Specifically, the government convinced the jury that in 1981 McLain had been involved in obtaining a usurious $40,000 loan for a disco owner named Alton Dale Sparks from bookmaker Seymour Sher. When Sparks failed to make his loan payments, including interest at a yearly rate of 130%, Sher threatened Sparks with bodily harm. Sher later introduced Sparks to Frank Cocchiaro, a reputed underworld figure who, testimony revealed, told Sparks that the money Sparks owed belonged to him and that if Sparks failed to repay it he would cut off Sparks's ears. For his part in these and other activities McLain was convicted on the racketeering, conspiracy and extortion charges, for which he received three concurrent eight-year sentences.
The rest of his 23-year sentence resulted from a conviction on the drug charge. Prosecutors successfully argued that in 1982 McLain's golf bags, stuffed with cocaine, were flown on his plane, a Piper Cheyenne, from Fort Lauderdale to Newark, where the drugs were to have been sold. McLain didn't make the trip, nor did he load the golf bags onto the plane, but prosecutors charged that he had obtained the cocaine from a Florida drug trafficker and masterminded the distribution scheme, which, although it was bungled, netted him some $40,000.
McLain acknowledges that he had been a bookmaker, but says that he's innocent of all the charges brought against him. The day after the verdict came in, Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich ordered him held without bail while he awaited sentencing. He appeared to be in for the long drumroll, a minimum of almost eight years if he behaved himself.
McLain's lawyer, Arnold Levine of Tampa, filed an appeal, protesting that the trial had been a "circus." How could McLain have gotten a fair trial, Levine asked, when the judge had allowed jurors to stand in the jury box, eating food and drinking coffee during testimony? How could McLain receive a just verdict when, Levine charged, Kovachevich had pushed the trial forward with undo haste and ordered jurors to stand up for exercise—in a kind of seventh-inning stretch—when Levine was interrogating a key government witness against McLain? "I've never seen a court conducted like that," Levine says. "The jurors were so distracted it was impossible to get a fair trial."
Essentially, the appeals court agreed with him, ruling in part that the lack of decorum in the courtroom had deprived McLain of a fair trial and overturning the conviction. And so, on Sept. 4, inmate number 04000-018 heard a guard say what he had been waiting to hear for almost 30 months: " McLain, you can leave."
Two hours later, at the airport in Talladega, he had his wife in his arms. "I love you," he said.
"I like to see the deer come up to the lake behind our home here and drink and feed."
For McLain, home is now Indiana, in a suburb of Fort Wayne, with Sharyn and the youngest of their four children, 15-year-old Michelle. He has two jobs these days that earn him a good deal more than the 11 cents an hour he made mopping prison floors. Ready for this? McLain is the sales and promotion director for the Fort Wayne Komets of the International Hockey League and also the marketing director of a company that will soon be selling an alcohol-free wine cooler that is imported from Australia.
The McLains swept into town on Oct. 17, and Denny has been dashing about ever since. Last summer Fort Wayne businessman David Welker bought the Komets, then bankrupt, and hired McLain right out of prison to sell the franchise to the town. McLain has already pulled off several schemes to sell tickets, most notably a bigger and better Turkey Night. The Komets had traditionally given away 15 turkeys at Thanksgiving, but when McLain heard that, he scoffed. "We're going to go big," he told Colin Lister, the Komets' business manager. "We're going to give away a thousand turkeys!" So he got in touch with Rohrbach Farm, a local poultry producer, and was given a cut-rate price on the birds in return for a promise to promote and advertise the farm. Then he got another sponsor to help defray additional expenses. On the evening of Nov. 14, a near-capacity crowd of 7,358—almost 4,000 more than the Komets' average home attendance—showed up at the Allen County Memorial Coliseum. The home team got whomped 7-2 by the Peoria Rivermen, but 1,000 people left with turkeys under their arms.
McLain has been a whirlwind in the Komets office; fellow employees marvel at the energy he brings to his work. "He's constantly on the go," says office manager Flossie Zimmerman. "He comes up with an idea for a promotion, and 10 minutes later he's off the phone saying, 'Got it! All sewn up.' "