters] delt with her, a couple of times.”
Wheelwright laughs. “The dude’s delusional,” she says. “He’s not a shot caller.” While she has had three prison fights, none of them, she says, reflected Allgier’s supposed influence.
Busy learning Latin and reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Wheelwright’s purpose in life, she says, is her daughter. Her next parole hearing is July 2013.
“It’s a concern,” says Frayne Spens, Dana’s husband, about Wheelwright’s eventual return to society.
In and out of jail and prison from 2000 onwards for burglary, forgery and escape convictions, Allgier was sent to Gunnison Prison in central Utah in 2001 for a five-year stretch. “I was forced into a sink-or-swim, dog-eat-dog world!” he wrote to City Weekly. “I came in a man, I live and leave or die a man!” To protect himself, he gave himself a physical makeover, eating, working out, “got covered in tattoos from head to toe. I wanted to have the look and reputation that I’m best to be left alone, and be able to defend my life and well-being if need be.”
In Draper’s Utah State Prison in 2004, he shared a cell with Chet Butterfield, who was in for a drug-related conviction. Released in 2005, Butterfield says prison changed Allgier, and not for the better. Allgier’s incarceration was for “minor stuff. Now look at him. He’s all tattooed up, he killed a cop and he’s facing the death penalty.”
That wasn’t the cellmate Butterfield recalls. Allgier looked “more like he should have been behind a computer, playing a game,” than a hard-core criminal. While in Allgier’s “own little world, he’s proud to be a white guy,” Butterfield says Allgier “mingled with every race and culture” in the prison, “doing a lot of push-ups, always looking for somebody to do different exercises with.” Allgier was going “to make the best time with his cellmate, and that’s a good way to do time.” That included caring for Butterfield after he had skin cancer.
In an interview with MSNBC’s Lockup, Allgier condemned several Aryan gangs as “lame,” a remark a prison guard told Lockup could get Allgier attacked. But now Allgier writes that his remarks were edited and says “some of the best white boys and Aryans I know are from Utah, in this prison,” and are from the very gangs he criticized on Lockup.
On June 25, 2007, 60-year-old veteran corrections officer Stephen Anderson transported Allgier to the University of Utah for an MRI. Anderson was well-regarded by many inmates. “Very, very few guards out there will treat you humanely,” Butterfield says. Anderson was one of the few. “He respected a man’s dignity.”
Allgier allegedly killed Anderson with his own gun. “I’m not guilty of what I’m being charged with,” he writes.
Anderson’s family is angry that four years later, Allgier has yet to be tried. “To drag a family through this is wrong,” says Anderson’s brother David.
When McNeeley started corresponding with Allgier, her children were either in jail, prison, or busy with their lives. “The kids were my life, then they weren’t there.” She and Allgier exchanged handwritten letters several times a week, his in a volatile scrawl, often over a dozen or more pages, hers in a cramped ballpoint ink.
McNeeley recalls that the first time Allgier saw her when she visited Salt Lake County Jail, he was shocked. “But then he got a kick out of it. He said, ‘You’re 70, you look 40 and act 30.’ ”
When Allgier started giving her assignments, “I was as happy as a lark.” He sent her to TV stations to drop off his letters, and she talked to local reporters outside the courtroom after he had a hearing. At his request, she researched such matters as whether a local university would pay $86,000 for an inmate’s donated testicles. (They wouldn’t.) Allgier told McNeeley to put on 40 pounds, to do exercises, drink protein shakes and take care of herself. “ ‘Skinny women have puny babies,’ ” she recalls him telling her. “ ‘Big women are breeders.’ ”
As they got to know each other, the 40-year-younger Allgier “paid some attention to me, he cared.” She started thriving, she says, putting on a little weight. At the same time, she anguished over his jail diet, which had caused the muscle-proud Allgier to drop 50 pounds. At times, she says, “I couldn’t even eat. He was always hungry. The food stuck in my throat.”
During his almost four years of incarceration in Salt Lake County Jail after the Anderson killing, Allgier was housed in administrative segregation, where inmates who are deemed a security risk or who can’t get along with other prisoners reside. He was allowed out two hours every other day, fully restrained and led around on a leash.
In 2008, McNeeley says, Allgier was cuffed incorrectly, fell and was hurt. “When I came to the visiting window, his fingers were sausages, his knees and toes full of water.” She complained to jailors that Allgier’s painful condition might kill him. He was eventually diagnosed with anglio spondylitis, an arthritic condition she found out required proper nutrition to stave off its effects.
After persistent requests, McNeeley says she saw Salt Lake County Jail Chief Rollin Cook. She asked him if Allgier could have multivitamins. That request, along with others for extra food, was declined. McNeeley says Cook told her Allgier “was the most dangerous man in prison.” A medical officer at the jail asked her why she came to see Allgier. “I shouldn’t have to apologize for unconditional love, should I?” she replied.
McNeeley and Allgier kicked around publicity schemes. They came up with the idea of approaching a national scandal sheet with a story that they were to get married. “70-year-old woman marries Nazi skinhead in prison,” is how McNeeley says she pitched it. Then Allgier changed his mind and in a letter wrote, “Are you delusional?”
Allgier wanted the 72-year-old to tattoo herself “property of Wood,” his preferred nickname, prison slang for a white inmate, but she declined. He wanted people who would “ryde” along with him, be down for him, be unswervingly loyal. But McNeeley did “just the opposite, just to piss me off,” she recalls him writing.
"Now I Know You Love Me”
In June 2010, Desiree Wheelwright gave birth two months prematurely to an infant girl with undeveloped lungs. McNeeley remembers her daughter’s sadness as she looked down at the baby who lived only a few hours. Several months later, Desiree told Julia Wheelwright, “I feel like my daughter is calling me home,” Julia recalls. A few weeks later, Desiree hanged herself.
Photographs of Desiree dominate a small table in McNeeley’s living room. “Maybe I should have paid more attention to her,” McNeeley says. “We would have been closer if I hadn’t been going down to see Curtis. I had a little separate life outside of the kids. They were not used to that. They always had my undivided attention.”
McNeeley suffered another loss months later, when, after years of being Allgier’s Girl Friday, as McNeeley calls herself, he turned his attention to a new woman. Allgier wanted the woman to build a Facebook page for him. McNeeley was devastated. “I knew [the new follower] was going to cut in on my [jail visiting] time, but what was hurtful was he put all his energies into her. He didn’t ask me to do anything. Not one thing, not one assignment. I was outsourced!”
Allgier, in subsequent letters, railed at her for running off female admirers by complaining to them about the tragedies in her own life. “She don’t want to share the WOOD, no female is good enough. ...” he wrote to City Weekly. “They all tend to get stupid and fuck up when your not in their face and ear all the time!”
McNeeley found his criticism disturbing. “It bothered me he thought low of me. ‘What you see is what you get,’ I told him. I wear my feelings on my sleeve.”
He wrote to her in belligerent terms. “Your age means nothing! Look where you are, what you got. Obviously, you did it all wrong. And instead of brushing it off, warrioring up and refusing to lose, you live in poverty, with no ambition to do better, rise above, over come, conqure, persevere and prevail at any and all costs! And you have the audacity to question me, disrespect me, doubt me?”
In a letter to City Weekly, Allgier claims 648 women have asked to marry him, and over 3,000 have written to him. “I had a few I loved, one from Arizona especially, one from Canada, a New York ryder, one from Florida.” He writes he’s seeking “a tru Aryan goddess.”
After one particularly brutal letter, where he viciously insulted McNeeley’s womanhood, “I cried and cried and cried for days and days.” A doctor prescribed her antidepressants, but they left her almost unable to walk. She wrote back to Allgier, making derogatory comments about some of his women, friends and foes.
Finally, she started going back to jail to visit him. Allgier complained that food in administrative segregation was provided in smaller portions than the rest of the jail. “He wanted to fix it for himself and the others in maximum security to be fed better,” she says. “He became an advocate for them.” A jail spokesman, however, says inmates throughout the lockup receive the same portions.
During one recent visit, a guard told her Allgier was being transferred to the state prison in Draper. While that might have been good news for Allgier, who complains he was taunted and tormented by guards during his years in the Salt Lake County Jail, it was devastating for McNeeley, who does not own a car.
“Curtis, they’re moving you,” she told him through tears. “I’ll never get to see you.”
In a letter he wrote after that visit, Allgier expressed his gratitude for her tears. “Now I know you love me,” he wrote.
In McNeeley’s small kitchen, where the only glasses are old jars, the letters she has kept from her inmate correspondents fill boxes and large plastic bags. “I’m a woman buried by inmate mail,” she says.
An auction sign outside her home reminds her, however, that she may well have to find somewhere else to live shortly if the property’s new owners decide to discontinue renting it to her.
Allgier’s isn’t the only name that clutters her postbox. She has corresponded with numerous inmates, sending them free trial subscriptions of magazines she believes they will find interesting or cuttings of stories from the papers. She sent a four-month trial of Psychology Today to Allgier’s cell block neighbor, Paul Payne, with whom she began corresponding by accident. Payne had written a letter to the family of an inmate who, he wrote, had killed himself after being cut off from his medications by the prison, but sent it to McNeeley’s address by mistake.
Payne went into prison when he was 16 and has now spent 21 years behind bars. In a letter to City Weekly, Payne wrote that the maximum-security cell block “breeds hate, misanthropy and it’s difficult not to succumb! I mean, these units are where the worst guards and inmates are placed, and the mentally ill.”
When McNeeley wrote to inform him of his mistake, they became friends. “Sometimes you feel like you’re slipping into darkness and our paths crossed at an important time for me, and fortunately she reached out because I was pretty sure the world was full of either simple or crude, evil people,” Payne writes. “It’s just reinvigorating to meet a kind, caring person who’s not looking for gain.”
Out of all of her prison pen pals, Allgier “is probably the most memorable person I’ll ever meet in my life,” McNeeley says, just because of who he is, the way he thinks, “the fuhrer-king,” as he calls himself. And then she laughs. “I don’t even know what fuhrer means.”
Allgier wants to have a positive impact on McNeeley. “I hope to enlighten her and empower her, to build confidence and security! There is a lot of potential, if only she will get the stubborn bullshit attitude in check, you have to listen to and follow a leader, you have to want to change, to get better.”
McNeeley loves unconditionally, whether it’s her children, no matter how far they fall, or Allgier, no matter how much he hurts her. While she fears “he ruined his life with all his tattoos, sealing his doom,” she yearns for forgiveness, even redemption for Stephen Anderson’s alleged killer. “That’s my hope for Curtis,” she says. But forgiveness, Anderson’s brother David says, “doesn’t mean people aren’t held responsible for their wrongdoings.”
In September, she wrote several notes to Allgier, which he sent to City Weekly. He writes that these letters confirm “how she loves, worships, adores me!” While McNeeley, he continues, has many faults, “the lady is in love with me, cares for me, and that’s what I get … it feels good to be able to be so much for her.” But, he adds, she has to share him with others.
Those notes show McNeeley firmly with her heart on her threadbare sleeve. “You’ve taught me so much and given me valuable tools for the last part of my earthly journey,” she wrote. Providence had brought them together, she continued in the second note. “This is a lifetime deal for me. I will plight your cause against all odds.” She was stronger now, thanks to him, she wrote, signing off,
“Love and fidelity.
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