In the annals of crime the Case of the Scared Sportswriter may not rank up there with the Brink's job, yet it created a winter-long furor nationwide. The case ultimately involved the FBI, the attorney general of Alabama, the commissioner of the NFL and several excited and often error-prone reporters. It called into question the reputation and possibly the livelihood of a $342,000 quarterback, the honor of a small-town police chief, the judgment of a badly frightened journalist from The Sacramento Bee
, as well as the economic stability and public image of a lush little Alabama resort called Gulf Shores.
The case had its inception on Monday, Jan. 22, 1979. That day the man from the See, Bob Padecky, 32, arrived in Gulf Shores after covering the Super Bowl in Miami. An award-winning reporter, Padecky writes about major league sports in the San Francisco Bay Area, a plum assignment on the Bee. This includes the Oakland Raiders. Padecky was in Gulf Shores to get an exclusive interview with Kenny Stabler, the Raider quarterback. Stabler grew up in the town of Foley, Ala. just across the bridge from Gulf Shores, and now spends his off-seasons on nearby Ono Island.
In a 2 a.m. call to the Bee on Jan. 17 Stabler said he would tell all to Padecky about his season of discontent, in which the Raiders had a dismal (for them) 9-7 record. In talks with Padecky and others, owner Al Davis had blamed Oakland's collapse mainly on his quarterback. Stabler said that one reason he chose Padecky "to spill my guts to," rather than a reporter from a larger, more prestigious publication, was to counter Davis' remarks directly. Another reason, Stabler said, was that he had been irked over articles Padecky had written early in January after a trip to Gulf Shores and Foley.
"He came to talk with local people about me," said Stabler at the time. "He tried to con them into saying bad things about me. He asked how much I drink, what kind of citizen I am.... He relentlessly stayed on me and I couldn't figure why. I finally called during [the week of] the Super Bowl and told him to come down...."
Whatever Stabler's motive for granting the interview to Padecky, one thing that didn't happen on Jan. 22 was an interview between Padecky and Stabler. After three different meetings with Stabler in three different bars, Padecky had gathered no useful information, although he had met some of Kenny's close friends. They included 245-pound Billy Walker, who played center at Alabama, and Randall Watson, 36, who had served time in Mississippi for bank robbery in 1971 and recently had pleaded guilty to charges of trying to extort $75,000 and the bill of sale for a four-wheel-drive vehicle from an Alabama telephone company executive on the threat of publicly accusing the man of committing adultery with, er, well, Mrs. Randall Watson, who was also indicted.
Most of Padecky's time in the bars was spent either waiting for Stabler or listening to Stabler harangue him for his journalistic shortcomings. At about 2:30 p.m. Stabler had disappeared once again and Padecky was alone at the Silver Dollar Lounge. A waitress told him Stabler had called and would meet him at B J's restaurant. "By then," Padecky wrote later, "I was convinced this was more than a routine runaround. Still, the story seemed worth the trouble."
The story was worth nothing but trouble. Padecky pulled out of the Silver Dollar lot in his rented Mercury and drove about 30 feet before being hemmed in by two squad cars, a motorcycle and a quartet of Gulf Shores' finest, led by Chief James Maples. Padecky was spread-eagled on his car, searched and handcuffed, while Sergeant A. D. (Cotton) Long reached under the left front fender of the car and removed a magnetic metal key case containing white powder.
Padecky was taken immediately to the police station, a squat, boxy building made of cement block and containing four cells. The man from the Bee was put in cell No. 1—the others were empty—while the police conferred about the case. Moments later, Long went to Padecky's cell and asked him, according to Padecky's account in a copyrighted story, "Tell me what happened before you were arrested."
Padecky wrote, "I started to talk about my bizarre afternoon in search of Kenny Stabler.
"I had hardly begun when Long said, 'Come with me.'