Even in prison-blue khakis and a fraying knit cap pulled against the chill of a November morning, Rommie Loudd at 44, a convict who had hoped for fame, is regal. Tall and handsome, he still has the linebacker's bulk and dancer's easy grace that marked his youth. "They just wanted me out of the way, that's why they framed me," he was saying. "They didn't want a black man to head up an organization that might be worth $25 million someday."
Every convict has a story. They will tell you they are innocent. America's prisons are overcrowed with victims of injustice. The prisoners will tell you that. Maybe it helps them through the interminable days if they deny the pain of truth. Or maybe, for it has happened, a man in fact is in jail when he shouldn't be. You listen to Rommie Loudd. You hear his story. And you say they all have a story. But you wonder about Loudd's.
Once an All-America football player, later a professional and then the second black assistant coach in the pros. Loudd rose to be the highest ranking black executive working for a National Football League team. He wanted more. He wanted to run his own team. In 1972, when the NFL spokes of expansion, Loudd put together a group of nine businessmen with one purpose: bring the NFL to Orlando.
They failed. So in the summer of 1974, Loudd brought to Orlando a team in the newborn World Football League. Things went to hell in a hurry. Loudd's front-office staff "didn't know a football from a pumpkin," said the team's publicity man. Financial chaos drove Loudd's principal money man to seek refuge in whiskey bottles. In August, embattled and certain the city fathers were undermining him, Loudd publicly described them as racists. In December, after he'd been arrested on a sales-tax embezzlement charge (that later was dropped), the league ordered Loudd to relinquish control of the team, blaming him for the Orlando debacle.
In March came real trouble.
Loudd was arrested for arranging the sale of four ounces of cocaine. He also was charged with selling a small sample of cocaine and setting up a one-ounce buy in Boston.
Page 1 news two years before when, as the city's charismatic darling, he led the effort for an NFL team, Loudd this time was portrayed on Page 1 of the local newspaper as the mastermind of an international drug ring. They ran his picture. You could see the handcuffs. They said the cocaine came to Florida in lobster crates. Pounds of the stuff. If necessary, the newspaper suggested, Loudd would have people killed.
What a tangled web this was to be. Eighteen months later Loudd went to prison, the newspaper, under a new editor, confessed in print that its dramatic reporting was wrong. It was nothing but gossip gathered from anonymous police officers. Even the police would admit Loudd was no big shot in drugs and certainly no killer.But damage had been done.
This chill November morning, Loudd was saying the damage had been done intentionally. It was, he said, a conspiracy to get the uppity nigger. He says the cocaine deals were a set-up, that an undercover cop entrapped him with the promise of $1 million for his football organization if he first delivered cocaine for a party. If he hadn't been desperate, Loudd said, if he didn't need the money to pay debts and start anew, he wouldn't have made any cocaine deal. He wasn't a dope dealer, never had been.
And he talked about the sentence. As a first-time offender convicted for the sale of four ounces and a small sample of cocaine, Loudd might have expected a sentence of two years. That was the sentence in the Boston deal. "Probation to two years," said a federal drug officer who worked in Orlando. "Five at the most," said the undercover cop who made the coke deal. In Orlando, Loudd was sentenced to 14 years. "That's kind of bad," the cop said.
You listen to Rommie Loudd and you think how easy it is, how convenient, for a black man to say the red-neck South messed up his life. That takes the burden of guilt off him. But still you wonder. The newspaper was wrong, the cops were wrong, the sentence was uncommonly severe. You listen to Loudd's story and you ask a lot of people a lot of questions and you find the newspaper and the cops and the sentence are only three of a 100 extraordinary and puzzling elements that make you wonder if this man belongs in jail for 14 years.
He is at Avon Park Correctional Institution, a minimum security prison 35 miles southwest of Orlando. He never dreamed of prison. From the Christmas day in 1941 when Joe Loudd gave his 8-year-old son a helmet and shoulder pads, football had been Rommie Loudd's reason for living. He was 14 when he heard the 1947 Rose Bowl game on the radio. He never forgot it. The hero was a black runner, Buddy Young of Illinois.
"I suddenly felt like that was my invitation," Loudd said. "I saw football as the way to pull myself up in life." Up from the dust of a Texas ranch. His father had been a baseball player in a Negro league in southwest Texas and then worked a small ranch near San Angelo.
A fire with a dream to play for UCLA - Buddy Young had scored four touchdowns against UCLA - Loudd left home at 16 to live with an uncle in the Watts section of Los Angeles, figuring proximity might help him earn a scholarship.
He was all-city twice as a two-way end, played for UCLA in two Rose Bowls and was an All-America end on the 1955 team chosen by the U.S. Football Writers Association. Eight years of professional football followed, none of them distinguished. He played in Canada before creation of the American Football League. For AFL teams in Los Angeles, San Diego and Boston, he was an injury-prone linebacker.
Then, because he gave a neighbor a ride to a minor-league game involving something called the Chelsea Sweepers, Loudd eventually wound up coaching the team to two straight championships.
Off that success, he asked his old Boston Patriot coach, Mike Holovak, to recommend him for an assistant coach's job with the Chicago Bears. Instead, Holovak hired him to coach Patriot linebackers. Loudd was the first black coach in the AFL.
A year later Holovak, also the team's general manager, made Loudd the team's first director of professional player personnel. It was his job, and remained his job until he moved to Orlando, to know everything, both personally and technically, about every pro player. The information was used to make decisions on acquisitions of veterans.
When this black man showed up in Orlando in 1972, talking big about bringing the NFL to town, people needed to know: Who is Rommie Loudd and why should we trust him? Bill Clark, then sports editor of the Orlando Sentinel-Star called the owner of the Patriots, Billy Sullivan. Clark printed Sullivan's words, which were, "The day the Lord made Rommie Loudd, the Lord had a good day."
Will Gieger, a wealthy young contractor in Orlando, was chairman of the city's chamber of commerce sports committee. "I checked Rommie out pretty good and he had good recommendations everywhere," Gieger says today. With eight other Florida businessmen, Gieger agreed to fund Loudd's efforts and, if they succeeded, put up the expected $12-15 million for an NFL franchise.
A month after Loudd's arrival in Orlando, sports editor Clark said a strange thing happened. William Mateer, an attorney representing both Clark's newspaper and the powerful Orange County (Orlando) Commission called him. The commission's interest was with the Tangerine Bowl stadium, a project it controlled. A public promise had been made that the stadium would be expanded from 17,000 seats to NFL size of maybe 50,000.
"Mateer said they'd checked out Loudd and found three things," Clark said. "One, Loudd had no money.Two, he was lousy businessman. Three, he had enormous respect around the NFL. And Mateer said, 'Don't be shocked. It's not a crime to be a bad businessman. Loudd passed on the one important thing'."
Clark said it seemed unusual that the county would investigate Loudd, but said Mateer assured him it was normal procedure.
But in time, Clark would be fired by the Sentinel-Star, would claim Mateer censored his columns critical of the county commission and would claim the commission and newspaper were vital elements along with the county police and state's attorney's office, in a far-reaching attempt to discredit Loudd.
In that context, a first-month investigation of Loudd by the county might assume new significance, both for that moment and the years to come. Contacted by The Washington Post last week, Mateer denied any conspiracy by the Orlando power structure. Beyond that, he would not discuss the Loudd affair. He did confirm, however, that he has resigned, effective Jan. 1, as attorney to the county commission.
Clark, a white man, is Loudd's most passionate champion. Out of work since his firing - the Sentinel-Star says Clark was canned for arguing with his bosses daily; Clark says the executive editor's spoken reason "was that I liked Loudd too much" - Clark, 46, and his wife live on the $80 or $90 a week he makes as a freelance writer and itinesant tennis instructor. In the last two years, Clark estimates he's written 1,000 letters asking politicians, lawyers, newspapermen - even Presidents Ford and Carter - to investigate the Loudd case.
"We've had black baseball players since 1947," Clark said. "But no black owners. Now here's a black man who, as he said, wanted a piece of the rock."
Clark paused. He was up, pacing in the sun room at his house that has become the repository of virtually every word ever written about Rommie Loudd. The Loudd archives, Clark calls the room.
"He wanted a piece of the rock - and look, my God, at the calamities that befell him. Is it all coincidence? Or is it the very reason there ain't no black owners?"
You listen to Bill Clark and you admire his devotion to what he sees as right. And yet. Yet, he sees conspiracy everywhere. He believes Loudd was denied full justice at every step of the legal process. Loudd's dream became his hell. Clark was saying, because he was a black man making noise in the South. A black man often seen with white women. Yes, that, too. They put blacks out of sight, politically, economically and physically. Clark is working on a book about Loudd. The title: "A Bicentennial Lynch."
A book. Maybe a made-for-television movie, too. A profit motive? Clark sees conspirators under every bed and he's writing a book about it and why should we pay any attention to him?
Trial testimony, official documents and interviews in the last month make it possible to establish an apparent pattern of puzzling behavior by the police and the court. From the arrest through to sentencing, the entire legal process appears puzzling, to say the least.
It was Aug. 14, 1974, when Loudd stuck out at Orlando for what he saw as its racist manner. Though expansion of the Tangerine Bowl had been approved quickly when Loudd first talked of the NFL two years earlier, no expansion had been done.
Meanwhile, the NFL awarded a team to Tampa, 85 miles away.
And Loudd's WFL team ran into a bizarre series of bureaucratic harassments. At one point, county officials installed a huge, clock-like "pollution meter" and said Loudd could park no more than 3,000 cars at the stadium.
Loudd finally exploded. "If I had been a white man, things here the past two years would have been somewhat different," he told Clark in an interview for the Sentinel-Star. Loudd said some county leaders were "having trouble getting into the 20th century on racial matters."
Clark's column on Loudd's outburst was killed. The newspaper's executive editor, Joe McGovern, fired Clark two days later.
Loudd's quotes, not used in the Sentinel-Star, were distributed nationally by the Associated Press.
"It is interesting, I think, that the so-called drug investigation of Loudd began at that time," Clark said.
Like everything else in the case, the drug investigation is seen through several prisms of self-interest. At least three different stories have been told by law enforcement officers as to why the investigation of Loudd began. They acknowledge it began in August or September, but deny any connection between it and Loudd's charges of racism.
Steve Juna Cox, the undercover narcotics agent who made the cocaine deal with Loudd, said it was a routine case that developed by accident. Working under cover, he'd met a man who introduced him to a man who said Loudd "could deliver kilos of coke," Cox said.
So through the second man, who happened to be Cecil Johnson, fired only weeks before by Loudd as his legal advisor - "Interesting," Clark says - Cox met a close friend of Loudd's, a former football player named Alphonson Cain. The cop's cover was that he was a paving contractor who might invest in Loudd's sinking footbal organization.
Cain led Cox to Loudd.
Entrapment is seldom used as a legal defense. The Supreme Court, in 1958, said the rule of thumb should be: was the defendant an "unwary innocent" or a "wary criminal"? In the spring of 1976, a few months after Loudd's trial, the Court went further, saying the key is whether a defendant is "predisposed" to commit a crime. Difficult to sustain, entrapment is a legal defense seldom used.
Loudd has never claimed sainthood. In prison today he says he has been reborn in Christ. As surely as football carried him up from the dust of a Texas ranch, so did it seem inevitable the game would produce his melancholy fall; for Loudd now admits his intoxication with what he called "the pro football hustle," a lifestyle with boundaries set by fame, not morality.
Anything goes in the hustle. Loudd says, because the system, from high school on, pampers and spoils its heroes. For Rommie Loudd, the son of a poor rancher, the hustle was irrestible. As a certified football hero, he says today, he was "an unfaithful husband: and I smoked marijuana, snorted cocaine . . . and football was my god. I was a pagan on the way to hell."
Would it take much to convince this man to sell you four ounces of cocaine? Loudd's lawyer, the flamboyant Ellis Rubin of Miami, did not even mention entrapment until the trial was well under way.
Rubin's homework, Clark said, included listening to a tape recording made surrepitiously by police working the Loudd case. On the tape, undercover cop Cox said to another policeman, "I'm going to hate to take this guy off. Other than being a dope dealer, he's a personable-type individual, really. You can really get into him, you know. But I tricked him, worse than I tricked anybody ever."
"Is that right?" the other cop said.
"Yes," Cox said, "That's my stock, being quick. He's been tricked bad."
Rubin, early in the trial, asked Cox if he'd ever said he'd "tricked" Loudd, Cox said no. Later, the tape was played. But Rubin didn't point out the conflict. And the effectiveness of the "trick" recording as foundation for Loudd's defense of entrapment may have been diluted by the prosecution's reminder to the jury that Rubin began the trial by saying only he'd prove his client innocent and, in desperation, was grasping at the slender straw of entrapment.
Cox now says that by "trick," he meant "outsmart." "There I was, broke personally, able to carry this thing (his cover) out for hundreds of thousands of dollars," he said. "And Loudd, you can't help but like the personable s.o.b., hadn't been able to figure me out."
Cox denied offering Loudd money for football. "We did discuss the WFL, but not as far as me investing," he said.
A tape recording of a Feb. 22, 1975, conversation indicates otherwise. Cox told Loudd that one of his associates would invest up to $750,000 if Cox liquidated his paving business and invested $200,000 to $250,000. Before he'd sell out, though, Cox said, he had to be assured of getting a lot of cocaine.
Loudd told Cox he knew people and could set up Cox with them. "But I don't want to touch it myself," Loudd said.
"I can dig that," Cox said.
From that meeting came arrangements for the sale of four ounces of cocaine to Cox, a deal in which Loudd was never physically present nor was he ever paid. Two weeks later, Loudd was arrested.
Even ignoring the reassignment of a judge noted for his leniency and his replacement on the Loudd case by a stern jurist - "Coincidences everywhere." Clark says wryly - the entire legal path, from arrest to sentencing seem strewn with the thorns of injustice.
Item: The first bond set on Loudd was $555,000, the highest ever in Orange County, even $55,000 higher than that placed on Sarah Jane Moore, who pointed a gun at President Ford and pulled the trigger.
Item: A young art student, Leslie Jorgensen, testified under oath that the jury selection process was tainted. While a prospective juror, she said other prospective jurors "informed (me) that he (Loudd) was dealing in cocaine, he was an extortionist, he was involved with the Mafia, he and his family had run to Boston to avoid prosecution, which was an admittance of guilt, and I had been exposed to extreme racial prejudice."
The prosecuting attorney, Donald Lykkebak, told the presiding judge, W. Rogers Turner, that Jorgensen was only upset she wasn't chosen to sit on the jury. Later he called her an "ignoramus." Judge Turner ordered a hearing, asking each juror if he had heard or made any prejudicial statements. Each said no.There was no cross-examination because Rubin was out of town that day and Turner refused to call the jurors back on the hearing's second day.
Item: The only corroborating, civilian witness to Cox's testimony against Loudd was Cain, Loudd's friend who had been convicted earlier of drug deals with Cox. After Cains's testimony against Loudd, Cain's sentence was reduced from 13 years to five and he's now out on parole. "Interesting," Clark said.
It is also interesting that on four separate occasions after the Loudd trial, Cain denied the sworn testimony that helped convict his friend. He denied it once in a presentence speech to a federal judge; he denied it three other times in signed statements to a lawyer, a newspaperman and Clark.
On the basis of those statements, Rubin moved for a perjury hearing. Judge Turner denied it after Lykkebak told him Cain would never recant under oath.
The Loudd case isn't over.
A Florida state representative, Dr. Arnett E. Girardeau (D-Jacksonville), believes Loudd was framed. "He was set up as beautifully as anybody could be," Girardeau told the Post two weeks ago.
As a member of Florida's House Corrections, Probation and Parole Committe, Girardeau said he is making an investigation "so this travesty of justice can be corrected. His constitutional rights have been infringed from the beginning. Anybody else would have been given a new trial on any one of several count."
At Clark's persistent urging, the U.S. Justice Department ordered the FBI to make an investigation into possible violations of Loudd's constitutional rights. A Justice spokesman said last week that the investigation is complete and department lawyers are studying the FBI reports.
Meanwhile, Ellis Rubin, Loudd's lawyer, is under fire. The Florida Bar recommended last week that the state's Supreme Court disbar Rubin, charging that he neglected legal matters in five cases. Rubin said the Loudd case is not one of the five and he considered the Bar's recommendation "only an attempt to embarrass me."
He would he said, proceed with work on an appeal of Loudd's case. It is to be heard Dec. 12 at the Fourth District Court of Appeals in West Palm Beach, Fla.