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The Strangest STORY 1 Ever Covered

The double life of John McKee: a city father who duped Dallas
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The telephone interrupted my reverie. It was the fall of 1971, and I had just returned to Houston from New York City, where I had paid my yearly dues by working a” a Newsweek writer for nearly a month.

I was the bureau chief in Houston for Newsweek, but once a year the editors decreed that every bureau person should come “home” to see how the other half lived. I had vowed that I would take it easy for a couple of weeks.

A single phone call changed all that.

It was from George Carter, a veteran Dallas Times Herald police reporter. He got straight to the point: “What would you say if I told you that John McKee was a criminal?” I wasn’t sure I had heard Carter correctly-McKee was president of the Greater Dallas Crime Commission.

I had. A private detective had compiled a dossier on McKee, Carter said, and had found that he probably wasn’t John McKee at all, but a Navy deserter and a thief named James Kell Zullinger.

I was incredulous. McKee was the strongest law-and-order voice that Dallas had ever known. So why wasn’t the Times Herald using the story?

“They know all I know,” Carter said, “but they won’t touch it. Too hot, I guess.”

I asked Carter why he was calling me.

“You’re outside the local press, and maybe you can do something,” he said.

The next day I was in Dallas, going over the investigator’s report and visiting with Carter vestigators in both the Dallas Police Department and the Dallas County district attorney’s office. I met with Searcy L. Johnson, a well-known Dallas civil lawyer, who had initiated the private investigation and who tied together several loose ends.

It was an interesting situation: Here was a dynamo of a man – a man who for more than 20 years had been involved in the highest echelons of Dallas’ civic activities. McKee had carved out a rather enviable niche in the local power structure -he was the head of the Greater Dallas Crime Commission; president of Scottish Rite Hospital for Crippled Children for more than 15 years; the number two man in the Texas Scottish Rite hierarchy; and a highly effective governmental-affairs representative for Ford Motor Co. He also was involved in at least 20 other civic and fraternal entities.

I recalled a well-publicized Sertoma Club speech in which he had lambasted the “laxness” of local law enforcement agencies and the district attorney’s office and had added, “If I were a criminal, I’d come to Dallas to do my crime. Dallas is indeed the place for a crook to operate.”

Carter had indicated that there was more than just the Navy desertion, but he refused to elaborate over the phone. Once I got to Dallas, I began to understand how and why the McKee investigation had begun. There was money missing-some people thought hundreds of thousands of dollars-from the hospital foundation. And there was a blackmail scheme.

Many of the people I originally questioned were extremely reluctant to get involved. One simply told me, “I’ve spent my life working in the Masonic Order, and if McKee finds out I’m even talking to you, I’ll be destroyed.”

I began to feel some heat long before I knew where the kitchen was: warnings from McKee associates; anonymous telephone calls telling me that I “could get hurt.” I began to realize just how powerful McKee was -and why.

McKee’s rise to power was no accident, though even then it seemed implausible. At 5-foot-6, he was not an imposing figure, and his voice was not that of a great orator. He had no family background or financial underpinnings, which, at the time, were almost prerequisites for leadership in the city.

But he had worked hard, donating his time to myriad civic opportunities, and had slowly moved up the ladder of responsibility and respectability until, by the late Fifties, he had “arrived.”

My father-in-law was angry when he found out what I was working on. He had been a Mason with McKee for more than half his life. “He’s the best man you could ever find,” he said.

And so it seemed – from the outside.

From records of the Masonic Lodge, I discovered that McKee had held practically every leadership role possible over the years, including Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Texas. At the end, McKee was second only to Waco financier Lee Lockwood, sovereign grand inspector general of Texas Scottish Rite. As such, it was McKee who determined which North Texas Masons received the coveted KCCH and 33rd-degree honors, something most Masons seek for a lifetime.

“Take a look at who McKee appointed,” a longtime Scottish Rite member said, “and you’ll understand why nobody here wants to get involved. You’ll never get anywhere with this. He’s too insulated.”

The list of honored names included congressmen, police chiefs, supreme court justices, newspaper editors and publishers, TV station general managers, bank presidents and other well-known corporate giants.

And McKee had added a subtler power base through his Ford Motor Co. job by funneling considerable money to legislators and others influential enough to affect legislation concerning the automobile business.

“You’d be surprised to know who all I’ve dealt with,” McKee told me later. “Then you’d really have a big story!”

When I first told my Newsweek editors that 1 thought one of Dallas’ most important leaders might be a Navy deserter, they weren’t that interested. But when I began to uncover threads pointing toward embezzlement, they got more interested. One of the first questions I was asked was: “Why did they suspect him in the first place?”

That’s one of the first questions I had asked.

I was told to talk to the Rev. Guy Usher. Had it not been for Usher, McKee might never have been exposed – and later convicted -of embezzlement, though Usher, an Episcopal priest, would just as soon not have been involved.

During the late Sixties, Usher (now the pastor at St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal Church) was chaplain of Scottish Rite and a close McKee confidant. McKee, who wasn’t an Episcopalian, had even attended Usher’s church; and Usher had tried futilely for years to “save” him. Still, the two were extremely close.

In fact, when McKee developed peritonitis after major surgery in 1969, Usher had spent hours at his side, often holding his hands and praying as McKee slipped in and out of consciousness. Some doctors had thought McKee might not make it. Apparently, he had known it was touch-and-go.

Every hour or so, McKee would awaken, look at Usher and mumble. Often it would be more of a whine or plea. What McKee told Usher that night would eventually change the lives of several people and some high-powered Dallas institutions.

Usher recently said that he still recalls the night explicitly. He said that McKee was “vulgar in his remarks,” but claimed that McKee didn’t tell him “anything 1 didn’t already know. I already knew he was somebody else -had known it for years.”

Others who were in contact with Usher, however, claim that McKee told Usher that his real name was Zellinger or Zullinger, that he had fled a psychiatric unit and possible court-martial from the Navy and that he had family in Pennsylvania. Also, it was said McKee would sporadically cry out, “Will God forgive me for murder? Will God forgive me for murder?”

Usher says that McKee told him nothing of importance.

No matter what was said, McKee must have thought that he had said too much. A few days later, after McKee had made a startling recovery, Usher said to him in jest, “John, 1 could write a book about what you told me that night.”

At that point, Usher was banished from McKee’s inner sanctum and became as much of an outsider as one could be.

On April 16, 1970, Guy Usher was handed a letter from McKee, written on Scottish Rite stationery, informing him that the Scottish Rite Executive Committee (McKee was chairman) had obtained “written and oral statements” claiming that “over a period of years you [Usher] have had abnormal relations with members of both sexes.”

Usher was told that if he wanted to contradict the evidence and statements, he should appear five days later at the offices of M.R. Irion. Irion was McKee’s lawyer.

Usher says that he was shocked, but he appeared – with his lawyer. McKee and Irion wouldn’t let Usher’s lawyer inside the meeting, so Usher turned and left. He never saw McKee again.

But that was only the beginning.

McKee did nothing with whatever “evidence” he had accumulated; instead, he set out to destroy Usher in a manner that didn’t allow Usher much of a chance to fight back. McKee and several of his friends told church members that Usher was a sexual deviate. His bishop was notified, and Usher was told that if he signed a statement admitting the “crimes,” he would be allowed to resign from Scottish Rite and leave town.

“They even had other out-of-town dioceses offer me positions,” Usher says. He says he took a lot of “pressure” from the church, but finally told the bishop that if it didn’t stop, he would start filing lawsuits. “That put an end to that,” Usher says.

Then Usher went through a period in which anonymous callers would phone him at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning and threaten him. “Yes, I was afraid for my life for a time there,” he says.

“He had seen what McKee had already done to him,” one of Usher’s Masonic friends says, “and he wasn’t sure just how much more might be forthcoming.” At that point, Usher went to attorney and fellow Mason Searcy L. Johnson.

Johnson contacted a couple of longtime friends who were former FBI agents, and they started the background investigation of McKee.

Once they had the information in hand, they didn’t really know what to do with it. The people involved were all Masons, and no one in the lodge wanted to do anything about it. Usher’s bishop wouldn’t even return my calls.

While I was struggling to put some pieces together, reporters at both Dallas papers had been tipped that McKee had a former life and that the Horatio Alger story he had fashioned about himself was far more fiction than fact. Editors at both papers took a “so what?” attitude, according to reporters at the time.Masonic leaders, fearful that the true story would adversely affect the Lodge and the hospital, tried to straighten out the financial mess quietly and secretly.

There seemed little I could do-McKee wouldn’t talk to me, and the several sources I had developed didn’t know for sure what was missing. As I returned to other Newsweek business, information was leaked to me. McKee had even mentioned to friends that “organized crime people” were out to get him. “If they can’t kill me, they will try to destroy me,” he told one man.

In December of 1971, I was back in Dallas so I called McKee again. This time, he spoke to me. I quickly told him that I had accumulated some “unsettling” allegations concerning him and asked if I could come by for an interview.

“What the hell is Newsweek interested in this for?” he snapped. “I’ve talked to Joe Dealey at the News and Jim Chambers at the Times Herald, and they aren’t interested. They know who’s out to destroy me.”

“Who?” I asked.

“Organized crime, organized crime,” he said. “They know I’m too tough for ’em, and they’re trying to take me out. In fact, I just learned that there’s a contract out on my life. I just talked to Chief Frank Dyson and …”

On it went. He tried to make me feel un-American. He refused to meet with me.

I promised I’d be in touch again. I knew I had to pin down the absolute, which meant starting over in Pennsylvania, where supposedly he had relatives. I called on other Newsweek operatives to check facts in Washington, St. Louis and Detroit.

Thanks to the investigator’s report, I didn’t have any trouble locating McKee’s family, but obviously they had been warned not to talk about their brother. A sister in Orrstown, Pennsylvania, who had confirmed that McKee was her brother, James Kell Zullinger, told me point-blank: “I’m not talking about that at all. I think this is all tied up in national security.” Another time, a brother locked the door and pulled the shades.

I found out later that McKee had told his family that he had been involved in a sensitive government investigation in which he had saved some highly classified documents from a sunken submarine and was told by “top admirals” in Washington to just “get lost -disappear.”

A young policeman in a small Pennsylvania town told me that he didn’t know the man I was asking about, but that his grandmother knew everybody in three counties. As it turned out, she did.

She told me the picture of McKee was the same man who had visited his brothers and sisters in Pennsylvania a few months before. He had been declared dead back in the Thirties, she said, after the death of his father and to satisfy probate matters concerning a small piece of land that went to the other brothers and sisters. She said it was “a well-known fact” that James Zull-inger had deserted from the Navy and had “stolen some money. Everybody in town knew.”

Within a few days, I had acquired Zull-inger’s Navy record and fingerprints. In 1929, he served on the U.S.S. Camden as a mail clerk and was caught stealing money. Charged with forgery and misappropriation of funds, he was sent to a Norfolk, Virginia, hospital for a routine psychiatric examination pending a general court-martial.

While at the hospital, he had picked a lock and walked away, never to be seen by the Navy again. He came to Dallas in 1930.

I thought it would be easy to match the Navy fingerprints with McKee’s and solve this first part of the puzzle. I was wrong.

A former friend of McKee’s told me that the key was McKee’s twin brother, John Zullinger, who lived in Pittsburgh. I called him. He wasn’t home, so I left word that I wanted to talk to him about his twin.

He returned the call.

“Is my brother there?” he asked.

“Who is this? Who is your brother?” I asked.

“This is John Zullinger in Pittsburgh, and my brother is James -but he goes as John McKee. Is he there?”

“Is he supposed to be here?”

“Yes, I was told…”

“Can you describe him… tell me a little more about him?”

“Well, he’s 5-foot-6 or 5-foot-7, not very heavy, gray hair. He works for Ford Motor Co., and he’s a good friend of the governor and Lyndon Johnson and…”

I told him that his brother was not there, but that I would mention the call to him when I saw him -very soon.

McKee was unavailable for a few days, so I spent the time interviewing others who knew snatches of the situation. Usher, beleaguered by the threats and pressures, didn’t want to see me, either. Finally, I called McKee and was surprised when he told me to come to his office. He greeted me with more warmth than I had expected.

“You wanna take a ride in my new Lincoln?” he asked. He said that the crime commission had just awarded him a new car. He then apologized for keeping me waiting.

“I just called Lyndon,” he said. “He wants me to handle something for him.” He mentioned that he had a “straight line” to the former president -a fact I already knew. “It’s hard to hang up when you’re talking to the president,” he said.

McKee showed me other memorabilia, including a 1966 letter from Johnson in which the president had written that he was sorry he couldn’t attend “the dinner,” but would send a telegram. The dinner had been at the Baker Hotel’s Crystal Ballroom; more than 1,000 leading citizens and politicians had honored McKee as “Texan of the Year” and, led by Lt. Gov. Preston Smith, had given McKee a standing ovation.

As McKee searched for other items to show me, I got straight to the point:

“I know who you are, John, and I know where you came from and what you’ve done. I’ve talked to your brothers and sisters.”

“No, you’ve got it all wrong,” he said coolly, rustling some papers on his desk. “You’ve been taken in like all the others. What’d they pay you?”

Before I could answer, he launched into his story, claiming that he was being “shadowed” by Mafia hit men. “I’m too close to a lot of big things,” he said. “We’ve got ’em on the run.”

I told him that I was particularly con-cerned about the financial shortages at the hospital and that I knew he had skimmed more than $40,000 off the top of a stock deal in which he had bought and sold stock for Scottish Rite.

McKee looked stunned. He quickly reached into his right-hand top drawer and pulled out a menacing .38-caliber pistol. “Maybe I should use this,” he said, looking me in the eye and pointing it at me.

“Noooooo,” I said. “You shouldn’t do that.”

“Maybe on myself,” he said as he turned it toward himself, his eyes blinking. Spit ran out the side of his mouth.

I was stalling for time. I told him how much good he had obviously done in the community and that sometimes people just get in a mess. “Why don’t you just admit it and tell your friends you’ve made a mistake, and …”

He tossed the gun back in the drawer. “Sheriff [Clarence] Jones gave me that,” he said.

When I had first set out to confront McKee, I had figured that it would be a bizarre scene. I had expected the threats of libel, but I had never dreamed I’d be facing the wrong end of a .38. I also had known that whatever he told me then he would probably deny later, so I had hidden a tape recorder on me.

“I’ve checked on you,” he said. “You’re an honest reporter, so I’m going to tell you something I’ve never breathed to another person on earth.” I hoped the batteries in my recorder were good.

“There is a period of time,” he said, “way back in my early life, when I don’t remember hardly anything. In fact, all that comes to me for these several years is my mother’s face.”

The immediate danger seemed over. Now he was drawing me into his latest conspiracy. We talked about amnesia, his brothers and sisters, his Navy career and whether or not he was Zullinger. I told him that if, indeed, he thought “they” were out to get him, he should let me take his fingerprints. If he wasn’t really Zullinger, the whole story would shift.

“If your fingerprints are different from Zullinger’s,” I told him, “I’ll fight just as hard to prove who set you up and why.”

“Oh,” he said, “the FBI’s got my fingerprints, the Dallas police have got ’em – they’re all over. They’ve already checked that out.” (In fact, he had refused to have them made.)

McKee began to show me press clippings. I had seen many of them, but I didn’t want to jar my newfound “relationship.” So 1 stayed as he leafed through a stack of clips -a newspaper article he had written about the extent of prostitution and drug dealing in Dallas high schools; how some judges weren’t tough enough on criminals; how the Citizens Charter Association (which, at that time, was a strong oligarchical political organization) wanted him to run for mayor; how a “hit man” was after him; how he had charged that Police Chief Dyson should have had his men arrest “the scum protesters” in Lee Park.

He clearly considered himself the public conscience. If it wasn’t the Communist threat, it was the liberal lawyers and courts, the Mafia or just plain “them.”

Later, I talked to District Attorney Henry Wade, who had told me weeks earlier that he had heard the rumors about McKee, but had nothing criminal to go on -yet. H.H. “Snooky” Davis, his chief investigator, had been put on the case. Davis had the Navy record, but no fingerprints. With subpoena power and the threat of a grand jury behind his efforts, Davis had made good inroads into the financial dealings. Both Wade and Davis were honest with me about their investigation. They didn’t particularly care about the identity problem; they were trying to solve the embezzlement situation.

Assistant Police Chief Paul McCaghren told me that he had heard the “rumors” about McKee, but he hadn’t been able to get McKee’s prints to see whether they matched the Navy prints. “I don’t have ’em now, but I’ll have ’em before long,” he said.

A week later 1 again contacted McKee, who said I should meet with Irion, his lawyer, if I wanted to talk about his fingerprints. I met with the two of them at Irion’s office. At this point, 1 also had discovered that McKee’s son-in-law, Paul Prasifka, had been involved in some mishandling of hospital funds (he was later indicted, pleaded guilty and received a suspended sentence). And McKee, I had learned, had a “woman friend” whose son had been given a $l,000-a-month job at the hospital and severance of more than $2,500 when the board demanded he be replaced.

Never before had I been put through the wringer like I was at Irion’s office. I was told that if I did such a story, Newsweek would be slapped with a multimillion-dollar libel suit and that “things could get tough” for me. Irion asked me for the names of my editors and those of the Newsweek lawyers.

“What’s so bad about what he’s done?” Irion asked. “A lot of people have changed their names. Look at all the good he’s done.”

I told Irion that I thought that McKee had, indeed, been good for the city, but that taking money from the children’s hospital didn’t qualify along those lines. I mentioned that money for a new car for McKee’s lady friend had come from that source. And, I said, “the way the Rev. Usher case was handled smacks of Nazi Germany.”

Irion was livid. He handed me a copy of the Texas libel laws and said that he had no intention of allowing McKee to be fingerprinted.

I left and immediately called the Newsweek editors to tell them that I was forwarding a tape recording that they should keep intact in case of legal action. I was told they supported me totally; they asked if I needed a local lawyer. “Not yet,” I said. They also told me that we had to have the prints matched before the story could be used.

A one-time co-worker of McKee’s told me that McKee often ate lunch at the Insurance Club in the Statler-Hilton Hotel. I thought that if no one else could get his prints, perhaps I could get a water glass after he’d handled it, then force the issue. I got a guest pass and ate lunch there three times. Once, he didn’t show up; another time, I raced to his table after he’d left and grabbed the glass, only to have it taken away from me by a large waiter. Another time, he saw me and left.

McCaghren finally figured out how to get McKee’s fingerprints: He went to McKee’s office and handed him a piece of paper with a note on it. McKee read it, then McCaghren quickly grabbed it back and returned to City Hall, where it was compared with the Navy deserter’s prints. They matched.

On February 11,1982, Wade and Dyson issued a joint press release confirming that McKee was Zullinger.

“Throughout the investigation,” the release stated, “Mr. McKee had repeatedly refused to be fingerprinted at the Dallas Police Department. It has become increasingly apparent that bits and pieces of information about the probe were becoming public knowledge [not in any local press] and that many aspects were becoming distorted. The Dallas Police Department and the Dallas district attorney’s office feel an obligation to set the record straight. The question of Mr. McKee’s identity has been verified. His real name is James Kell Zullinger.” The results of the combined investigation, they said, had been presented to the county grand jury that morning, “for whatever action the grand jury may wish to take.”

As expected, McKee refused to comment, but his secretary offered a statement for him: “This is ridiculous. I’ve been in Dallas for 50 years. If the Dallas police want my fingerprints, why don’t they get them from the FBI? This is grounds for libel.”

Irion said simply, “They’ve crucified an innocent man, and you’re gonna see the biggest libel suit you’ve ever heard of.” Asked when and against whom, Irion said, “I can’t tell you now.”

The disclosure, now covered with lengthy front-page stories and prime radio and TV spots sent shock waves across the nation. Some Washington and Austin bigwigs who once had praised McKee were now unavailable for comment. McKee wouldn’t talk. The Scottish Rite leaders huddled to see how they could cut their losses; the Times Herald published a lead editorial saying that McKee should quit the crime commission post. Jim McGov-ern of Atlanta, head of the National Association of Citizens’ Crime Commissions, quickly suspended the Dallas commission.

Less than a week after Dyson and Wade’s public disclosure, McKee was indicted on two counts of embezzlement, which totaled about $6,700. Eleven days later, McKee’s son-in-law was indicted for forgery and embezzlement of $27,000. Neither spent a day in jail.

Even with strong evidence, the indictments were hard to come by, says District Judge Richard Mays, then an assistant district attorney: “There was one old man on that grand jury that cried because McKee was his hero. But he did his duty. With tears running down his face, he voted for indictment.”

McKee was tried in the summer of 1972 and was convicted of the embezzlement of the $6,700. Other charges were not considered. Judge John Mead assessed him a seven-year probated sentence. McKee was forced to relinquish some bank stocks worth nearly $100,000 that he had bought secretly from Scottish Rite for about $30,000.

KRLD-TV (now KDFW-TV) produced some records that showed that McKee was named as independent executor of several estates left to the Scottish Rite Foundation or to the hospital itself. There have been no public disclosures of how and if these properties were disposed of or where the monies ended up.

At this point, McKee was a ruined man: His wife of 42 years had divorced him, and many of his erstwhile friends now avoided him. For a time, he worked as a cashier at a downtown parking garage. He claimed that he was writing a book that would “blow the lid off this town.”

Many men have risen to the heights, only to slip and fall into oblivion. But few ever fall as far and as hard as did McKee. When he died in December of 1981, there wasn’t even a funeral.

Few of McKee’s friends -or enemies-will comment publicly about him. Some just bow their heads and say, “Forget it.” Others say that the hospital had to implement new accounting procedures and that the publicity about McKee did hurt for a while. One man says that McKee was such a “sick” man during his last few years that “he just wasn’t himself-no pun intended.”