It began over beers at AmVets Post No. 131 and soon escalated into home invasion and a cross-country kidnapping escapade that may keep four Vernon County men in prison until around 2040.
Local construction contractor Roy Slates had put up $525,000 in a failed attempt to secure an $8 million line of credit some 10 years ago, and the trouble heightened when Slates aired his complaints to Doug Stangeland at the AmVets in September 2009, according to court records.
"Roy was recounting his tale of woe about losing all this money and Doug said he could help him get it back," said Sussex County, N.J., First Assistant Prosecutor Greg Mueller last Friday.
"Folks who know Doug say he's a nice guy, but he has this other side to him. He was living with Billy Barger."
Mueller referred to the felon charged with taking $10,000 from Slates and dispatching Stangeland with Andrew Wadel and Lonnie Swarnes to abduct Jeff Muller of Newton, N.J., who had taken Slates' money and only returned two payments of $20,000 each since, leaving a $485,000 shortfall.
However, they kidnapped the wrong Jeff Muller, a pet store owner who wasn't freed until a Lake Ozark convenience store clerk saw them chasing Muller in the Rick's C-Store parking lot and called police.
Finally arrested last September after the lengthy investigation that ensued, Slates pleaded guilty to second degree conspiracy to commit theft by extortion last Thursday and was released on a personal recognizance bond.
The other four defendants are still being held at Sussex County jail in lieu of bonds totaling $750,000 each.
Charged with first degree kidnapping and robbery, they could get as many as 30 years in prison each if convicted in Superior Court Judge N. Peter Conforti's court, Mueller said.
They're also accused of possession of firearms to be used unlawfully and threatening with firearms.
And if they're ever released in New Jersey, they have a thorny grab bag of charges awaiting them in Missouri. "It wasn't related to a golf course in Utah, as has been speculated," Mueller said. "The three of them were waiting in the parking lot in Newton in Stangeland's four door 2002 Chevrolet Malibu when Mr. Muller arrived at his store shortly before 8 a.m. last Jan. 8.
"Swarnes was the first to approach. He asked the victim if he was Jeff Muller, and when Jeff said, 'Yes, I am,' Lonnie grabbed him and said, 'You're coming with me!'
"Jeff is small in stature at 5-4 and 160 pounds, but he has the heart of a lion. He put up a fight and that's when Wadel and Stangeland, who is pretty big, came out and tried to subdue him. He gave these guys an absolute run for their money.
"He fought them hard and they used a Taser. We've said in court that we believe this was a one-way trip for Mr. Muller."
The victim was hospitalized for treatment of his injuries after the rescue.
The prosecutor said he had also talked with the Jeff Muller who was not abducted and confirmed Slates' account of the money put up for the line of credit and partially returned.
Asked if Slates will testify for the state when Barger, Wadel, Swarnes and Stangeland come to trial, Mueller said Slates "has agreed to cooperate in the prosecution of the co-defendants.
"It's a very important case, but it will be a considerable time before we'll be ready to proceed," he said. "We have many major criminal cases ahead of these, including six murder cases."
"Slates didn't know Barger at all," he said.
Slates and Barger are being represented by Sparta, N.J., attorneys Joseph Corazza and Jeff Patti, Wadel and Swarnes by Newton lawyers Robert Mattia and David Nufrio and Stangeland by Elizabeth Smith of Mendham, N.J., according to records.
Mueller said Barger, a felon caught with 17 firearms at his home near Nevada after Muller was freed, is the only defendant not yet indicted, but charges will be sought for crimes similar to allegations already filed against the others.