Cadillac Ranch, located just off of Interstate 40 a few miles west of Amarillo, is perhaps the most famous roadside attraction in America. The art installation, consisting of ten tail-finned, brightly painted Cadillacs planted nose-down in a pasture, was funded in 1974 by the eccentric Panhandle oil heir and arts patron Stanley Marsh 3. It has since appeared as a backdrop in magazine fashion spreads and music videos (even Bruce Springsteen has sung about it) and become a destination for a regular stream of visitors from all over the country.
But since October, when the 74-year-old Marsh—who uses “3” in his name because he finds Roman numerals pretentious—was named as a defendant in the first of a series of lawsuits filed on behalf of ten teenage boys who claim he sexually abused them, Cadillac Ranch is attracting a different kind of attention. As details of Marsh’s alleged abuse emerge, citizens in Amarillo are debating his legacy and whether the quirky Texas landmark should be dismantled.
“Seize the property at Cadillac Ranch under forfeiture laws!!!” one resident recently posted on the website of the Amarillo Globe News. “A stupid bunch of junk cars,” snapped another.
For nearly half a century, Marsh was celebrated as a free-spirited mischief maker who livened up the Panhandle with what he called “unexpected art.” Besides the Cadillacs, he once built a football field-size pool table on his ranch, painting the prairie green and creating large, bean bag-like billiard balls. He was known as a mentor to Amarillo’s youth, many of whom he hired for his art projects, including erecting mock traffic signs with cryptic slogans such as Road Does Not End, You Will Never Be the Same, and Lubbock is a Grease Spot.
But according to the lawsuits, which were filed by Houston lawyer Anthony G. Buzbee, Marsh purposely sought out “troubled young men” as his protégés and took advantage of them. The plaintiffs not only accuse Marsh of paying them for sexual favors in 2010 and 2011, when they were fifteen and sixteen years old, but they also claim that several adults close to Marsh—including his wife, his son, and a business associate—were aware of, and facilitated, the abuse.
“For a kid like me, hanging out with Stanley Marsh was like hanging out with Andy Warhol,” one of the plaintiffs said recently in an interview. “I respected him that much.” But, the teenager said, during one visit to Marsh’s offices, on the twelfth floor of the Chase Bank building in Amarillo, Marsh brought him to a back room, where he kept a couch and a bed. According to the teenager, Marsh then paid him $500 to perform sexual acts. “He told me I was beautiful and that I was going to be prosperous and that this was the right thing to do,” recalled the young man.
The teenager said he told his mother about the relationship last July, and she eventually contacted Buzbee. In addition to filing a lawsuit, Buzbee took out full-page ads in the Globe News asking for witnesses who would talk about Marsh’s behavior.
“We got a flood of calls and emails,” said Buzbee. “We easily had a dozen phone calls from other young men who wanted to file lawsuits, but we couldn’t help them because the statute of limitations for them had passed.”
Marsh has had to fight allegations about his behavior in the past. In 1996 he was arrested on three counts of indecency with a child through sexual contact, but that complaint was dismissed. He was also sued in 1996 and 2004 for attempted sexual assault, but those lawsuits were quickly settled out of court, with Marsh admitting no wrongdoing.
“Because of his wealth and prestige, he’s been able to pull enough strings in Amarillo to keep himself out of trouble,” contends Buzbee. “He’s gotten a lot of people to pretend that nothing was happening, just like Jerry Sandusky did at Penn State. Well, that’s about to change.”
In late November, after the lawsuits were filed, the Amarillo police did arrest Marsh on felony charges of “sexual assault of a child” and “sexual performance by a child.” Marsh’s defense attorneys, Paul Nugent and Heather Peterson, of Houston, claim that although their client is now “legally incapacited” due to a series of strokes he suffered in late 2011, he will fight the charges “as vigorously as his declining health permits.”
Though the allegations are shocking in a town where Marsh is generally admired, to many residents they are not a surprise. According to longtime Amarillo lawyer George Whittenburg, rumors about Marsh’s indiscretions have circulated for years, “probably as long as the Cadillac Ranch has been standing,” he said. Whittenburg represented the two teenagers who sued Marsh for attempted sexual assault in 1996 and 2004. “I had several other boys who also wanted to sue, but they chose to settle with Mr. Marsh for money and agree to confidentiality,” Whittenburg said.
Across Amarillo, residents are now left to wrestle with what the lawsuits mean for Marsh’s imprint on their city. His supporters believe the teenage plaintiffs have banded together with an aggressive out-of-town lawyer to get at Marsh’s money. “Keep the pitchfork away until all the facts come out,” wrote one commenter on the Globe News’ website. “Now every idiot in town is going to claim allegations against Marsh,” wrote another. “The greed for money just keeps on coming.”
Others have a wait-and-see approach. “Listen, I’ll be the first to tell you that I admire Stanley and what he has done for this town,” said Jeff Blackburn, an Amarillo lawyer who founded the Innocence Project, and, like Marsh, a descendant of one of Amarillo’s first pioneer families. “I can tell you this town is better off for having had him in it for as long as it has. Yes, we’ve heard rumors, but they’ve always remained rumors. If it turns out they are true, then we’ll do the right thing.”
For Buzbee doing the right thing means ensuring that Cadillac Ranch comes down. “When people find out what this man is really like, they’ll want to come out and help me bulldoze the place,” he says. “We do not need a monument that honors an alleged child predator.”