By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Where's Norris when you need him?
That's what John Brotherton says he asked during eight days in a Moscow hotel, where he claims that he and his wife, Susan, were held at the Russian Mafia's mercy. Sure, there were no goons with ammo at the door, but Brotherton knew that he and his wife weren't safe. He says that a casino boss with ties to organized crime was calling him daily with threats, and now, Susan was in the bathroom vomiting, all because there was no money to buy bottled water, and the hotel staff wouldn't let the couple charge any meals.
About eight months before (by Brotherton's estimation, anyway), this former casino executive in Louisiana had come to Moscow at the behest of a Norris friend, Ed Fishman, to work for a casino there. Norris had invested in the project, and Brotherton says that he assumed that an All-American hero's involvement ensured that it was a legitimate venture. But he says things went awry when the casino boss, Nikolaj Vissokovsky (whom Brotherton claims was also Norris' partner) withheld his $8,000 monthly salary. Brotherton's "travesty" only grew when a bag of money--the exact amount is disputed--was stolen from the business, and Vissokovsky accused Brotherton of the theft and told him to stay at the hotel until an investigation was done. So began Brotherton's story, and now this 41-year-old--a ceaseless self-promoter--is milking it for all it's worth; he's written a book, A Fistful of Kings, that was recently published by a small company, The Shears Groups in Belize.
Anyone who gets through its 365 pages can see that amid the puffed-up prose ("I said nothing and returned their bad ass stare"), Brotherton is a name-dropper who mixes mediocre writing with snippets from Wordsworth and Coleridge. But his main sales pitch is his use of the Walker, Texas Rangerstar's name; Brotherton alleges Norris was in cahoots with a Mafia-infested casino and did nothing to end Brotherton's "hostage ordeal." If that's not enough to get you to buy a book that he hails for its mix of "espionage, intrigue, action, suspense, and love," he's also included a "mystery contest," the prize being a trip to Las Vegas. (What the mystery is, Brotherton's not saying. "That's part of the mystery," he explains, adding that he's in no hurry to dish out money for the prize). Currently, the book's available at several Dallas-area stores such as Books-A-Million, where Brotherton will appear this Sunday.
Brotherton's first venture into writing has caused a buzz; the book's distributor, Greenleaf Book Group, says that about 8,000 have been sold, mainly in states with hot gambling markets, and in a few weeks, the book will enter its second printing, with some 15,000 hitting stores nationwide.
Norris has taken notice; more than a month ago, he issued a statement about the casino in question: "I took a substantial financial loss in walking away from this investment, and I am continuing my efforts to have my name, image, and likeness removed from that establishment."
"You're the first one I've talked to about this," Norris now tells the Dallas Observer from his Dallas-area home. "I didn't want to dignify a response to this fellow here.
"He's making statements that are totally untrue. If I start fighting him, then everyone out of curiosity, everyone's going to buy the doggone book."
Brotherton thumbs his nose at Norris, saying he has more dirt on that Russian business--called The Beverly Hills Casino--and that Norris played a big hand in its management and is therefore guilty of its many sins, among them its employees skimming profits and "managing prostitutes."
"He would sue me if he could," says Brotherton, smiling. "He's really pissed because he can't."
(Norris' representative Jeff Duclos says that Norris has been in contact with his lawyers but no lawsuit is imminent.)
Brotherton came to the Observer's offices for an interview several weeks ago, making the four-hour drive from his Houston-area home. He seemed jittery and said that his whereabouts and occupation shouldn't be printed because he and his wife were in hiding from the Russian Mafia. He soon showed an e-mail as proof of those threats. "LEARN TO SPEAK RUSSIAN," the note from "them" read. "THIS WAY WE WILL UNDERSTAND YOUR PLEADINGS WHEN WE CALL CHECK MATE! GAME OVER!" Later, as he stepped out for a cigarette break, he looked repeatedly over his shoulder. He's always on the lookout, he explains, because since his return in 1998, he has received two death threats. The years since haven't been easy, he says. His time in Russia was so traumatic--what with his pay withheld and then being a hostage--that upon his return to the United States, he filed bankruptcy and suffered a nervous breakdown. As "therapy," a psychiatrist advised him to write a book.
Brotherton pins his emotional fall squarely on Norris, whose financial investment in the casino is proof enough to him of Norris' culpability. Brotherton also says that he's not stopping with the book. He wants an apology from Norris. "I'm not going to stop till I get it," he says. Surely, he adds, taking out two billboards in Dallas, and some TV ads, too, will shame Norris into doing just that. The billboards, he says, will include a picture of his wife and read, "My Husband Worked For a Chuck Norris Enterprise. Now the Russian Mafia Wants Him Dead. A Fistful of Kings."
For all Brotherton's attempts to promote the book by trumping the Norris angle, the work only devotes the last four chapters to that Moscow casino and the subsequent fallout. (The remainder mostly details Brotherton's work in the Louisiana gambling world.) Recently, Brotherton also served as an FBI witness, testifying that former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards was involved in extorting money from riverboat casino licensees. As for those charges against Norris, Brotherton devotes more space to describing Russia's sights than to actual quotes from the man. What Brotherton attributes to the actor are such innocuous lines as "Good to meet you, John" and "I appreciate the job you're doing for me here."
Brotherton also writes that it took the power of U.S. Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana to get him and his wife out of Russia. The reality is less dramatic, according to Breaux's office. Brotherton's mother-in-law simply called the senator's office saying that the couple was having trouble getting out of Russia. An aide then made a quick, routine call to the State Department, which expedited Brotherton's return. Soon, he and his wife had return tickets courtesy of their alleged captor, Vissokovsky. (In his book, Brotherton does acknowledge this latter fact.)
For this story, Brotherton was told that the Observer would attempt to contact that Moscow casino to speak with Vissokovsky. Brotherton wasn't happy. "All you're going to be doing is escalating his attempts to kill me," he says.
Calculating that a news story was no more provocative than a book or billboards, we called anyway. The head of the casino's security, Vlad Scachefski, said that Vissokovsky is away for the week in Tel Aviv.
"John Brotherton was involved in a theft, and the police asked him not to leave the country," Scachefski says. "Mr. Brotherton skipped out and never came back to face his court date." (He also says that there's a warrant in Moscow for Brotherton and two other Americans implicated in the theft.)
Was Brotherton held hostage in a hotel? Scachefski laughs. "No, ma'am...it's a bunch of nonsense. The hotel bill was paid by Mr. Fishman, the airline tickets were paid by the casino at Mr. Vissokovsky's request. The company limousine...he [Brotherton] went to the airport in a Lincoln stretch so I don't know about any agents helping him leave the country. In fact, I'm the one who dispatched the limousine to leave."
Brotherton claims he was in Moscow for about eight months. "That's another lie," counters Scachefski, who claims that it was more like five or six weeks.
Fishman, the Players' International chairman who worked with Brotherton in Louisiana and recruited him to start a talent show in the Moscow casino, says simply that Brotherton "has a very good imagination. A lot of it [the book] is not accurate; let's put it that way." No one was holding Brotherton, says Fishman, speaking from his home in Malibu, California, and no one even confiscated his passport. Fishman--a 30-year friend of Norris with whom he operated the now-defunct Dallas smoking lounge Lone Wolf--adds, "I have no investment or ownership in that casino, and Chuck was a minority, minority, minority owner. Chuck had absolutely nothing to do with the payroll, with knowing who's working. He met John one time when Chuck came over there, and that was it.
"Honestly, I think [Brotherton] used his name for publicity."
That doesn't sit well with Norris. Now, when he says Brotherton's name, the first half comes out as "Bother."
As Norris explains it, his involvement in the casino began in 1992, when he went to Moscow for a kickboxing event. There he met Vissokovsky, who suggested that Norris' popularity there could lead to a viable business deal.
"I invested a million and a half dollars into the casino," says Norris, who in all traveled to Russia about 10 times to promote the business. When he saw that it wasn't making a profit, he spoke to Fishman, who in turn, suggested recruiting Brotherton--already feeling the heat in Louisiana from the FBI's investigation of Edwards--to breathe some life into the place. Soon, though, Norris decided to write the investment off. To solidify that decision, he went to Russia to speak with Vissokovsky, and it was then that he met Brotherton.
"What I don't understand," Norris says, "is if Bother-ton was having a problem, why didn't he tell me at that time? You know, 'I'm not getting paid.' If he would have told me then, I could have approached Niky [Vissokovsky]." (Brotherton says that approaching Norris then about the pay would have been "inappropriate.")
Upon his return, Norris says that "I tried to get my name off the casino, but it's still there...because what can you do in Russia? There's no one you can sue."
"I hope this clarifies this a little bit," he says before heading to the Walker, Texas Ranger set. "Bye-bye, honey."