NOTE: This story is not fishing related but posted here because January 2023 marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of the book, When Money Grew on Trees, which I co-authored and edited.
The True Tale of Writing a Marijuana Grower’s Memoir
The last time I heard David McElyea’s voice, he threatened to kill me.
“I oughta come up there and blow your head off,” Dave declared before I hung up the telephone.
After four years dealing with Dave as a writing and business partner, I’d finally had enough of his threats and abuse. In fact, that was the second death threat, and with Dave headed to prison for robbery, I chose to forever avoid the desperate and dangerous man I once called friend.
As it turns out, forever became a reality when Dave slit his own throat and repeatedly stabbed himself April 22, 2009, in a Fayetteville, Ark., Wal-Mart, after he again was caught shoplifting. This time, Dave chose the grave over a third trip to prison.
With the distance of time and thousands of miles between us, I’d nearly forgotten the years we spent writing Dave’s famous marijuana memoir, “When Money Grew On Trees.” Dave’s suicide brought those memories back, and I’d like to set the record straight about my days working with Dave and how that book was written and published.
Writing The Book
I met Dave McElyea when I worked as a journalist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. I was writing a follow-up three years after the death of Madison County Sheriff Ralph Baker, and interviewed dozens of people for the story, from judges to FBI agents, neighbors and even Ralph’s widow. None were willing to go on the record about the former sheriff’s alleged shadow life as a criminal with a badge, but Dave McElyea’s name came up in interviews time and again.
When I contacted Dave, he agreed to meet and share stories about his days growing marijuana in Madison County and his friendship with the dead sheriff. As a journalist, I was elated that I’d finally found a firsthand source to detail Ralph Baker’s shady side.
Dave explained that he was writing a book about his experience, but ultimately refused to go on the record for the newspaper out of fear of retribution from local authorities who guarded Ralph Baker’s reputation. The article ran regardless, and Dave’s tale was mostly left out of the story.
A few months passed, and I grew weary of working at the newspaper and wanted to do more with my writing talent. Impulsively, I quit my job in spring 2001, contacted Dave and offered to edit his book. He welcomed the help and we immediately got to work.
However, “book” was a loose term, as I quickly discovered that most of Dave’s story had yet to make it from his mind to the page. Also, after years of legal fees and bad investments, Dave was broke. He clearly wanted the book to generate money, and not as a vehicle to share about his time growing marijuana and paying the sheriff for protection.
Realizing that Dave was less interested in producing a solid story than making quick cash, I asked him to sign a contract that specified I’d get a $3,000 cash advance plus 15 percent of all book sales.
Most importantly, the contract stipulated that the work would not be printed unless both of us agreed it was ready for publication. I requested that detail after Dave said he was willing to publish a sub-standard book just to start the money rolling. “Do people really care if all the words are spelled right?” Dave once asked.
Dave’s desire to publish a book as quickly as possible, regardless of its quality, ultimately led to our confrontation as writing partners. I offered to edit the work in order to tell an important story exposing official corruption, while Dave merely wanted more money and 15 minutes of fame.
The work went slowly during 2001, with Dave writing the tale and me close behind editing what he’d just completed. Not a writer, but a good barstool boaster, Dave cared more about publishing the book than the words between its covers.
We bantered about book-writing basics from the beginning. I insisted that Dave focus as much on simple transitions that carry readers along with the story as on the story itself, but Dave was mostly unwilling to devote the time. As a result, I wrote and rewrote much of book. My role shifted from mere editor to co-author, although Dave refused to acknowledge that fact in terms of credit due or money paid.
In fact, much of the book would not exist without my help. My contacts at the newspaper helped secure the book’s haunting back-cover image of Ralph Baker and I penned the back cover’s book blurb. At the Shiloh Museum in Springdale, I tracked down the inside photo of Bill Clinton standing proudly beside the sheriff he once defended in court as a young lawyer.
Also, I wrote captions for all photos, crafted most chapter titles and called on a photographer friend from the newspaper to stage and photograph the cover image. Even the book’s title is my creation. Dave wanted to call the book, “Ralph and Me,” in homage to Michael Moore’s 1988 documentary about General Motors. I talked him out of it.
Little by little, we learned to work as a team and became friends as we wrote throughout 2001 and into 2002. The story came together slowly, with two minds hammering away at the details until we’d written about half the book. That’s when life changed for us both.
With little money flowing in and the mortgage and other bills stacking up, I found part-time work as a painter and carpenter out of state during summer 2002. Dave took my search for money to mean that I’d walked away from the project, and arranged for the still-unfinished book to be published in electronic format.
His decision not only violated our contract, it was my first glimpse of Dave’s willingness to use people to achieve his goals. Efforts to talk him out of the premature publication failed. That’s when Dave first threatened to kill me.
“Do I have to come over there and finish you off for good?” Dave asked without hesitation.
Shaken by the threat and refusing to be bullied, I abandoned hope that the book would ever be properly printed. I took a job as a newspaper editor in Oregon, packed my bags and left Dave to mishandle the project alone.
Unedited and essentially still a polished rough draft, the book was published in January 2003 by First Books Library, an Indiana-based company that specialized in getting first-time authors in print – for a price. The fee included typesetting, front and back covers and an option to print hard copies on request. When completed, the book was sloppy at best. The cover was fuzzy and unreadable. Words were misspelled. Entire sentences were omitted and paragraphs trailed off into blank-page oblivion. Photos were poorly reproduced and captions misplaced. In short, the book was an unfinished embarrassment.
Surprisingly, the badly done book quickly sold several thousand copies, mostly to folks in Madison County and across Northwest Arkansas. Many of those early copies still linger on bookshelves across the state. My copy is signed by Dave, “For my good friend Jason.”
In spring 2003, with newfound fame from newspaper columns about the book – as well as continued sales – Dave decided that he wanted a well-written work, not just a book with two covers and numbered pages in between.
Dave contacted me in Kansas, where I’d accepted a job as magazine editor. With no one willing to work with Dave to complete his unfinished book, he begged me to help edit and finalize the work. Against my better judgment, I agreed, in part because I wanted the chance to save my reputation as a journalist by producing a prize-winning story important to Arkansas’ history.
With First Books Library unwilling to alter the first printing without additional money, I helped Dave locate a printer in Nashville, Tenn., to produce a second edition. Always shuffling money like a Three Card Monty professional, Dave decided to scam the printer for $11,000 and thousands of books. After he’d written the check and received the book shipment, Dave immediately cancelled the check, complained that the ink was smudged on several copies and refused to pay.
Before the book could be reprinted, I insisted that we fix its flaws. We spent the next few months revising the well-written parts and rewriting the poorly done pages. I worked full days at the magazine, and burned the midnight oil tinkering with text to get each sentence just exactly perfect. I cajoled professional page designers to redo the book’s front and back covers, and hyped the work with friends at Northwest Arkansas newspapers.
Yet, Dave began to hurry the work along, and I couldn’t understand the need for speed given that the book had already been published once, and we were simply adding the final polish it lacked. One day, I learned that the burr in Dave’s saddle came not from an overeager author, but from his 2003 arrest for shoplifting at Wal-Mart. Dave was caught stealing water filters, which he sold on eBay to make ends meet because he refused to work a normal job.
Worse yet, prosecutors called it robbery because Dave allegedly struck a Wal-Mart security guard while fleeing. Ultimately, he was sentenced in spring 2004 to eight years in prison by a judge Dave wrote about in the book – whom he and others believed should’ve recused his self from the case. Another person would’ve been merely charged with a misdemeanor for such a crime, but Dave made only enemies among Northwest Arkansas’ law enforcement community, and prosecutors snatched the chance to take Dave down with a felony conviction.
That would be Dave’s second and final trip to an Arkansas prison, but he had a long history of legal problems big and small. Just before Sept. 11, 2001, Dave ran afoul of the FBI, and agents ransacked his Fayetteville house on several occasions searching for Dave’s connection to a Russian night vision equipment sales racket. He was never charged, but the feds kept a close eye on him for years. Another time, prosecutors pressured Dave to testify against a well-known Mexican meth dealer, for whom Dave once ferried drugs. From felony marijuana cultivation to DWI, the IRS and FBI, Dave lived with perpetual legal problems.
Despite his robbery conviction, Dave managed to publish a second and even a third printing of the book while he appealed. The book briefly rose into the top 3,000 books sold on Amazon, and outsold “Harry Potter” and Hillary Clinton’s book at the Fayetteville Barnes and Noble for a few months.
During that time, Dave showed his generosity by selling books and donating profits at community bake sales in Madison County, or whatever cause-of-the-day arose. He was reluctant to go on the record when I wrote my 2001 newspaper article about Sheriff Ralph Baker, but Dave now reveled in the new attention. Newspapers published columns about Dave, and he was invited to local radio talk shows. Folks bought him drinks at the bar, others gave him weed and women wanted to date him. Dave was a local celebrity.
Stubbornly, Dave refused to allow me to approve the final copy before it was sent to the printer a second time. In fact, he didn’t let me make corrections to the digital files myself, opting to add edits on his own computer with his own hand. Dave’s “do-it-yourself” strategy failed when the book’s second printing again carried many errors. That’s because Dave couldn’t keep the book’s electronic files organized, a problem I discovered when I came across an unedited sentence that I’d corrected previously.
When confronted with the flaws in his work, Dave naturally blamed me. No amount of arguing could ever convince Dave that he was wrong, a self-acknowledged trait that came up time and again throughout our friendship.
In the end, Dave said I ruined his book because it wasn’t properly edited. I argued that he was to blame because he didn’t permit me to approve the final copy before it went to press. Two years before, I predicted that Dave would rush the job and publish the book before it was completed, which I tried to prevent with our original contract.
I failed, however, and learned that contracts mean nothing unless a person has money to enforce them. Since Dave wasn’t a man of his word, and I had no money to hire attorneys to enforce our agreement, I walked away from the project for the final time. In the end, I received about $6,000 over four years, while Dave earned untold thousands of dollars from the work I helped craft.
Death Threat And A Dead Friendship
Dave stayed out of prison while he appealed the conviction, and I tried to forget about the years I wasted on a fruitless book project. Then, just before Dave was arrested at the Canadian border in May 2005 trying to avoid a second stay in the state pen, he called and asked if I’d take on the book business while he was locked up.
Given my bad experiences with Dave’s failure to honor past agreements, I insisted on full control of the book project during his prison stint, including marketing and co-ownership. Dave agreed, we set a time to meet and work out a game plan. The next day, a few hours before Dave was slated to arrive and finalize the deal, he called and his voice sounded grim. After a few strange moments of uncomfortable banter, he became angry.
“I oughta come up there and blow your head off,” Dave sneered. Slowly, I hung up the phone while my heart beat overtime from fear.
That’s the last time I ever spoke with Dave McElyea, and I can’t say I’m sorry about that fact. Yet, I was sad when I learned that he died April 22 by his own hand. Dave was a bad business partner and terrible friend, but in the end, like the outlaw sheriff chronicled in the book, Dave was just as human as everyone.
Originally from Michigan, Dave was smarter than average, shrewd and crafty, but the gentle side he harbored will always stay with me, along with the death threats. More than just a convicted felon and admitted drug runner, Dave also could be kind in unexpected ways. When I had no money for dog food to feed my four-legged companion, Dave appeared unannounced at my door with a 25-pound bag over his shoulder and a big smile. Another time, Dave picked me up at the bus station when no other friend would make the trip. He laughed at my jokes, clapped at my guitar playing and ate supper at my table. In short, we were friends as well as adversaries.
Also, I’ll never forget the blissful way he talked about his two children, because he loved them second only to his mother, to whom he dedicated the book. In the end, not even love for his family could save Dave from self-destruction. That’s because Dave was ultimately a loner who looked out only for his interests. Like the myth of the scorpion and turtle that Dave included in the book’s epilogue – in which the scorpion stings the turtle while riding its back across a river, despite promises that the turtle would be safe – Dave could only be Dave. Acting in his self-interest was central to Dave’s character, that’s how he lived and that’s how he died.
Before the death threats and bitterness, I came across that old parable in Dave’s files while editing one day. Dave used the tale of the scorpion and turtle to illustrate that Ralph Baker was simply being true to himself, and lived as an outlaw despite the fact that he carried a badge, because that’s who he was at heart.
Aware that the work I edited was filled with tales about Dave and friends double-crossing each other at every turn for money, I asked Dave if I should be concerned about the same thing happening to me when it came time to settle up for the editing work. Was I the turtle and Dave the scorpion? True to his nature, Dave just smiled and reassured me that those stories about his self-serving days were ancient history, just like the parable we discussed.
Years later, however, when I insisted that we should’ve worked together to make the book great during our final phone conversation, Dave’s reply revealed the scorpion within.
“That’s been your problem all along,” Dave declared. “There was never a ‘we’. There was only ‘me.’”