Despite riches, power, and respect, some people are never satisfied. A poor North Carolina kid named Michael Thevis turned paperback smut and peep show machines into a million-dollar empire, and he shaped America’s porn industry right as laws started to relax around the ownership and production of sexually explicit material. When Thevis crossed into arson, threats, and murder, he brought himself down for good. At The Daily Beast, crime journalist Jeff Maysh gets access to Thevis’ diaries and letters to tell the full story of “The Scarface of Sex” for the first time.
Rival peep machine manufacturers emerged, included those run by Leon and Mike Sokolic, Art Sanders, and Bill Walters. Before now, the most Thevis had ever done to intimidate a rival was let off a stink bomb at a store in Baltimore. Not all competitors rolled over so easily. Nat Bailen, who manufactured a peep show machine for cartoons, started to sell his units to sex-shop owners who used them for porn. In 1970, a customer named Harry Mooney in Michigan asked to lease 50 machines from Thevis—an order so large he couldn’t meet it in time. Instead, Mooney bought his machines outright from Nat Bailen. As he would do so often, Thevis turned to Underhill.
“Something,” Thevis told him, “has to be done with Bailen.”
On April 26, 1970, Underhill drove from Atlanta to Louisville in his yellow station wagon, where he met a paid accomplice, Clifford “Sam” Wilson. In the dead of night, they broke into Bailen’s factory, carrying burglary tools and five-gallon containers of gasoline. They built a bonfire using his furniture and paperwork. When Wilson found some paint cans, he told Underhill, “Let’s really screw this guy,” and poured paint over the desks and carpets. There were four-foot-tall flames licking at the windows by the time the goons fled. Reeking of gasoline, Underhill found a pay phone at the Kentucky Turnpike, and called Thevis at the Central Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles.
“Veni vidi vici,” Underhill said—I came, I saw, I conquered.