Eric Clapton, Ronnie Lane and a Texas Ambush

Eric Clapton, Ronnie Lane, Mark Scheerer

• I cover the rise of ARMS and the first concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall

• Can a reporter be compelled to testify in a Houston courtroom?

• Can he be jailed for conspiracy to go skinny-dipping in Austin?

I’ve never been a fan of the Lone Star State. On my first assignment there for ABC Radio News, covering the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, the temperatures hovered around a hundred degrees and about all I remember was visiting Dealey Plaza while off-duty. On duty – drenched in sweat – I covered the arraignment of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys who had somehow run afoul of the Secret Service at the convention hall.

Texas heat

My next visit to the Big D held some intrigue.

The backstory: In the early ‘80s, Ronnie Lane, the bass player for the Small Faces and Rod Stewart’s Faces, was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.

Ronnie Lane, 1983

He and some musician friends started a charity called Action into Research for Multiple Sclerosis, or ARMS.

They staged a concert in London’s Royal Albert Hall and I was sent to cover it by ABC Radio News.

I caught up with Eric Clapton, Lane and Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman making an appearance at a TV station in Camden Town promoting ticket sales and recorded an interview.

Didn’t win anything
Royal Albert Hall
Who bassist John Entwistle at after-party (foreground)
Bill Wyman

So, at the first ARMS concert (there were subsequent ones in Madison Square Garden and other U.S. venues) I learned how many concert-goers it takes to fill the Albert Hall, if not how many holes.

A few years later, thanks to the ARMS connection, I learned how gaps in my diligence as a reporter of legal affairs could lead to some mild embarrassment.

Ronnie Lane moved to Houston, Texas, in pursuit of treatment for his MS. There, he started ARMS of America, putting in charge a Houston lawyer, Mae Nacol. In 1986, Lane smelled a rat and the Texas attorney general’s office investigated, hauling Nacol into court and charging embezzlement and mismanagement of the charity.

On the eve of the trial, I flew to Houston and interviewed Nacol in her office, hearing her side of the story. As the court proceedings got underway, I made the acquaintance of the assistant state’s attorney sent from Austin to prosecute the case. She was friendly, attractive, and single.

The trial recessed on a Friday and the ABC Radio News desk in New York told me to book a flight to Austin where an interview had been set up with the president of the University of Texas for a series a colleague was doing on a higher education issue of the time. I was faxed a page of questions and was to ship the tape cassette off to NY and then return to Houston at the close of the weekend.

I mentioned this to the assistant state’s attorney and she said, “Hey, I’ll show you around Austin.” This sounded very appealing. That Saturday night she took me to one of the best Tex-Mex restaurants where many margaritas were consumed. Then she drove me out to Barton Springs, south of town. The popular “swimming hole” was closed for the night, but we hopped over the low fence and I was just about to make the logical suggestion that we should do some skinny-dipping when we heard the crunch of gravel — a car pulling up. It was a sheriff’s deputy. The attorney said, “Let me handle this.” She pulled out her ID, which was a five-pointed silver star in a small leather folder. Very Texas. She apologized politely to the stern-faced deputy, saying she was just showing an out-ot-town visitor the springs. He let us off with a warning.

As we drove back to town, she told me she had debated whether to identify herself that way. “We could have either been let go or we might have wound up in the newspaper tomorrow.” Luckily the former was the result.

We pulled up to my hotel and I invited her to come in “for a nightcap” at the lobby bar. She politely declined. I probably thought to myself, “Well, I can always pick this up where we left off when we get back to Houston.”

That close call at the swimming hole was not the “ambush” I promised to recount. This is:

Monday morning in the courtroom as the proceedings resumed, the assistant state’s attorney — and object of my interest — stood up and told the judge, “Your Honor, the state would like to call to the witness stand Mr. Mark Scheerer of ABC News.”

I was, as Clapton, Wyman and Lane would have put it, gob-smacked.

I stood up and in a manner I hoped wouldn’t sound like I’d seen too many episodes of Perry Mason, said, “Um, may I, er, approach the bench, Your Honor?” He beckoned me forward, and my weekend “date” joined us there.

As I gave her severe side-eye, she explained to the judge that she wanted to enter into evidence what she could draw out of me about my interview with the defendant, in hopes that it might yield something the state could use to bolster its case. She had never made an effort to try to obtain the tape from me, but had asked a few questions about it when we first got acquainted.

The thought occurred: had her superiors encouraged her to wine and dine me over the weekend? To “seduce” me into revealing what Nacol had told me? If so, she certainly hadn’t pulled out all the stops!

Nervous and angry, I asked the judge for a moment or two to contact my employer in New York. He said, of course, and called a recess. I ran to a pay phone out in the hallway to call my boss, Merrilee Cox. She contacted the lawyer the network had on retainer for First Amendment issues, Floyd Abrams, famous for his involvement in, among other prominent cases, the Pentagon Papers.

During the lunch break a call was made from New York to the judge and by the afternoon session the attempt to put me on the stand had been dropped.

For the duration of the trial a stony silence ensued between the reporter and the prosecutor. The State of Texas ultimately persuaded the court to shut down the charity…without the help of an ABC Radio News interview.

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