MIA Facts Site

"The Merry Prankster:"
Ted Sampley in Action

Summary.  In my discussion of the attacks on Senator John McCain, I rely on work published by Ms. Susan Katz Keating in her book Prisoners of Hope:  Exploiting the POW-MIA Myth in America.  Ms. Keating, while she was a reporter for the Washington Times, was convinced that live American POWs remained in Vietnam.  As time went on and she became more and more acquainted with the issue, she discovered the facts of the charlatans who take advantage of MIA families and who flim-flam the public, as well as discovering that the US government could have done a better job of managing the issue.

The attacks on John McCain can be traced largely to the work of one man, Ted Sampley, of Kinston, NC.  The following is a direct quote of the entire chapter about Sampley from Ms. Keating's book; she titled the chapter "The Merry Prankster."   Below is the first page of the chapter in jpeg format -- I want readers to see that I really do have the book.  The remainder of the chapter is in text format; I did this because the chapter is thirteen pages long and I did not want to put thirteen jpeg files on my web server.

Following is quoted from Prisoners of Hope, by Susan Katz Keating, pages 193 - 205.

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never received a thrashing either from the Wetzels or from any other family whose grief he has co-opted.

To Sampley's way of thinking, that is as it should be. He presents himself as somewhat culpable, but always forgivable; just a likable, big-hearted oaf who sometimes gets carried away by the POW crusade.

 A former Green Beret with multiple Bronze Star awards from Vietnam, Sampley has the outward appearance of the stereotypical downtrodden veteran outfitted by the local Army surplus store. But he is in fact a savvy businessman who is forth- right about earning money off "the cause" and is a key figure in the MIA issue.

 Unlike his colleagues who uncover POW "evidence" and solicit funds to embark on rescue missions, Sampley specializes in media manipulation and public relations. He has been invaluable to the activists, who rely on him to fan the flames of existing MIA stories, either through phone calls to legitimate journalists or on the pages of his own newspaper broadsheet, U.S. Veteran News and Report. In addition to his work in support of fellow activists, Sampley specializes in orchestrating stunts that are dramatic and at times dangerous.

In 1986, for example, when Sampley was in Washington, D.C., attending one of his many POW functions, he set up a publicity stunt that could have killed or seriously injured someone. Shortly before 2 A.M., bar closing time, Sampley and a few confederates erected a barrier at the top of a freeway on-ramp that handles traffic coming from Capitol Hill. They coated the ramp with oil, so that unsuspecting motorists would slither wildly before crashing into the barrier. The cars' headlights would illuminate a sign on the barrier that read "Free the POWs."

The next day I learned about the on-ramp trap from Sampley, who called to announce what he had done. He was proud of his effort but disappointed that the trick had not come off. While Sampley and friends had watched from a nearby hiding place, police officers had found and dismantled the arrangement before any cars ran into it.

When I told Sampley he had risked people's lives with the stunt, he accused me of being a spoilsport. He also said he was dismayed at missing the chance for newspaper coverage. It was a rare lost opportunity. Over the next couple of years, Sampley would succeed in attracting considerable press coverage of antics designed for that specific purpose. His favorite trick was to chain himself and others — preferably attractive MIA daughters — to the gates of the White House and throw fake blood at police, onto the White House lawn, or at Secret Service agents.

On one occasion 1, Sampley placed bamboo cages containing live protestors on the front lawn of the house owned by Ronald Reagan's chief of staff Don Regan. The protestors were arrested. Another time, Sampley led a group to the home of former National Security Council head Frank Carlucci. In the midst of a major snowstorm, Sampley and his followers blocked Carlucci's driveway with 1,800 "care" packages addressed to POWs in Laos. On yet another occasion, Sampley orchestrated a "bounty hunt" for Ann Mills Griffiths and other leaders of the National League of Families. Hunters were challenged to hit their prey with cream pies, water balloons, and rotten tomatoes.

 In 1988 Sampley — who at the time had no personal stake in MIA issue — tried to turn one family's somber moment into a scandal that would help perpetuate the POW movement. Instead, Sampley's effort came across as a vulgar grab for center stage. The episode revolved around the case of a Navy pilot, Commander Edwin B. Tucker.

Tucker had been shot down over North Vietnam eleven years earlier. He was thought to have been captured and was listed as a POW. He was later listed as killed in action. His remains were returned to the United States and were buried with full military honors in 1988 at Arlington National Cemetery.

Shortly after the funeral, Sampley called a press conference in Norfolk, Virginia, where Tucker's former aircraft carrier is based. Sampley announced that Tucker's body had been on display for fifteen years inside a glass case in Vietnam. Sampley said Tucker's family had been forced to pledge secrecy on the matter before being allowed to receive the remains.

 In a scenario similar to the one he had created about Wetzel, Sampley said that Tucker had parachuted alive into a crowd of angry villagers, who had hacked at him with a hoe. "They carried him to a North Vietnamese hospital where he was put on an operating table and died," Sampley told reporters. The remains, along with Tucker's flight helmet, were then placed inside the glass case, Sampley said. "The Vietnamese public gawked at this display for fifteen years."

 Sampley said that both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments had told Tucker's son he could have the remains only if he swore to keep the facts of the case secret.

 It was an outrageous charge to make in a Navy town. Sampley had hoped to stir the anger of the tens of thousands of Navy families living in and around Norfolk. But the hoped-for public outcry did not take place, most likely because the dead pilot's son, Edwin B. Tucker, Jr., scoffed at Sampley's charge.

 "There was no coercion, none of that whatsoever," the son said. He emphasized that there was "no agreement, secret or otherwise. " He also questioned whether anyone would be foolish enough to place a body under glass and then allow it to decompose in public for fifteen years.

Over the next several years, Sampley continued to garner headlines with a variety of pranks and ill-founded press conferences.

In 1992 Sampley — now an official MIA family member through his marriage to the daughter of a man missing in Laos — finally organized a stunt that evolved into a national news story. He planned for a group of hecklers to disrupt President Bush's scheduled speech before the annual- National League of Families assembly. League officials thought Sampley might try something at the convention and told the Secret Service not to let him gate- crash. As expected, Sampley tried to get in to see the president's speech. When he refused to leave, Sampley was arrested and charged with trespassing.

But the hecklers were already in place. Even with Sampley absent, they performed as scheduled. When Bush began his talk, Sampley's people drowned him out, yelling, and "No more lies!" Bush asked the protestors to please let him finish. They yelled even louder. The exchange continued until Bush lost Ws cool and shouted, "Shut up and sit down!"

 The quote made national headlines. It was a triumphant moment for the activists, who used the episode to trumpet their claim that Bush had nothing but disrespect for the families. Sampley jumped to claim credit, threatening more such outbursts if the president did not order the immediate release of all government documents pertaining to MIAs.

 But if Sampley and his followers were pleased by the exchange, the National League of Families was highly embarrassed, and also very uneasy. The group's leaders were afraid that Bush would blame the entire organization for the disruption and that the episode might damage their relations with the government. The League took out newspaper ads apologizing to Bush.

While activists and family members were still abuzz over the confrontation, Sampley was already deep into his next project. It was his most scurrilous 2 to date, a sustained campaign to label Senator John McCain an undercover agent of the KGB.

Sampley, who years earlier had defended Bobby Garwood's actions as motivated by the need to survive, now accused McCain of being a weak-minded coward who had escaped death by collaborating with the enemy. Sampley claimed that McCain had first been compromised by the Vietnamese, then recruited by the Soviets.

 To those who know McCain and are familiar with his behavior in captivity, the charge is ludicrous. McCain resisted his captors to such a degree that he was isolated in a special prison for troublemakers. He repeatedly refused special favors, including early release, and emerged as a spiritual and religious leader for other prisoners. Nonetheless, Sampley was persistent enough in his claims that the press in McCain's home state of Arizona picked up on the KGB story.

Sampley's antagonism toward McCain stems from the senator's failure to live up to Sampley's idea of how a former POW should embrace the MIA cause. In Sampley's estimation, McCain's personal experience should have caused him to champion the search for live POWs, the way it had Red McDaniel. Instead, McCain focused on the more neutral search for "truth," as well as on the prosecution of charlatans who took money from MIA families.

 When McCain took the position that the United States should establish diplomatic relations with Vietnam in return for cooperation on the MIA issue, Sampley was outraged. He believed the United States should not have any dealings with its former enemy. Anyone who said otherwise — specifically, John McCain — was a traitor.

Sampley launched a private war 3 on McCain. He searched into the senator's background, digging up old school records, military reports, and the like. Among his finds was an obscure clipping from a Cuban newspaper dated 1970. The article contained high- lights of a Cuban psychiatrist's interview with POW McCain.

 The interview itself contains nothing startling. The young McCain boasts of his ability as a pilot, gives a message for his wife that he loves her and that she shouldn't worry about him, and talks about his father and grandfather, both Navy admirals. He says he had hoped to become both a test pilot and an astronaut.

Several times during the interview, the interpreter has trouble translating from English. McCain, who had been to the Spanish naval academy, supplies the words in Spanish.

Two decades after the fact, Sampley seized on McCain's use of Spanish as evidence that McCain had collaborated with the Cuban Communists. Sampley even called me at one point to promote his discovery as a news story. When I said there was no case, Sampley just laughed and changed the subject.

 Sampley continued his research 4 and eventually unearthed a 1973 interview in U.S. News & World Report in which McCain recounts his capture in Vietnam. In that article, McCain talks of landing in the middle of a lake and of being bludgeoned and bayoneted by an angry mob (the story was well known by the time Sampley found the article; perhaps it was the inspiration for his Wetzel and Tucker stories). McCain also talks about being beaten, tortured, and on the verge of death before finally agreeing to talk to his captors.

 Amazingly, Sampley said that McCain's decision to talk to his guards meant McCain had Communist leanings.

Sampley thought he found further evidence of McCain's treason in the writings of Soviet defector Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB general. According to Sampley's interpretation of Kalugin's stories, a high-ranking Navy officer had agreed while imprisoned n Vietnam that he would work for the Soviets upon his return to he United States. Sampley said the Navy man was John McCain.

Sampley questioned everything about McCain, from childhood on, and began writing a lengthy article. Sampley framed the story in the context of McCain as undercover KGB agent furthering the cause of Communist Vietnam. Sampley likened McCain's case to that of the character portrayed by Laurence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate. In that film, an American POW in the Korean War is brainwashed to do the bidding of his Communist captors. The prisoner is returned home, not knowing he is to be used as a political assassin. His actions will be triggered during a game of solitaire, when he turns up the queen of diamonds.

 Sampley titled his article "Sen. John McCain: The Manchurian Candidate?" Sampley used the story as the lead piece for the December 18, 1992, issue of his broadsheet. He placed a photo of McCain on the cover, facing a large queen of diamonds.

To make sure his target saw the story, Sampley personally delivered several copies to McCain's Washington, D.C., office. Of course, the senator's staff had already seen the article.

 Mark Salter, the senator's aide for POW/MIA affairs, was appalled that Sampley would come to the office. He ordered the activist to leave. Sampley said he had something he wanted to tell Salter, so the two went out into the hall. Salter followed as Sampley led him toward a stairwell. Salter asked what was going on.

 Sampley wheeled and punched the aide. Salter fought back. The scuffle was broken up by Senate security guards. 5

When the dust had settled, Salter asked Sampley to sign a document agreeing to stay away from McCain and his staff. Sampley refused, so Salter took the activist to court for assault. Sampley was sentenced to two days in jail and was placed on probation for 180 days. He was also served with a restraining order prohibiting him from going near McCain or the people who worked for him.

After Sampley got out of jail, I asked him to explain what had happened. He said Salter had thrown the first punch, but admitted to having gained the upper hand. He told me, blow for blow, what he had done to Salter.

 "I worked him over pretty good," Sampley said. "I beat him up."

Even though he had spent time in jail, Sampley gave the distinct impression that he viewed the entire "Manchurian Senator" affair as a marvelous adventure.

He displayed a similar attitude toward a fight he instigated against Jan Scruggs of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. Scruggs is the man who came up with the idea to erect the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington; he is now president of the fund that administers the memorial, a wall containing the names of service members killed in Vietnam. The wall has an accompanying statue, titled The Three Servicemen.

The trouble between Sampley and Scruggs began when Sampley acquired a public demonstration permit from the National Park Service that allowed vigils and other gatherings on federal land. Sampley set up what he said was a POW vigil booth along the walkway leading to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Its outward purpose was to hold an ongoing vigil for missing servicemen, but its location made it ideal for reaching a tailor-made market of service families, veterans, and other citizens paying respect to fallen warriors. Sampley stocked his vigil booth with POW paraphernalia, such as bumper stickers, badges, and flags, plus pamphlets, copies of his newspaper, and a bevy of T-shirts and other souvenirs bearing the likeness of The Three Servicemen.

Scruggs was offended that Sampley would turn the memorial into a self-serving commercial opportunity. Scruggs was even more disturbed that Sampley would market images of The Three Servicemen. The copyright to the statue is owned jointly by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and the sculptor, Frederick Hart. All income deriving from the statue's likeness belongs to the fund and the sculptor. The fund uses its portion of profits to help maintain the memorial. Hart donates his share to a nonprofit group that provides name rubbings and other services to Vietnam veterans and their families.

 Hart contacted Sampley and asked that he stop selling the T-shirts. Sampley refused. Hart and Scruggs then asked Sampley to do what other vendors had done: enter into a licensing agreement that would permit him to sell images of the statue. Again, Sampley said no.

Hart and Scruggs threatened litigation, saying they would not file suit if Sampley would enter into an agreement.

 Sampley responded in the pages of U.S. Veteran News and Report, using the same tactics he had employed against McCain. He cast aspersions on both Hart and Scruggs, portraying them as greedy scam artists profiteering off the pain of the American people. Sampley targeted Hart in particular as a former antiwar protestor "who had been gassed in ugly confrontations with the police. " Sampley did not mention that Hart kept no royalties for himself, instead printing that the sculptor had made a fortune off the statue. Sampley also recounted the original controversy surrounding the wall designed by Maya Lin (Sampley had been against the design and in 1982 wrote then-Interior Secretary James Watt protesting its funereal nature).

As for his own profiteering, Sampley took the high ground. He claimed that Homecoming II, which ran the vigil booth, was using the T-shirt proceeds to underwrite various POW-related projects.

 Tom Burch, an attorney who is active in POW/MIA issues, told Hart and Scruggs he was willing to mediate with Sampley. Burch was a natural choice for dealing with Sampley. As chairman of the National Vietnam Veterans Coalition, Burch uses methods similar to Sampley's. In July 1993, for example, Burch called on activists to mail a brick or, preferably, a cinder block to the White House, in protest against President Clinton's "stonewalling" on POWs.

 Notwithstanding his love for theatrics, Burch did not want to see his fellow veterans embroiled in public controversy. As one rabble-rouser to another, Burch did his best to convince Sampley to pay the licensing fee.

When Sampley again 6 declined to cooperate, Hart and Scruggs filed suit. The court sided with the copyright holders.

Documents filed with the court revealed the extent to which Sampley had made use of the statue and, indeed, of the entire POW issue.

The material showed that he had created a self-contained financial network that revolved around POWs and MIAs. One of Sampley's companies, Red Hawk, manufactured the POW T-shirts and sold them to his nonprofit Homecoming II, which in turn sold them at the vigil booth. Although Sampley could say he was destitute, with only one personal bank account containing $ 1 00, the organizations were quite healthy. His reported earnings from the cash-only T-shirt concession amounted to nearly $2 million over three years.

The cash flow was 7 abundant. In August 1991 alone, Homecoming II wrote ten checks to Red Hawk, totaling more than $18,000. Some of the checks were written on the same day or only a few days apart.

Despite the constant influx of money, Sampley did not pay the people who worked at the vigil booth. They were considered volunteers. Sampley also used them to compile data for his POW/ MIA biography project and to fold copies of U.S. Veteran News and Report.

In return for their work, which continued in shifts around the clock, the volunteers got a place to sleep at the Homecoming II House in Annandale, Virginia.

I visited the house shortly before Christmas of 1992 and found a stark arrangement that worked entirely to Sampley's benefit. Residents explained that they had to buy their own food and personal goods, even though they worked full time for no pay.

Among the volunteers was Cheyenne Borton, an eighteen-year-old girl who was the only female in a houseful of middle-aged men. Cheyenne explained how Sampley had arranged the volunteers' sleeping quarters: "When the house is full, you just pick a place on the floor."

 Despite its similarities to a nineteenth-century workhouse, the Homecoming II facility did not come under scrutiny in the course of the Hart/Scruggs lawsuit. The judge did not look into the financial dealings of the house, nor did he examine its relationship to Sampley's Red Hawk corporation. He merely looked at the concession stand sales figures and ordered Sampley to pay royalties in the amount Of $359,442.92.

It was only a symbolic victory for Hart and Scruggs. Sampley said he wasn't going to pay and successfully resisted all attempts to collect on the judgment.

I asked Sampley how he had managed to avoid doing what the court had ordered. "I immediately put Red Hawk out of business," he said. "I sold everything they owned, and paid bills. I closed down Homecoming II. I heard that Scruggs was planning to levy the vigil site, so I gave it away. I put everything into another nonprofit group."

When sheriffs arrived to foreclose on Sampley, there was nothing to seize. 8

Sampley, who says he has spent more than a half-million dollars defending himself on the T-shirt charge, emerged energized by the conflict. When it seemed as if the fight with Scruggs had progressed as far as it would go, Sampley turned to new attention-grabbing projects and reverted to one of his stock-in- trade publicity stunts, the bamboo cage. In the fall of 1993 he erected a cage outside the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps base and arranged for three MIA wives to starve themselves inside. While in the cage, the women ingested varying combinations of water, juice, and vitamins, but none took any food. The fast was a protest against President Clinton's plan to lift the trade embargo against Vietnam.

When Sampley called to tell me about the cage, I asked how long the women could hold up. He responded with what sounded like concern. "I'm kind of worried about them," he said. "They're all over forty."

 Still, Sampley fairly bubbled with excitement as he told me the cage had drawn many distinguished visitors, including U.S. Marines and Ross Perot.

As insurance against the media missing a chance to speak to the starving women, Sampley had a phone line installed inside the cage. On the twelfth day of their fast, the women were taken to the hospital. Their ordeal had no impact on Clinton, who, on September 14, 1993, went ahead with his plan for a modified lifting of the trade embargo. He lifted it entirely in early 1994.

Despite Sampley's many ill-conceived escapades, he is not without his charm. Like Hendon and LeBoutillier, he has a special knack for establishing quick rapport. He is also well informed on the POW issue. Unlike the two ex-congressmen, however, he is funny and self-deprecating.

 Sampley has used these attractive qualities to gain the attention he seems to crave from high-powered persons. He earned the good graces of Tracy Usry, for instance, who served for many years as an aide to Senator Jesse Helms. Through his contact with Usry, Sampley enjoyed a lengthy career as an expert witness to various legislative committees and panels. He was even invited to the White House to brief President Clinton on the topic of MIAs. Sampley told the new president that prisoners were still being held in Southeast Asia but did not discuss the one subject of his true expertise: chicanery in the guise of POW activism.

End of chapter 12.


  1. Pp. 195 - 917; Sampley has received extensive press coverage of his many stunts; copies of new articles documenting the activities are in the author's files. Many of the clippings were mailed to the author by Sampley.
  2. P. 197; Sampley did much to publicize his own article about McCain as a KGB agent and repeatedly tried to persuade the author to pursue the story for The Washington Times.
  3. The article appeared in the January 124, 1970, edition of Granma. Sampley obtained it after it had been translated into English and transcribed in a weekly bulleting issued by the CIA's Foreign Broadcast Information Service. (Note: Sampley frequently refers to "official US government documents" that describe McCain's interview with the Cuban. It is this FBIS translation of the alleged interview to which he refers as a US government document.)
  4. The interview was published in the issue dated May 14, 1973.
  5. Accounts of the scuffle were given to me by both Sampley and Salter. Sampley himself told me what his sentence was.
  6. On June 24, 1992, Judge Charles R. Richey of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia rules that the copyright to The Three Servicemen was properly held by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and sculptor Frederick Hart. Judge Richey entered a permanent injunction against Sampley and his companies, ordering them to stop selling likenesses of the statue. On December 10, 1992, Judge Richey entered a judgment of $359,442.92 against Sampley and his companies for copyright infringement.
  7. Copies of Sampley's financial records are in the author's files.
  8. Sampley told me this himself.

END QUOTE, Prisoners of Hope, pages 193 - 205, copyright by Susan Katz-Keating .

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UPDATE, February 2007:  Here is a series of three articles written by an individual in North Carolina who has researched Sampley's antics. 

  1. Who Is Ted Sampley and Why Do I Care, Part I.      http://www.bluenc.com/node/3783

  2. A Darker Shade of Ted.    http://www.bluenc.com/node/3796

  3. Disreputable, Despicable, Dishonest:  http://www.bluenc.com/node/3820

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