DEMOLITION MAN

What’s up with Wesley? An indictment for tax fraud, an affinity for extremist groups, and a private militia, for starters

In the 1998 film U.S. Marshals, the sequel to The Fugitive, Wesley Snipes took part in a cemetery shoot-out, performed a Tarzan-style rope swing from the roof of a skyscraper onto a moving train, and took a special agent hostage. But those who’d been hoping for a real-life Fugitive sequel when he was arrested in December for tax fraud and conspiracy would be sorely disappointed. Despite a long flight from Namibia, he appeared well-rested and characteristically reserved in a charcoal suit and matching blue shirt and tie that set off his graying Van Dyke.

Two tense months had passed since a judge unsealed an indictment by a Florida grand jury alleging that the 44-year-old actor had not paid the IRS a dime since 1999. Having relied on the advice of radical tax activists, Snipes allegedly attempted to defraud the government with $14 million in bogus bills of exchange. For most of that time, until surfacing in the Namib Desert, where he’d been filming an apocalyptic western called GallowWalker, Snipes had remained out of sight. Noting that Namibia’s lack of an extradition treaty with the U.S. has made it a haven for high-profile Americans fleeing justice, media reports described him as “on the lam.” Snipes’s silence only served to fan the speculation. In fact, shortly after the indictment was made public, his attorneys began intense negotiations with prosecutors regarding the conditions of his appearance. On December 8, he boarded a chartered jet from Namibia for a flight to the U.S., emerging 27 hours later to turn himself in to IRS agents—and, later, face a crowd of reporters outside the federal courthouse in downtown Ocala, Florida.

“Little cold out here,” he said with an uncomfortable laugh as he stepped forward to address the scrum. “Big difference from Namibia.” But with the temperature in the mid-60s, blaming the weather seemed a stretch. The tax charges alone could land Snipes in prison for up to 16 years—enough time in an orange jumpsuit to chill anyone’s blood.

The conditions of the actor’s release were surprisingly lenient: After posting a $1 million bond, he was allowed to return to Namibia to finish shooting. J.J. MacNab, an expert who is writing a book on the fringe anti-tax movement, found the arrangement odd. “It’s the only case I can think of where a defendant facing very serious charges was released to fly off on a private jet to a country without an extradition treaty,” she says, questioning whether Snipes—who at press time was scheduled to be back in the states on January 10 for pretrial hearings—would actually return.

But federal charges aren’t the half of it. In the past few years, Snipes has stumbled into a host of other legal entanglements. In 2002, he was sued by a former prostitute who claimed he’d fathered her child (the case was dropped when the actual father was identified). The following year, Chase Manhattan seized his sprawling $1.7 million home in a gated Orlando community and sold it at auction to recoup unpaid debts totaling $700,000. Around the same time, the state of California issued a lien against him for $67,000 in overdue taxes. Then, last July, powerhouse Hollywood agency UTA, which has represented the actor since 2002, sued to recover $1.5 million in fees it claims he owes.

Of course, Snipes isn’t the first performer to mishandle his fortune. But records obtained by Radar paint a troubling portrait of an actor who appears to have associated himself with not one but two radical extremist groups, each with a long history of criminal activity. In addition to being advised by Eddie Ray Kahn (pronounced “Kane”), an IRS antagonist since 2000, Snipes appears to own a fraudulent trust of the sort that recently earned anti-tax activist Arthur Farnsworth a conviction for tax evasion (he is scheduled to be sentenced in Pennsylvania later this month). It’s not the best company to be keeping if one seeks to maintain good standing with the U.S. government.

Putnam County sheriff Howard Sills was alarmed by Snipes’s plans to open a massive training camp for his private paramilitary group, which he’d dubbed the Royal Guard of Amen-RaBut what makes the case truly bizarre is the anti-tax movement’s deep association with anti-Semites and white supremacists. According to Heidi Beirich, deputy director of the Intelligence Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center—an organization that monitors hate groups and has been tracking tax protestors since the mid-90s—the movement has long been a magnet for bigots. “The whole idea goes back to the Posse Comitatus, a racist anti-government sect that flourished during the farm crisis of the ’80s,” she says, adding that anti-tax activism was later embraced by the Patriot movement and armed militias that bubbled up during the Clinton years. David Cay Johnston, who has covered the subject for the New York Times, adds that the traditional spouters of anti-tax rhetoric have been angry white males. “Typically they have encountered some huge failure in their lives for which they blame the government,” he says, adding, “Almost everyone involved is white.”

Tellingly, after Snipes turned himself in to authorities, it didn’t take long for his anti-tax brotherhood to disavow him. “[Snipes] is Black and can not claim any part of the constitution for their rights,” opined one poster on a prominent protestor message board devoted to the issue, adding that, as a black man, Snipes was obliged to pay taxes. “Constitutions pertain ‘ONLY’ for white Europeans and nobody else.”

Further complicating matters are his reported ties to a bizarre Georgia-based black nationalist cult, the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors—an apocalyptic organization that preaches a ripped-from-the-X Files mélange of UFO lore, Egyptian mythology, Afrocentrism, and conspiracy theory. The group is led by self-styled prophet Dwight “Malachi” York, who in 2004 was sentenced to 135 years in prison for a litany of convictions including tax evasion and the sexual abuse of more than a dozen children of his disciples.

Joining his client at the courthouse to address the media, Snipes’s lawyer, Billy Martin, limited his remarks to the tax charges and took no questions. Martin, a partner at the influential law firm Blank Rome, is an expert litigator and master spinner who successfully defended NBA forward Jayson Williams in the killing of a hired limo driver, and represented the family of Chandra Levy. He told the press that his client had been victimized by “unscrupulous” advisers and vowed that a trial would vindicate him.

To even veteran Hollywood observers, Snipes’s behavior is mystifying. How did the Bronx-raised black actor get mixed up in a movement that preaches anti-government paranoia and outright racism?