Posted 3/31/2014 12:00 am
Updated 4 months ago
A version of this article originally appeared in Arkansas Business on June 16, 1997. It is being republished as part of Arkansas Business' 30th anniversary issue. You can access the digital edition for free here.
Johnny Allison, the manufactured-home magnate who apparently was kidnapped June 5 by escaped convict James Avery Slack and escaped by crashing his car into a dump truck, spoke to Arkansas Business about the ordeal after returning home to Conway last week.
“I want to know why he targeted me,” Allison said, though he believes he has the answer. Allison is a close friend of Alex Lieblong of Conway, the nationally known investment adviser whose wife, Jo Ann, was kidnapped by the same man in 1993.
After that incident, Slack led law enforcement officials on a long chase before turning himself over to police several days later. During Slack’s trial, Allison says, he sat with the Lieblong family as a gesture of support. And as Slack and Allison rode around Conway on June 5, it became clear that Slack was angry about Allison’s presence at the Conway trial, Allison says.
“He thinks he got a real raw deal in Faulkner County on the last kidnapping,” Allison says. “He thinks 88 years was very excessive.”
Lieblong, contacted Thursday, was still emotional about the recent events. “It couldn’t have hurt me any worse if it had been my brother,” he says.
On June 5, Allison says, a white man, mysteriously carrying a coat on an 80-degree day, walked into the office of Spirit Mobile Homes in Conway and put a gun to his head.
“He said, ‘Do you know who I am?’” Allison says he considered the coat and the man’s agitated demeanor and decided that he probably had a gun. “He pulled his glasses off and I said, ‘Are you Slack?’” The man said yes.
“I’m thinking, it’s so bizarre, it’s so ‘wow,’ that it’s almost like a dream, but I pulled myself together.”
At that point, Allison says, Slack made him leave the building. Once in Allison’s Mercedes convertible, Allison says, Slack told him he wanted $100,000 in ransom money in exchange for Allison’s release. The two men were on the way to a rendezvous with one of Allison’s employees to get the money when Allison crashed the car. Later, it turned out that Milburn Adams, one of Allison’s employees, had been tailing them much of the day but couldn’t decide if Allison was in danger.
Employees at Spirit Mobile Homes “thought there was something going on,” Allison says, noting that he flashed one of them a look of concern as he walked out of the building with Slack. “I don’t deal in cash. They thought it was strange, but nobody ever called the police. I left bread crumbs everywhere, but they just didn’t pick up on it.”
Later, Allison says, “I told the bank if I ever call for cash, call the police.”
Slack was charged Thursday in Faulkner County Circuit Court with kidnapping, terroristic threatening and being a felon in possession of a firearm. He pleaded innocent to the charges. The trial was set for Nov. 4, and pretrial hearings were scheduled for Sept. 22 and Oct. 20.
“It changed my whole complexion on life,” Allison says of the kidnapping. “My calendar was booked that week and I had lots of things to do, and suddenly nothing was important.”
“The erroneous thing was that he thought I was the guy that helped get him the 88 years,” Allison says. “He asked me why I was there [at the trial], and I said I was supporting my friend. I looked him in the eye and asked him if he wouldn’t support one of his friends in that situation.”
Slack agreed, Allison says.
Though Slack had a gun, Allison says he was sympathetic to his captor.
“He didn’t threaten my wife and kids; he didn’t want to hurt me unless he had to. I honestly felt sorry for him.”
When the two drove by a construction site, Slack mentioned that he used to be a construction worker. “He said he’d give anything to be out there working,” Allison said. “When he found out that I was a real person and that I started with nothing, he said, ‘Johnny, how are you going to get that money back?’” referring to the $100,000 ransom. “I said, ‘I’m going to work.’”
That seemed to impress Slack, Allison says.
“The guy told me ‘... you know, I really like you.’ I said I thought I could really like him under different circumstances. He said, ‘A lot of people, you stick a gun to their head and they go yipping and yapping.’ He said, ‘You’re different.’”
Slack didn’t know that Allison owned and was capable of flying an airplane, Allison says; he was just trying to get some money and get out of town.
“He said Mexico to me; he said Louisiana; he said Dallas. At one time, he told me he wanted me to wire some money to some bank, which I couldn’t do.
“During those hours, we were planning how to steal my money, if that makes any sense.”
The plan that Allison finally related over the telephone to an employee was that he was going to buy some mobile homes from a man named James and that James didn’t want to deal with banks.
“Somebody was sent to pick up the money and was bringing it to me ... and I knew that my chances were better before I had the money than after.”
On the way to pick up the money, Allison says, he decided to steer his car into the dump truck. Allison says he was thinking, “’If you’re going to die, you might as well die here, and you might live.’ I really never feared death. I thought I might hurt myself ... but I thought I might hurt him, too.”
Both men were hurt in the crash. Slack ran away from the scene, and Allison’s injuries ultimately required 30 stitches to one eye and 15 or so in one hand.
After the crash, Allison says, he went home and picked up his family, got his wounds stitched and flew out of the area in his airplane. Since then, Allison has kept a low profile with the media.
Not Getting Involved
Allison says he won’t try to get too involved with Slack’s prosecution, and won’t push for an especially stiff sentence. “I probably would have, had he threatened my wife and family,” he says.
Allison also shed some light on another one of the mysteries surrounding the kidnapping. In recent stories, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has quoted sources as saying that Slack presented himself at Allison’s office as Bill Lewis, a convicted drug dealer whose sentence commutation earlier this year by Gov. Mike Huckabee created a controversy. Since then, many have wondered why Slack would have used such an alias to gain access to Allison.
Lewis is the son of Tommy Lewis, who owns the Lewis Livestock Auction in Conway, Allison points out, and Allison and Tommy Lewis are very close friends. Allison says he wasn’t sure what alias Slack used when he came to the office.
Lieblong says he had a “real sick feeling” when he heard about Allison’s ordeal. He says he is unsure why Slack would have targeted Allison other than the fact that Allison openly supported him and his wife during Slack’s trial for that kidnapping.
“Johnny’s a friend of mine and everybody knows he was there at my deal,” Lieblong says. “I think [Allison] was accessible and, like myself, he probably has too high a profile for [his] own good. But it couldn’t have been a worse deal.”
Lieblong still is concerned about what made Slack “go bad in the first place.” He says he even visited Slack in prison to try to determine some of his motives.
“Here is a guy who is very, very bright in some ways,” Lieblong says. “He is not an inner-city youth who has other problems. He’s a military veteran, an officer in the military and he almost has a master’s degree.”
Lieblong also is curious how Slack supported himself even before he kidnapped Lieblong’s wife in 1993.
“Something’s been going on for a long, long time,” Lieblong says. “Here’s a guy who [allegedly] kidnapped two other people before he got me and my wife. He was paying his rent for several years by cash each month. This isn’t just a one-case deal.”
At one point after the Lieblong kidnapping, Slack told authorities that he had tied up and robbed Jimmy Fiddler of Conway. State police also investigated Slack as a suspect in the kidnapping of John Slingerland of Star City, but Slack was never charged in the case. Slack was convicted in 1992 of illegally possessing a machine gun and received a sentence of two years’ probation.
Nevertheless, Lieblong says he has sympathy and pity for Slack and he feels sorry for Slack’s children.
“Maybe this thing will end,” Lieblong says. “The whole episode is a sad deal. I’m not taking any pleasure in any part of it. I wish the hell I’d never heard of him.”
Since Then ...
2014: James Avery Slack was convicted of kidnapping Johnny Allison and second degree terroristic threatening in May 1998 and sentenced to 60 years in state prison. That prison time is to be served concurrently with the 88-year sentence he received for kidnapping Jo Ann Lieblong in 1993.
Slack, now 61, currently is imprisoned in the maximum security unit at Brickeys (Lee County). He escaped from the state maximum security prison at Tucker on May 18, 1997.
Allison was one of the largest shareholders in Little Rock’s First Commercial Corp. when it sold in 1998 to Regions Financial Corp. of Birmingham, Ala.
Not long after that $2.7 billion stock swap closed, Allison began the formation of today’s Home BancShares Inc. He is chairman of the Conway bank holding company, and Alex Lieblong is an investor and director.