Big Feud at Cadillac Ranch
For years Stanley Marsh 3 has been sticking it to the up-standing Whittenburg clan. But his latest practical joke could land him in jail, and no one in Amarillo is laughing anymore.
FOR A QUARTER OF A CENTURY, STANLEY MARSH 3 has reigned as Texas’ merriest prankster, the Puck of the Panhandle. Whether burying tail-finned Cadillacs in the ground near old Route 66 or throwing water balloons out of his twelfth-floor office window in downtown Amarillo, the 58-year-old Marsh, scion of one of West Texas’ most prominent oil and gas families, has devised a myriad of “stunts,” as he calls them, “to get people out of their mental ruts.” He showed up at John Connally’s bribery trial in Washington, D.C., wearing Western dude clothes and carrying a bucket of cow manure. He hired an Italian dwarf to accompany him to a large society wedding dressed in an Aunt Jemima outfit. He sent letters to Pat Nixon asking her to donate her finest clothes to what he said was his Museum of Decadent Art.
With his teddy bear body, Mark Twain— like mustache, and shirttail hanging out of his pants, Marsh looks like a genuine Mad Hatter, and he loves playing the part. (He calls himself Stanley Marsh 3, pronouncing “three,” because he thinks Stanley Marsh III is too pretentious.) For the past two years he has been decorating Amarillo with diamond-shaped street signs with images of the Mona Lisa and killer bees and such bizarre messages as “Road Does Not End,” “Ostrich X-ing,” and “You Will Never Be the Same.” His goal, he once said, was “to encourage art for art’s sake and use it to fight back the ever-rising flood of philistinism.”
But when a teenager named Ben Whittenburg, one of the youngest members of another famous oil-rich Panhandle family, stole a Marsh sign that pictured a rabbit with the word “Rapid” written underneath it, Marsh hunted down the young Whittenburg and, according to Ben, threatened to hit him with a hammer, called his family “poor white trash,” and locked him in a chicken coop. Ben says Marsh screamed, “The goddam Whittenburgs. Everyone hates your dad. He’s just an arrogant f—er. Your granddad was a scum. Y’all used to have money, but you don’t anymore.”
Around Amarillo it was no secret that the flamboyant Marsh and the proper Whittenburgs were not friendly toward each other, but no one expected such a fierce feud. This past August, Ben’s father, George A. Whittenburg II—a no-nonsense, churchgoing Amarillo lawyer whose own father, Roy, was one of the most powerful businessmen in town in the fifties and sixties—filed a lawsuit against Marsh, charging that Marsh not only had inflicted “severe emotional distress” upon Ben but was using his signs “as an attractive nuisance to lure and then compromise and threaten teenage boys into doing his bidding.” In his most scandalous charge, Whittenburg told reporters he had evidence that Marsh, who is married and the father of five adopted children, had engaged in sexual misconduct with a few of the young men who had come to work for him.
Before Marsh’s lawyers advised him to stay silent to avoid causing more controversy, Marsh told a Dallas Morning News reporter that he was “appalled and dismayed by the ridiculous, untrue allegations” and said the Whittenburg lawsuit was merely an attempt to get money from him. Marsh’s friends insist that Whittenburg was simply using the lawsuit to restore the Whittenburgs to a position of influence in a city that had never appreciated them. “George knows that Stanley has been snickering at the Whittenburgs for years,” says Charles Rittenberry, one of Marsh’s attorneys. “He’s obsessed with destroying Stanley.”
But the 51-year-old Whittenburg, a trim, self-confident man who usually puts in fourteen-hour days at his law firm, says he feels obligated to investigate certain lurid rumors circulating about Marsh. “I want Stanley Marsh removed as a factor in the lives of young people in Amarillo, especially teenage boys,” he says. “For too long, people have been afraid of taking on Stanley Marsh because of his immense wealth and power. Well, it’s time for the truth to come out.”
To many amused citizens of Amarillo, the fight between George Whittenburg and Stanley Marsh 3 was like an old-fashioned range war—only this time, in modern-day Texas, the battle between two proud Panhandle clans was over street signs instead of cattle and oil wells. Marsh was playing the role of the frontier cowboy, accountable to no one; Whittenburg, acting like an angry Judge Roy Bean, was intent on getting his revenge. This past December, however, the chuckling over the case came to a halt when an Amarillo grand jury indicted Marsh on felony charges of aggravated assault and kidnapping in the chicken coop incident. Not content with suing for monetary damages, George Whittenburg had gone to the district attorney hoping to have Amarillo’s biggest celebrity put in prison. It became obvious that in this fight, both sides were playing for keeps.
OUT-OF-STATE REPORTERS invariably describe Ama-rillo as dull—which it most certainly is not. Though the city itself hardly looks glamorous, Amarilloans are a quirky conglomeration of old-timey cowboy types, Bible Belt Christians (there are five religious radio stations on the FM band alone), millionaires who have been educated in private schools, and what one longtime resident calls “a bunch of eccentric nuts who live on ranches.” On one side of town is the Big Texan Steak Ranch restaurant, which is practically a parody of the Jett Rink, Cadillac-driving Texas lifestyle: If a customer can eat a 72-ounce steak within an hour, he doesn’t have to pay for it. On the other side of town is a fully stocked Barnes and Noble bookstore, complete with a coffee bar that serves latte. Just outside of town is Pantex, the nation’s controversial nuclear-weapon-disarmament plant.
Despite its evolution, however, Amarillo remains Texas’ last truly Western city. The stockyards and great ranches are still operating, and even those residents who don’t wear cowboy boots see themselves as stubborn and independent souls, able to survive in an unforgiving land of winter blizzards, spring tornadoes, and summer heat waves. “We live in a mild state of anarchy, which is the most pleasant way to live,” Stanley Marsh 3 has said about his hometown. “And no one seems to give a damn because we’re way out here in piddly-dunk, so we do what we want to.”
Marsh and George Whittenburg are members of what local people jokingly call the Lucky Sperm Club—descendants of men who came to Amarillo in the early twentieth century and became richer than their wildest dreams. Whittenburg’s great-grandfather, J. A. Whittenburg, left his Missouri home in 1869 with $13 in his pocket, ending up in Texas because he wanted to be a cowboy. He lived in a dugout (basically a cave with a door that was built into the side of a hill), and he and his son, George, began homesteading in 1898. The cattlemen of the great Panhandle ranches, who believed they had a natural right to let their cattle graze anywhere they liked, derisively called pioneer families like the Whittenburgs squatters and nesters. Yet the Whittenburgs kept finding cheap land to buy, eventually obtaining about 32,000 acres. Then, in 1926, oil was discovered in the region—and the biggest field was under Whittenburg property.
Almost overnight the Whittenburgs were worth more than $25 million—the richest people in Texas, according to one estimate. The Christian Science Monitor reported on the Whittenburg field in 1926: “All around are shining derricks and roaring boilers working at full speed driving the bits down to the oil sand, literally hundreds of them in various stages of construction and operation.” Yet the family continued to live an ascetic life. “To the very end of his days, J.A. was a tobacco-chewing farmer who didn’t like spending money,” says Stanley Blackburn, the 79-year-old former owner of what was once Amarillo’s most expensive clothing store. “People thought he was a rube from Dogpatch.”
By the late thirties most of George’s thirteen children started making their way to Amarillo, including his second- and third-eldest boys, S.B. and Roy. (The eldest son, Jim, lived outside Ama-rillo, where he operated a large ranch, and another son, Jake, who was mentally retarded, lived at the old family homestead.) Despite their money, those Whittenburgs who came to town did not go out of their way to mingle with Amarillo society. The commanding, rough-hewn Roy, who was the leader of his brothers and sisters, didn’t smoke or drink, he walked two miles to work and back again, and after a few years living in the exclusive Wolflin Estates neighborhood of Amarillo, he moved his wife and seven young children to a house at the edge of the city between the stockyards and an oil refinery. Through one window came the smell of cattle manure and through another the sour odor of crude oil. “I think it’s fair to say that Dad wanted us to have a realistic view of life,” says George II, Roy’s eldest son.
To put it another way, Roy Whittenburg was not about to let George act like that wild-assed rich boy, Stanley Marsh 3. Marsh’s grandfather, the original Stanley Marsh, was a quiet Ohio-born bookkeeper who had come to Amarillo to get in on the oil boom in 1926, the same year that oil was found on the Whittenburg property. He joined with the swashbuckling wildcatters Don Harrington and Lawrence Hagy, and they made their millions drilling for natural gas. Marsh’s son, Stanley Marsh, Jr., who joined the company in 1946, was gentle and reserved, as lenient with his children as Roy Whittenburg was strict with his. Stanley Junior and his wife, Estelle, rarely interfered with the antics of Stanley 3, the eldest of their three boys. Although he was considered a brilliant student in high school during the fifties, Marsh’s pranks made him a local legend—“The most wonderful renegade that any of us had ever known,” says the cowboy poet Buck Ramsey, a childhood friend. Marsh once gave a donkey a carton of laxatives and then took it into Amarillo High School so that the students and faculty could experience the inevitable results. When he received his first car, a 1954 Ford convertible, he drove it around town in reverse, telling his friends that the car had no forward gear. Holding a butterfly net, he walked right into the home of the president of West Texas State University in nearby Canyon and knocked over much of the furniture. When the police came, Marsh said he was trying to catch a rare butterfly that had flown into the house. For his punishment, a judge ordered him to spend the summer hauling bricks for a company. As a joke, Marsh had a chauffeur drop him off for his first day at work and bring him coffee during breaks.
Just as they are today, Amarillo citizens were half-appalled and half-mesmerized by this young man with thick glasses, owllike eyes, and an exaggerated twang. To the Whittenburgs, of course, the happy-go-lucky Marsh represented the pitfalls of inherited wealth. A serious clan—meeting as often as six days a week to discuss the management of the family empire—the Whittenburgs were determined to leave a lasting mark on Amarillo. In the thirties they bought the afternoon newspaper, the Amarillo Times, which had been struggling to survive against the more dominant Amarillo Globe-News. The solemn S.B., the only male Whittenburg of his generation with a college education, became the publisher of the paper, and Roy was named chairman of the board. Besides acting as president of a family cattle company and later running a local bank where the family kept much of its money, Roy also wanted to be a politician. In 1958 he ran as a Republican for the U.S. Senate, calling for the election of U.S. Supreme Court justices, believing that voters would pick conservative judges. (He received only 186,000 votes in a landslide loss to the incumbent, the late Ralph Yarborough.) Roy ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1962, this time complaining that President John Kennedy had achieved “dictatorial powers.”
Despite its conservative leanings, Amarillo never developed the enthusiasm for Roy or the rest of the Whittenburgs in the way a city like Boston embraced the Kennedys. To some people, the Whittenburgs were the Panhandle version of William Faulkner’s hardened, ambitious Snopes family. “Roy was different from Amarillo’s oil fraternity,” says Dorothy Ann Kinney, a well-known Amarillo lawyer who is in her seventies. “If a local oilman wanted to get mineral rights on Whittenburg land, Roy would stare him straight in the eye and demand a one-fourth royalty payment instead of the normal one-eighth.” But the family usually got what it wanted. Because of the huge infusions of Whittenburg money, the Amarillo Times began to dominate the Globe-News, and in the early fifties, the Globe-News’s owner, Gene Howe, finally admitted defeat and sold his publishing company (which also included a television station, two radio stations, and the two newspapers in Lubbock) to the Whittenburgs. Soon afterward, Howe committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. “People loved Gene,” says one Amarillo lawyer, “and they couldn’t help feeling resentful that Roy and S.B. had pushed him out of business.” In a not-too-subtle slap at the Whittenburgs, a former Amarillo newspaperman, Al Dewlen, published a novel, The Bone Pickers, in 1958 about an imperious group of Amarillo siblings managing the huge oil estate left by their father. Dewlen described the family as “fair-skinned, flat-waisted, prominently boned. And tearless.” Amarillo residents bought most of the first 10,000 copies published. Rumors circulated that the Whittenburgs tried to buy the copyright to the book to keep a second edition from coming out. Dewlen himself, now living in Waco, says the book critic for the Globe-News had told him that he had originally written a positive review of The Bone Pickers but was ordered by his boss to make it negative.
IN HIS YOUTH, GEORGE A. WHITTENBURG II rarely laid eyes on Stanley Marsh 3, who was six years older. Marsh spent much of the early sixties away from Amarillo pursuing a master’s degree in economic history from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. Whittenburg attended the University of Texas and then moved on to the University of Texas School of Law, where he was the president of his class and an editor of the law review. After graduation in 1968, he returned to Amarillo to begin his law career. Marsh had returned to Amarillo the previous year to help oversee the family’s investments after the death of his father. (Marsh’s younger brother Tom, known around town as the “normal” brother, ran a feedlot and later moved to Dallas to look after part of the family’s oil operations. Marsh’s youngest brother, Mike, attended Columbia University in New York City, where he is now an investor.)
To people’s astonishment, Marsh 3 was a skillful businessman. At the age of 25 he became a director of Tascosa National Bank, and in 1967 he used family funds to buy Amarillo’s money-losing ABC television station, KVII, and soon turned it into the top-rated station in the market. He supposedly made hundreds of thousands of dollars backing Halston, the New York fashion designer, and he once said he had made a small fortune cornering the market in commemorative bar mitzvah coins.
But as Stanley himself would later tell a reporter, he was intent on “legalizing insanity.” His downtown office had eleven television sets but no desk. He wrote business letters on stationery marked Top Sacred. He occasionally conducted business meetings with a pet lion at his feet. On the wall outside his office was a framed portrait of a gorilla and an inscription that read “Our Founder.” When he hosted a party for a group of Japanese businessmen in Amarillo on a trade mission, Marsh invited only those Amarillo citizens who were at least six four so that his visitors would believe the myth of the tall Texan.
In 1967 he married Wendy O’Brien, a prominent rancher’s daughter who graduated from Smith College and received a law degree from the University of Texas (one year ahead of George Whittenburg). Wendy good-naturedly tolerated Marsh’s pranks. She once let him talk her into wearing a flesh-colored leotard and riding through downtown Amarillo while he filmed her for a movie he was making (and later abandoned) about a modern-day Lady Godiva. They built a six-bedroom house at the edge of town and named it Toad Hall, after the rebellious and lovable character in The Wind in the Willows who lived in a very fine house. Marsh bought the entire zoo of Dalhart, save the coyotes, and gave the animals the run of the place. Llamas and yaks stuck their heads in Marsh’s bedroom window; peacocks nested on top of the cars. One winter he hired a woman to play Beethoven on a piano that he had pushed onto a frozen lake behind his house. Marsh loved this world so deeply that when he learned a housing development was planned near Toad Hall, he erected a billboard on land next to the proposed development that read “Future Home of the World’s Largest Poisonous Snake Farm.”
This was a man who would rewrite F. Scott Fitzgerald and say that the very rich should be different from you and me. “He lived in this state of blissful unreality,” says the cowboy poet Ramsey. After seeing a Claes Oldenburg exhibit of pop art at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1970—an exhibit that included massive hamburgers and giant cars—Marsh created a gargantuan necktie, forty feet long and eight feet wide, which he put on the outside of his mother’s chimney. He built a football field-size pool table on his ranch by painting part of the prairie green and making large billiard balls that looked like bean bag chairs. He labeled this work “The World’s Largest Phantom Soft Pool Table.”
Marsh, who detested museum exhibitions, claimed that art needed to be “surprising and hidden. . . . The audience I’m designing for are people who will come across it unexpectedly and not know it’s there.” To that end, he commissioned work from famous sculptors to put on his ranch. One built twelve sculptures of crushed automobiles, another a towering structure of neon lights. In 1974, working with a group of offbeat San Francisco artists known as the Ant Farm, Marsh had ten Cadillacs planted at precisely the same angle as the sides of the Great Pyramids of Egypt. The Cadillac Ranch, as it was called, became an American icon, and even Bruce Springsteen wrote a song about it. By the mid-seventies, Marsh had been featured in such publications as Newsweek, Esquire, and Sports Illustrated. Forbes, noting his business acumen, said Marsh was “crazy like a fox.”
Marsh relished the attention, telling reporters that he was to Amarillo what the Astrodome was to Houston. “He was famous, all right,” says Stanley Blackburn. “People in town thought he was either a great genius or the silliest ass who ever walked the face of the earth.” There was, in truth, a contrarian bent to Marsh that wanted to annoy as much as amuse, outrage as much as amaze. “He always had this sense of outrageousness that kept him on the borders of propriety,” says Amarillo cattleman Bill O’Brien, a friend of Marsh’s. “Most people want order, but Stanley felt he had been put on earth to bedevil that part of the human race.”
It wasn’t just national figures he liked to lampoon. (Richard Nixon added Marsh to his infamous list of enemies after hearing about his derogatory letters to Pat Nixon and the shoeshine kit that he sent to Vice President Spiro Agnew, suggesting that he use it to make a living after his political career.) Marsh took great pleasure in ridiculing local people who he decided were acting self-important. When Ben Bynum (who happened to be the brother of George Whittenburg’s wife, Ann) beat one of Marsh’s friends in an election for state representative, Marsh drove a truck rigged with a bullhorn to the hotel where Bynum’s victory party was being held, shouting obscenities about Bynum. During a civic dinner, he began bellowing at public school officials for letting a church use the parking lot of an adjoining school on Sundays. (Marsh ranted that the policy violated the separation of church and state.) One morning Marsh discovered his favorite suit was still at the dry cleaners. In a rage he called the owner of the cleaners, demanded that the suit be brought to him immediately, and then marched out to the driveway in his underwear to wait for the delivery man. “As funny as he is, Stanley is capable of huge amounts of mean-spiritedness,” says a former Marsh employee. “He has no self-consciousness about how petty he appears. He just doesn’t care.”
It was difficult for Marsh to take aim at the entire Whittenburg clan, which had mushroomed since its arrival in Amarillo. The thirteen Whittenburgs of Roy’s generation had produced 41 children (George’s generation), who had produced 130 children. (Because of the way the family trusts were structured, a Whittenburg received extra money from the trusts for every child he or she produced, leading some Amarillo residents to joke that the family was engaged in a breeding contest.) The truth was that most of the Whittenburgs lived uneventful lives around the community. Marsh’s brother Tom even married a daughter of one of the thirteen, Charlene Cline. But S.B.’s and Roy’s sides of the family constantly irritated Marsh. An unabashed liberal Democrat, he thought Roy was an ultraconservative John Bircher. Marsh also believed that S.B. had banned the Amarillo newspaper from publishing photographs of African Americans unless they were sports stars or had been arrested. At one point, he hired an attorney to bring a lawsuit against the newspaper for its alleged anti-black picture policy (the lawsuit was never filed).
With Roy’s and S.B.’s retirements and eventual deaths, the Whittenburgs lost much of their public profile. In 1972 the family decided to sell the Amarillo Globe-News to a Georgia publishing company for about $35 million, with George Whittenburg handling the transaction. As Roy’s eldest son, George gladly plunged into the role as the leader of the next generation. Teeming with ambition, he was a workhorse who recruited young lawyers from top Eastern schools and fired anyone at his firm who didn’t maintain his pace. (He even suggested that his younger brother Burk, also a lawyer, leave the firm.) In person, George possesses a congenial personality, but during a lawsuit, he is a pit bull. When four of his own cousins (including Tom Marsh’s wife, Charlene) filed a federal lawsuit against the Whittenburg family trusts, claiming that the newspaper sale had violated securities laws, George flatly asked one of his cousins during a deposition if she was emotionally unstable.
In a 1990 front-page article about Whittenburg in Texas Lawyer magazine, a state district court judge said, “George has the ambition to take on anything and would do what it took to be a dominant force in the legal community, not only in Amarillo, not only in Texas, but in the United States.” Saying that lawyers should be held accountable for their mistakes like anyone else, Whittenburg received national attention for his successful legal malpractice suits against other law firms. He won $50 million in damages from lawyers who had worked at one of Dallas’ largest firms after he charged they had botched a savings and loan case. He has represented plaintiffs in five malpractice cases against Amarillo firms alone, which is no doubt part of the reason why other Amarillo lawyers usually use terms like “arrogant,” “condescending,” and “vengeful” to describe Whittenburg. According to Texas Lawyer, Whittenburg liked acting as “the self-anointed conscience of the Amarillo legal community.” When a group of lawyers left Whittenburg to start their own firm, the joke around the Amarillo legal community was that they split because of religious differences: Whittenburg thought he was God, and the rest of them disagreed. “If all the other lawyers in town think you’re a great old guy,” Whittenburg retorts, “then you’re probably not representing your clients well.”
Just like his father, Whittenburg refused to cozy up to Amarillo’s old-money establishment. Instead of living in Wolflin Estates, he and his wife, Ann, an Amarillo rancher’s daughter, and their nine children resided in a newer neighborhood in West Amarillo. “We have always lived a pretty hokey, straight life,” says Ann, a real estate broker. “We don’t drink, we don’t go to parties, and we don’t care to run with Amarillo’s fast set. We devote ourselves to raising our children.”
Before the chicken coop incident, Whittenburg and Marsh ran in such different circles that the two of them had never had a substantive conversation. But that did not stop Marsh from needling the Whittenburg family whenever he got the chance. In The Plutonium Circus, a documentary filmed in early 1994 about Amarillo’s Pantex plant—ironically the filmmaker, George Ratliff, was a grandson of one of the original thirteen Whittenburgs—Marsh gave a rambling description of Amarillo. Amarillo was still a nice place, he concluded, “despite having had to have the Whittenburgs live in our town.”
IN LATE 1993 MARSH AND HIS EMPLOYEES (whom he called members of the “Dynamite Museum”) began placing “artistic” road signs throughout Amarillo. The first one, near downtown, showed a bee with the words “Killer Bee” underneath it. Other signs included a painting of a shark with the inscription “Man Eater,” a portrait of Marilyn Monroe, a human skeleton holding a gun, and a sign that simply read “If I Were You.” Another read “Bates Motel, Each Room With Shower. Knives Sharpened. Free Taxidermy.”
Marsh had at least 750 signs put in empty lots or in alleys, beside highways, and on lonely country roads outside town. Most Amarillo citizens driving past the signs just shook their heads. Many teenagers, however, loved the signs and stole them for souvenirs. One former Marsh employee who was paid $5 an hour to put up the signs, Ben Periman, the twenty-year-old son of an Amarillo physician, says Marsh initially took the thefts in good fun. “It became a game to see if we could create the unstealable sign,” Periman says. “We used concrete and we started welding the signs to the poles.” Marsh even had one sign erected that read, tantalizingly, “Steal This Sign.” It was promptly stolen.
But Marsh was also determined to catch the culprits, going so far as to hire a private investigator to interview students at a high school. When the youths were identified, Marsh often would show up at their houses at night, bringing along four or five employees who wore Lone Range-style masks. Marsh would then launch into a tirade, shouting that he was going to get the boys’ parents fired from their jobs. “It was all theater, but Stanley had some of those kids completely terrified,” scoffs 21-year-old Clint Pierce, who worked for Marsh. “He made one of the kids cry when he said he was going to have the names of the kids’ parents read on the six o’clock news on Marsh’s television station.”
Marsh’s supporters say he was doing the boys a favor by not having them arrested. (Marsh told those who were caught stealing that if they would work for him for a single day putting up more signs, he would not file criminal charges against them.) But some parents didn’t find Marsh’s antics funny. After Marsh made an evening raid on the home of one boy, the boy’s father, a beefy Amarillo carpenter, told the sheriff’s department, “If that lunatic Stanley Marsh sets foot on my property again, I’m going to blow his brains out.” To show that he was serious, the carpenter bought a new shotgun.
But the controversy over Marsh’s behavior didn’t publicly erupt until October 1994, when Marsh learned that George Whittenburg’s son Ben, then an eighteen-year-old high school senior, had stolen a sign showing a rabbit with the word “Rapid” written underneath it. The sandy-haired Ben says he didn’t steal the sign to goad Marsh. He and other members of a First Presbyterian Church youth group took it because they had been led to believe that Marsh didn’t mind the thefts. When Marsh learned that Ben had put the sign on some Whittenburg property outside the city, he and his cohorts arrived one morning to retrieve it—and found Ben alone taking a nap in a van. (Ben’s church group had been there the previous night for a camp-out and had already left.) “The only thing I remember is Stanley Marsh banging on the window, waving this hammer, and screaming at me, ‘You little shit, get out of there!’” Ben says. “He was red in the face and trembling with anger, and I have just never seen anyone in my life who was that scary. He was screaming, ‘The goddam Whittenburgs! Y’all should have gotten out of Amarillo when y’all sold the newspaper! All of you are scum! You’re trash! You don’t have any money! I ought to break your f—ing arms and your f—ing legs and smash your goddam feet!’”
According to Ben—and Marsh’s lawyers do not deny the story—Marsh ordered Ben out of the van and then locked him in a smelly dog-run that had been converted into a chicken coop. One of Marsh’s employees took Ben’s photograph, and then they left. Fifteen minutes later, a Whittenburg employee happened by and found Ben.
Although Clint Pierce, who was present during the incident, says Marsh had no plans to harm Ben—“Stanley couldn’t physically hurt a flea”—George Whittenburg was outraged. During a telephone call with Marsh, he asked, “Was your antagonism toward me and my family enough to do this to my son?” According to Whittenburg, Marsh never apologized but did ask that Ben return the sign to its original location (which Ben did).
Still, Marsh could not leave the Whittenburgs alone. He made several copies of the photograph of Ben in the chicken coop and had teenagers who worked for him pass the copies around Amarillo High School to humiliate Ben. When a high school debate team came to Marsh to ask him to help sponsor a debate tournament, Marsh said he would give them $5 for every egg they threw at the Whittenburg house. Ben got prank phone calls. Notes were left on the windshield of his car calling him the Chicken Man. When Marsh confronted other boys who had stolen signs, he would tell them what he had done to Ben. At one point he said he had forced Ben to spread chicken manure over his lips. “If George Whittenburg and his money can’t handle me,” Marsh said to another group of boys who had stolen signs, “what makes y’all think your parents’ money can handle me? I have all the power.”
Finally, after a year of experiencing what he said were Marsh’s “vindictive, Rambo-like tactics,” Whittenburg sued. John Montford, a respected Lubbock state senator and one of four attorneys hired by Marsh to defend him, told the press that the legal fight was the result of a long-lasting family feud that by now had become “an American institution.” Other Marsh supporters told reporters that Whittenburg was going broke and desperately needed money. “A complete fabrication,” Whittenburg replied, saying that he and his son would donate to the First Presbyterian Church whatever money they won in the lawsuit. (When it was revealed that Whittenburg planned to take 50 percent of any winnings for his own legal fees, he said he deserved the money because he and his firm’s lawyers were giving up other business to concentrate on Marsh. “I have four kids in college and I have to earn a living,” he told the Houston Chronicle. “Nobody takes on Stanley Marsh without having to count on a long, drawn-out battle.”)
But it was clear that Whittenburg was relishing the chance for a confrontation. After he filed the lawsuit, he received phone calls from a couple of young men who told stories about Marsh’s sexual proclivities. Whittenburg not only brought them into his office to take their statements but asked them to tell their stories to reporters and to the Amarillo police. One teenage boy who had been caught stealing signs said Marsh ordered him to skinny-dip with him in a small lake on Marsh’s ranch. The boy also said that one of Marsh’s assistants tickled him on the back with a blade of grass when they were standing in the shallow part of the lake. A 16-year-old boy said Marsh tried to fondle him while they were riding in a truck. Chris McDonald, a 23-year-old Amarillo man who had been raised at Cal Farley Boy’s Ranch outside of town, said he went to Marsh’s office every Monday afternoon for several weeks to participate in sexual activity with Marsh. In that same interview, however, McDonald also described himself as someone afflicted with schizophrenia and “fractures of the mind.”
Marsh’s attorneys insisted that all three young men were chronic liars who hoped to get money from Marsh. Meanwhile, nearly a dozen teenage boys who had worked for Marsh gave sworn statements that he never acted inappropriately in their presence. “Heck, it’s tradition that we all go skinny-dipping at the end of a work day,” says Ben Periman. “But all Stanley likes to do when he skinny-dips is recite poetry.”
The grand jury apparently agreed. Marsh was indicted for the assault and kidnapping of Ben, but not for any sexual misconduct. Whittenburg, however, insists that beneath Marsh’s whimsical personality “is a sadist who gets a perverse gratification out of abusing boys.” “Let me tell you,” adds Whittenburg’s wife, Ann, “Stanley has set up a trolling operation. He uses those signs to get a lot of kids into a compromising position, and he takes advantage of those one or two who are prone to homosexuality or who are from broken homes, are emotionally vulnerable, and just want some kind of affection.”
FOR NOW, WHITTENBURG KNOWS HE has Marsh on the run. He says Marsh’s lawyers have come to him asking for an out-of-court settlement, which he will not accept: “This issue needs to be aired out in court, so that parents of this area will be forewarned about Stanley Marsh.” Whittenburg’s critics, however, say he is simply using the publicity surrounding this case as a way to lead the Whittenburgs back into Panhandle prominence. “Poor George was raised by his father to be the leader of some great dynasty that just doesn’t exist anymore,” says Amarillo lawyer Dorothy Ann Kinney. Meanwhile, the citizens of Amarillo are eagerly keeping tabs on the latest rumors, debating whether it’s George or Stanley who is the true hero. In their eyes, the Chicken Coop War is like the last Western duel between two great families. Indeed, for all of its silliness, the fight encompasses all the traditional themes of a Louis L’Amour novel: adventure, revenge, justice. It is also hard to miss the irony that the freewheeling Marsh finds his fate in the hands of a man who prides himself on decency and order. “An eccentric never lasts long because he is always a lightning rod for conservative, moral forces in society,” says Ramsey, who believes Marsh is an unappreciated genius. But Ramsey’s opinion does not seem to be shared by many Amarillo citizens. They are convinced that Marsh’s eccentricity is taking on a cranky, possibly degenerate edge. “Stanley might be Amarillo’s version of Picasso, but he’s a maddened Picasso,” one person says.
For now Marsh remains secluded on his ranch like an ancient Fisher King with his relics, hoping that this storm will blow over. He has told some friends that regardless of what happens in the court cases, he will continue with his “stunts.” He wants to construct what he calls “The Great Farm Hand,” a giant hand-shaped field of maize, which will be followed by “The Great Cow Hand,” a hand-shaped fence to hold cattle. But rumors abound that another art project is in the works designed to commemorate the Whittenburg-Marsh feud. No one seems to know exactly what the project will be. Just don’t be surprised if, a ways down the highway from the Cadillac Ranch, a gigantic chicken coop someday looms over the flat West Texas landscape. “Believe me,” Ramsey says, “Stanley isn’t one who’s going to ride gently off into the sunset.” And in this odd drama, where a lawsuit has replaced a six-shooter, that might be as Western an ending as you can get.