For thirty-three-year-old millionaire James Sullivan, sweeping Lita McClinton off her feet was easy. But when the reckless social climber and adulterer turned marriage in their Palm Beach mansion into a luxurious hell, the beautiful Georgia debutante wanted out-and half of her husband's fortune to take with her.
Then in 1987, a hit man unloaded three bullets into Lita's head.
Her family demanded justice. James had other plans-and the money to insure it. But it wasn't until eleven years later that a startling confession from a surprise witness would bring James Sullivan's comfortable life crashing down around him. The cold-blooded millionaire was indicted and fled the country turning hotspots across the globe into exotic private playgrounds before settling with his new fianc?e in a sumptuous resort near Bangkok, where he was arrested four years later. From Palm Beach elite to life in a squalid Thailand jail cell this is the astonishing true story of one man's flight from justice and one family's burning desire to make him pay.
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St. Martin's Paperbacks
July 01, 2004
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Excerpt from The Palm Beach Murder by Marion Collins
In just two days it would be July Fourth and no American was savoring his liberty more than James Sullivan, the Massachusetts-born millionaire whose face currently decorated walls in post offices from Maine to California. Was he chuckling to himself as he lit a fat stogie and shifted his feet onto the railing of the balcony of his luxurious seaside digs? Did the dumb cops and the flat-footed Feds who had been chasing him really think he would ever spend another hour behind bars? Heck, he had been in court more times than they'd had sex with the missus. A man picks up a thing or two about the wheels of justice that way.
From the day his beautiful and politically connected black wife was shot fifteen years before, ending an ultimately socially inconvenient marriage seemingly motivated by his desire and the thrill of flouting convention, they had been trying to nail him, and he had cheated them of their ounce of flesh at every turn. Sometimes he had gotten lucky, like when the judge in Atlanta,wringing his hands at the unfairness of it all, had reluctantly thrown out charges that he had paid $25,000 to a bunch of goons to kill her; other times he had just plain outsmarted the posse of police and FBI agents who had been on his tail since the murder warrant was finally issued in 1998. And when they began to close in on him, he had dug into his deep pockets and bought his way out.
The indictment announcement had been made on the steps of the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta by a district attorney, puffed up with his own power and relishing his fifteen minutes of fame in the glare of press cameras and TV lights. Well, he was a day late and way more than a dollar short, Sullivan probably thought as he idly amused himself by flicking ash onto an insect crawling up the leg of his chair. By the time the lawman was banging on about "bringing him to trial," Sullivan was thousands of miles away, hunkered down in a posh little resort in Thailand, where even a killer could easily disappear.
Not that his wanted status was anything new. Since 1987, he had been the prime suspect in the assassination of 35-year-old Lita, who had skipped down the stairs of her expensive Atlanta townhouse on a damp January morning expecting an armful of roses, and was blown away by a cold-blooded killer.
Right from the start, the cops were convinced that Jim Sullivan was their man. Lita's death was just too damned convenient. They were embroiled in a bitter divorce; she was murdered just hours before crucial financial details were to be thrashed out in court resulting in what everyone--including Jim Sullivan--expected to be a generous settlement for Lita. With her out of the picture, not only was he free to marry his exotic younglover, he would hang on to every last cent of his $5 million fortune and the spectacular Palm Beach mansion that was the launching pad for his social ambitions.
But thoughts of his long-dead wife were a million miles away from Sullivan that balmy July day. At 61, he had chiseled features, piercing hazel eyes and a shock of wavy hair that had faded from auburn to peppery gray. He was still in good shape, thanks to a strict regimen of daily workouts and a healthy diet. There was not a spare ounce of flesh on his toned frame and he was, his wealth notwithstanding, still attractive to the ladies.
Life had been good in his sunlit paradise during the four years since he'd gone into hiding, one step ahead of the Feds. He had already weathered a trial on a lesser charge, then lost, won and lost again two years later in a civil case brought by Emory and JoAnn McClinton, his unrelenting former in-laws. But now the thug who'd pulled the trigger was in an Atlanta jail, singing like a canary to save his own miserable skin, and the song he was warbling fingered Sullivan; the lethal injection once reserved for the gunman had Jim's name on it.
Sullivan had foiled every attempt to track him down. Every time the cops came close, he had slipped through the net and turned up in another country. In 1998, his continent-hopping spree--which had bounced him to South America, then Europe and Asia--had ended in his easy anonymity in Thailand. Even his love life had survived the chase. At his side was his chic Thai-born fianc�e, Chongwattana Sricharoenmuang, the former Palm Beach divorc�e Chongwattana (Nana) Reynolds, who had been married to a local basketball coach when Sullivan had stolen her away with promises to make her his fourth wife. His new digs in the Springfield Resort cost four million bahts (US $128,000). A three-hour,air-conditioned coach trip from the capital of Bangkok, it was domestic bliss.
While the pathetic cops went home to their dull wives, struggling to pay their mortgages and worrying about how they would put the kids through school, he was lord and master of a luxurious 1,453-square-foot condominium overlooking the sparkling turquoise Gulf of Thailand, his bank accounts bulging. Honest to God, it must have made him laugh himself silly just to think about it.
Sullivan had landed in paradise. Cha-am is a short ride from Khao Sam Roi Yot (Mountain of 300 Peaks) National Park, a veritable wonderland of forested hills, deep valleys, gushing waterfalls, caves, white sandy beaches, dense mangrove swamps and peaceful coves; its sister town, Hua Hin, is Thailand's oldest beach resort, where Thai royalty spend their vacations. A little farther south is the province's capital, Prachuap Khiri Khan, and the Mirror Mount Beach where a troop of playful monkeys capers around their own pagoda. Forty miles to the north is the old town of Phetchaburi with its superb ancient temples, and Phra Nakhon Khiri, the 19th century hilltop palace of King Mongkut.
He whiled away the days of his self-imposed exile contemplating the ocean from his frond-fringed terrace, strolling along the pristine shore, grocery shopping in his snappy metallic blue 525i series BMW and keeping his rigid lunchtime appointment at the hotel gym. He was also careful to adopt a low profile, rarely venturing far from the peach-colored complex protected by security gates and uniformed guards who patrolled its boundaries to assure the privacy and safety of the affluent residents. He and Nana occupied a spacious two-bedroom unit behind a row of swaying palms thatprovided welcome shade from the hot Asian sun, and fluttered in the cooling sea breezes that fanned him in the evenings as he lay sprawled in a lounger, puffing contentedly on a cigar.
The only times he was in danger of blowing his cover was when his short fuse was lit. On weekends and holidays the resort would fill with crowds partying late into the night accompanied by loud music, exploding fireworks and revving car engines. This rude invasion of his tranquil solitude would propel him from bed, to rage red-faced, at the revelers.
But on this particular Tuesday, as he prepared to join in America's annual celebration of shucking the colonial yoke with his lover, hot dogs and a few beers, he had no idea that his own freedom was about to end. A few weeks before, the FBI agents who had dogged his trail since he went on the lam had received a tip that had them rubbing their hands in glee.
One of his new neighbors was a fan of America's Most Wanted, the weekly TV series that has helped put hundreds of felons behind bars. On May 4, 2002, the show profiled the unsolved case of Lita Sullivan and her millionaire husband, who had fled the country taking his fortune with him. Sullivan's neighbor stared at the mug shot on his screen. "That's him!" he yelled. "That's the guy who lives here at the Springfield Resort." He picked up the phone and dialed the number on the screen. In minutes he was talking to the United States Embassy in Bangkok.
The Embassy called the FBI. Back in December, the bureau had posted Sullivan's mug on their "Most Wanted" Web site and had just received another tip, also from Thailand, from someone who was trolling the Internet and thought they recognized his picture.Agents immediately started extradition negotiations with the Thai authorities, who agreed to put him under surveillance. At first, the young cops watching him were not sure they had the right guy; he looked much too old to be the man in the FBI photo. For nearly two months they clocked his every movement and reported back to the Americans. Despite their early doubts, they had found James Sullivan.
On July 2, word came from Bangkok authorities to pick him up. Heavily armed Thai police surrounded the building. Sullivan and his fianc�e had just returned from a leisurely evening stroll and were in the kitchen preparing dinner when there was a sharp rap at the door. Forty-four-year old Chongwattana reached for the knob just as the door was kicked open and five stony-faced cops burst in. "James Sullivan? You are under arrest. We have a court order to search your apartment," Captain Noui-pin, the officer in charge of the raid, barked at him in flawless English.
Stunned, Sullivan sank down on his bed where he sat in silent disbelief as they swarmed all over the apartment, emptying drawers and rifling through closets. "He was caught completely off-guard," said Noui-pin. "He didn't resist, but he began to sweat all over." Jim had been so sure he was home free in Thailand that he had even printed "Nana and James Sullivan" on a scrap of white paper and stuck it on the front door. Now he watched helplessly as they piled his meticulously kept financial records and journals into boxes--he knew their contents would tell those damn McClintons where he had hidden his wealth.
Chongwattana swore she'd had no idea that her lover was wanted for the murder of his wife. She reportedly told Noui-pin that they had lived secretively because shedid not want her former husband to find out she was living with Sullivan. She collapsed in tears as he was led away in handcuffs and stuffed unceremoniously into a police van. They had planned to spend the rest of their days in their seaside heaven.
Sullivan's long run was over. In the years since Lita was so callously slain, he had steadfastly maintained he had nothing to do with her death. When the cops dug up crucial evidence in the shape of an accomplice who ratted him out to save his own neck, Sullivan had used his millions to flee. He had led the police and the FBI on a chase across the globe, but here, in Thailand, it had all come crashing down. With his arrest, James Vincent Sullivan became the 715th suspect tracked down by America's Most Wanted.
Back in Atlanta, Lita's parents clung together and cried with relief. Their ex-son-in-law was locked up in a Thai jail and the American authorities vowed to bring him home to face justice. "Jolly good," Lita's father, Emory McClinton, said in a massive understatement. Lita's sister Valencia describes their exhilaration: "We had champagne. I told my parents, 'We are going to enjoy every day he is incarcerated.'"
While the McClintons rejoiced, Sullivan spent his first night in a very uncomfortable cell. He had been required to swap his dapper khakis and freshly-pressed shirt for stained orange and rust-colored prison scrubs that consisted of a baggy pullover top and even baggier shorts. The other inmates had bare feet and sandals. Sullivan, the only Caucasian in the holding cell built for twenty prisoners but currently crammed with fifty other luckless alleged felons, was an incongruous misfit with his pale freckled legs peeping out between the end of the pants and his long black dress socks. On hisfeet were a sorry-looking pair of scuffed brown shoes.
As word of Sullivan's arrest hit the airwaves, Thai police Colonel Somchai Yoklek met with reporters. "James Sullivan's arrest was requested by the FBI, and today he was arrested in Cha-am," he confirmed. "The next day, Major General Surasit Sangkhaphong, who heads the Crime Suppression Division in Bangkok, said that Sullivan would be held in custody while the Foreign Ministry organized extradition proceedings to return him to the United States to face trial for the contract murder of Lita McClinton Sullivan.
When Sullivan's first wife Catherine, thousands of miles away at her home in Cape Cod, heard that her former husband was in a Thai jail, she heaved a sigh of relief. For thirty years, she had lived in fear of what she knew about him, and of what he might do to her and their children if she ever got in his way. "I didn't think he would ever get caught," she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I thought he was way too smart."