In his book, "Through the Looking Glass,” Lewis Carroll coined the term “unbirthday” to mark all the days of the year when you can celebrate something that didn’t happen – days on which your birthday did not take place.
In the same “Alice in Wonderland” spirit, we’re going to celebrate the 10th anniversary of something in Detroit that didn't happen: The party at the Manoogian Mansion.
This non-event, though, was hardly inconsequential. In fact, its ramifications were huge, and are still being felt. The "party" was just a rumor, but the rumor rattled and then transformed Detroit city government. It also ruined lives. It made careers. It was a slice of city history that played out like cinema noir, only this was not fiction. The rumor and its aftermath unspooled in real time.
It was the Manoogian rumor -- pure, unadulterated, false gossip -- that set in motion the extraordinary chain of events that resulted in the downfall of Kwame Kilpatrick. In a tidy bit of symmetry, the former mayor begins his corruption trial tomorrow in U.S. District Court, precisely a decade after the date of the party at the mayoral residence that never happened.
According to the rumor, Kilpatrick and friends threw a party at the Manoogian around Labor Day 2002. There were strippers present, and when Kilpatrick’s wife, Carlita, showed up unexpectedly and barged in on a stripper giving the mayor a lap dance, Mrs. Kilpatrick assaulted the dancer with some sort of a improvised weapon – a baseball bat, fireplace poker, 2-by-4 or table leg, according to variations of the rumor. EMS was called, and transported the stripper to a hospital.
That was the basic buzz that began circulating in mid-September 2002. Later, after she was killed in a drive-by shooting in April 2003 while sitting in a car with her dope-dealer boyfriend, a stripper named Tamara (Strawberry) Greene became the dancer associated with the party. Her link to the party was a rumor within a rumor.
The Manoogian rumor was where it all started going bad for Kilpatrick. Before the rumor he was a young, smart, talented politician who appeared to be going places. A decade after the rumor, his political career no longer exists, his reputation is in tatters, he lives in exile in Texas, he has no job and he is facing the possibility of many years in federal prison if he is convicted of even some of the federal charges he is facing.
The CliffsNotes’ chronology of the rumor goes like this:
1) Gossip about a Manoogian party begins popping up in Detroit in mid-September 2002.
2) Also in September 2002, Harold Nelthrope, a member of Kilpatrick’s Detroit Police bodyguard unit, hears the rumor, and eventually passes it along to the DPD’s internal affairs squad.
3) By spring 2003, Kilpatrick and Christine Beatty, the then-mayor’s lover and chief of staff, learn that internal affairs is looking into the party rumor, so they fire the unit’s boss, Deputy Chief Gary Brown.
4) Brown and Nelthrope file a whistleblower lawsuit against Kilpatrick in 2003. During the trial, in the summer of 2007, Kilpatrick and Beatty lie about their affair while under oath.
5) In January 2008, the Free Press begins publishing stories based on text messages that prove Kilpatrick and Beatty committed perjury at the trial.
6) After months of controversy, Kilpatrick resigns as mayor in September 2008, pleads guilty to criminal charges revolving around the perjury and goes to jail for three months. In 2010, after lying in a court hearing about his lagging restitution payments, he goes to state prison for nearly 15 months.
When Nelthrope first heard the rumor, in September 2002, he was at work, at the Manoogian. He heard fellow officers talking about speculation about a party. He never saw anything first-hand.
“I just heard people speaking – asking, ‘was there a party?’" Nelthrope later testified in a deposition.
He said he heard members of the mayor’s protection squad asking about stories they had heard about the party.
“I can't say exactly who it was,” he said. “I can't recall exactly who it was that had said it because it was several -- you know, because it was during, like, shift change. You know, so there's several people in the room. So it was just conversation that had came up.”
Nelthrope’s vagueness became typical of how people passed on stories they had heard about the party. By late 2002 word of a party indeed began spreading across the region, through law enforcement, political, labor and other circles.
Nelthrope testified that other cops began coming up to him, asking about a party. “Then people who weren’t police officers would mention it,” he recalled.
Eventually the media picked up on the party rumor, which, if true, would have been a blockbuster. Editors assigned reporters to go at the story aggressively, including knocking on doors in the Manoogian neighborhood, interviewing EMS medics and tapping police sources.
The pursuit of the story became a wild goose chase; no media outlet turned up any evidence of a party or of a stripper beatdown by Detroit’s first lady, and virtually no information about the rumor was ever published or broadcast through early May 2003.
One exception was a wide-ranging interview in Hour Detroit magazine published in the May 2003 edition, in which writer Jack Lessenberry asked Kilpatrick: “There are all these wild stories about orgies at the Manoogian Mansion, wild bachelor parties. Is there any truth to this?
Kilpatrick answered: “There is absolutely no truth. I think the reason it comes out is that we are sexy. I think this is a sexy administration.”
Everything changed May 13, 2003. That’s when Brown held a news conference and accused the mayor of firing him for investigating his family and security detail, including allegations of the party. With that allegation as kindling, the rumor burst into wild fire, as tens of thousands of metro Detroiters who paid even passing attention to the news heard about the Manoogian party for the first time. The story metastasized to immense proportions.
Many people had an uncle or a former neighbor who had some hot insight into the rumor, and it became widely believed. But as state police detectives found when they looked into the allegations, hot leads ended up in dead ends, as everyone’s information was, at best, second hand. It was like a giant game of telephone, spread out across the vast metro area and its 5 million residents.
Eventually the person who became the region’s chief Manoogian party conspiracy theorist was Norman Yatooma, a slickly coiffed lawyer who represented the family of Tamara Greene, the slain stripper, which filed a lawsuit in 2005 that claimed Detroit cops and Kilpatrick had sabotaged the investigation into her death.
To prove sabotage, Yatooma didn’t have prove Greene had danced at a Manoogian party. But if he could find evidence that, say, Carlita Kilpatrick had assaulted the stripper, such information would go a long way toward proving Kilpatrick and the cops had a motive to go easy on the probe.
Yatooma took over the case in 2007 and spent four years and, by his own accounting, nearly $2 million in his quest to prove there had been a plot to derail the investigation. In four years, he failed to produce any credible witnesses who said they had attended a Manoogian party, nor any text messages, emails, medical records, police reports or any first-hand information about a party and assault.
Yatooma found two people – a stripper and a biker -- who said they attended the party. The stripper had reported seeing demons and said she needed an exorcism. The biker, a five-time felon, also had mental health issues.
Last November, U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen threw out Yatooma’s case, saying there was no evidence the ex-mayor or police had tampered with the investigation into Greene’s death. Rosen did not address the existence of a Manoogian party, but it is absurd to believe that, if true, details of a mayor’s wife assaulting a stripper would have stayed secret for even hours, much less 10 years.
When the rumor started in September 2002, Kilpatrick was only nine months into his first term. He was still enjoying a political honeymoon, and had not even moved into the mayoral mansion, which sits on the Detroit River, east of downtown. It was undergoing renovations.
Kilpatrick’s pre-text message embarrassments -- such as the scandal over his spending on a city credit card or leasing and lying about an expensive Lincoln Navigator for Carlita – were three years into the future.
Along with Kilpatrick and Beatty, the rumor’s other victims include Kwame’s mother, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, who lost her re-election to Congress while her son sat in prison in 2010, and Mike Cox, the former Michigan attorney general, whose gubernatorial aspirations were not helped by his widely derided pronouncement that the Manoogian party was an “urban legend” and the perceived laxity of his investigation into the matter.
But Cox was right. The party rumor is an urban legend. It is an amazing urban legend that did a lot more damage than most urban legends. Ten years after it surfaced, it’s now a legendary legend.
Why did the Manoogian rumor become so powerful? Experts have said one purpose of urban legends throughout history is to signal people when something might be amiss in their communities. The party story might have been a way of telegraphing Detroiters that their mayor was out of control. And Kilpatrick's behavior made the rumor somewhat believable. Certainly Kilpatrick's spa visits, affairs and out-of-town club-hopping suggest some sort of stag party at the Manoogian would not be out of the realm of possibilities. Did anti-Detroit bias play into the rumor's spread? Kilpatrick and his supporters argued that such feelings were a factor.
Rumor or no rumor, Kwame Kilpatrick likely still would be sitting at the defendants’ table in federal court tomorrow. The feds' investigation was not directly related to the story of the Manoogian party.
A decade after the rumor started spreading, imagine if Kilpatrick and Beatty had not impulsively fired Gary Brown. Or if they had simply decided to admit they were having an affair, if such an admission ever became necessary.
The party at the Manoogian Mansion could have remained a widely held secret. Mike Cox could be governor.
And Kwame Kilpatrick might still be mayor.