Kate Silver

Long Live The King

Twenty-five years after his death, the King's ethereal presence is still swiveling its royal hips. In many ways, Elvis Presley is just as alive today as he was back in the day (no, not literally, conspiracy theorists). Consider the inescapable (and oft poorly imitated) "Thank you, Thank you very much," millions of Elvis sightings, trillions of velvet Elvi and hordes of impersonators that can be found in any sizable city in any state in the country. The phenomena shocks even Dave Hebler, Elvis' former bodyguard and martial artist who experienced His Eminence firsthand.

"I'm just absolutely astounded that 25 years have gone by," says Hebler, who now owns a karate studio in Hillsboro, Ore. "Elvis touched a chord in people when he was alive and that chord is still ringing 25 years later. Absolutely unbelievable."

Hebler is a wealth of knowledge about the King, some of which he's willing to share, and reams of behind-the-scenes debauchery that he prefers to internalize. Co-author of "Elvis, What Happened?" a best-selling book about his and two other body guards' experiences with Elvis, Hebler was on the road with The King until a year before he died. He fondly remembers the first time they met in 1972 at a karate studio in Santa Monica, Calif.

"We were all working out, having a good time and noticed there was a commotion at the door. When I looked up, in walked Elvis Presley," Hebler recalls. "He ended up out on the mats with us, and I ended up being his partner, or in our terminology, his dummy. The dummy is the person who initiates the attack and you perform whatever technique you're going to perform on him, and he just kind of stands there. I guess he kinda liked beating on me so he came out to my studio a couple days later and invited me to be one of the Memphis Mafia boys, go on tour and go off into Never Never Land."

Thus began his journey, which ended in 1976 -- a year before the King died -- for reasons that are still a mystery to Hebler. But his memories of The King revolve around all of the good times and laughs they shared. And the lessons that he's learned.

Right now Hebler is preparing for a trip out to the Elvis-A-Rama museum in Las Vegas, Nev., (a kind of Graceland of the West) where Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman will proclaim "Elvis Presley Day," patrons will each Elvis cake, watch Elvis impersonators and embark on an Elvis candlelight vigil. He took a few minutes to say what he's gleaned from his years with Elvis.

On Elvis and drugs:

"Nobody can beat drugs, I don't care who you are. When you've got drugs hammering your system, of course you're not in control. You may think you are, but you're not. It was a shame, too. I've got to tell you something: When Elvis was straight he was the greatest guy I've ever met in my life. He was warm and friendly and funny. He was hilarious."

On Elvis impersonators:

"I don't like the ones who think they're Elvis. They kind of piss me off. But the ones who admire Elvis, they're generally doing it from a tribute perspective, I pretty much like them. But at the same time, I feel a little bit sorry for them, because their chosen profession is to imitate someone else, and that means they can never win. As long as you're imitating someone else, you'll never come in first. Still, for someone to get up and be an Elvis imitator he has to really work hard, put out a tremendous amount of effort for an extended period of time, you've got to kind of admire that. It's like going into a gym and seeing people in the gym who are fat and out of shape? You've got to admire them because they're in there and they're doing it. From that perspective I don't have a problem with any Elvis impersonator."

On the possibility of Elvis living:

"People who believe that Elvis lives try to give me facts and it's always something obscure. 'There was an orange that fell out the tree in Ft. Lauderdale and when the folks picked it up it has Elvis' face on it and that proves he's still alive.' I tell them I keep him in my closet and feed him peanut butter and banana sandwiches fried in butter. They're absolutely right. No, what can you say to them? 'You're stupid,' 'You're dumb,' 'You're crazy'? They're convinced for whatever reason you're not going to change their mind. It's pointless to argue, and I don't like arguing. Believe in whatever you want."

And on the richness of Elvis' life:

"People say to me all the time 'It's such a shame that Elvis died so young.' Well let me tell you something: Elvis Presley actually achieved the one thing that you, and I and everybody else on the face of this planet try to achieve. He was able to live life on his own terms. He did everything he wanted to do, he went everywhere he wanted to go, he met anyone he wanted to meet. He literally did everything he wanted. I don't know how many people can say that. His life may have ended prematurely, but by God, what a life. What impressed me more than anything else is how enormously powerful he was. No one ever said no to Elvis Presley."

Kate Silver is a staff writer for Las Vegas Weekly, where this article originally appeared.

Imitating Elvis

Name: Tony La Torre
Title: Elvis tribute artist.

Where were you when Elvis died?
I was 8 years old. It was late in the afternoon, and I remember that I wasn't that shaken by it. Though I loved Elvis, I knew he was in poor health and wasn't very happy. So when I heard about his death, I believed that he had gone to heaven and that his pain was now over. I took solace in that and also in the fact that I could still enjoy his music and watch his movies, and that someday I would see him again when I died and went to heaven, too.

What does the 25th anniversary of his death mean to you?
The fact that 25 years after his passing, there are so many special events all over the world commemorating his memory is just more testimony to the fact that Elvis was the greatest entertainer of the all time and always will be. Love and enthusiasm for his music has only grown with time. He is as popular today as he ever was, and maybe more so. Who else can we say that about? Who else has touched his fans so deeply? No one, and no one ever will. Elvis is still the King.

How will you commemorate the day?
I plan to commemorate the day by performing some of my favorite songs here in Vegas and meeting other tribute artists. It's always fun to hear their stories and share what has brought us all into this unique family. I think Elvis would be touched to see how many guys are dedicated to keeping his memory alive. That's what being a tribute artist is all about.

Name: Johnny Thompson
Title: Elvis impersonator and founder of the Professional Elvis Impersonators Association

Where were you when Elvis died?
I was in Biloxi, Miss., I think I was about 11-and-a-half years old. I was on the beach with my family and we were staying at the Sheraton hotel where Elvis used to go on vacation, and we turned on the TV and saw our hotel on every channel. The first thing I did was I called my dad and stepmom in the next room and told them "Elvis is dead," and they said "That's not even funny." So I go "No, no, turn on the television," and it was pretty sad. My father was a huge Elvis fan and my mother was a huge Elvis fan, and when I grew up listening to his music and watching his movies.

What does the 25th anniversary mean to you?
Jesus. It means I'm getting old (laughs). To be honest with you, every day that I do Elvis it's in honor of him and a tribute to him. So this year's really not necessarily any different than any other year for me.

How will you commemorate it?
I'll be performing on the 15th to 17th at the South East Alaska state fair.

Name: Harry Shahoian
Title: Elvis tribute artist at the MGM Grand's Rock 'n Roll Fantasy

Where were you when Elvis died?
Home, age 5. I remember it but not very well.

What does the 25th anniversary mean to you?
It means to me that this was a powerful, powerful human being. This is a guy dead 25 years and has a number-one hit right now in Europe, called "A Little Less Conversation." That just shows you how great the man was: 25 years later the fact people talk about him and he's the most impersonated person in the world. I really wish he was still around.

How will you commemorate the 25th anniversary of his death?
I'm usually performing on that day. I don't know if I really mourn it, I just recognize it and do my best performance that I possibly can. I think it would be different if I was raised with him, but I've become a fan after his death. It's crazy because to a lot of people, Elvis is Jesus Christ. In a lot of people's eyes Elvis could do no wrong especially, in his last couple days, when there was no one there to tell Elvis what he was doing to himself was wrong. But he got away with it because he's like JC.

The Electric Christian Rapture Test

They say all it takes is a little bit of faith, some cash and a signature, and if everything goes as planned, subscribing Christians (and maybe a few trusting infidels) will be free of the evil power companies -- and their power bills -- for life.

Call it the Electric Christian Rapture Test.

"I sold all my stock last year because I would rather put it into this company than the stock market," says Conrad Sorensen, who owns a dealership in Henderson, Nevada called Grassroot Enterprises of Tesla, Inc. "I feel my money's going to be safer here than any stock market."

Sorensen is part of a network of disciples of self-proclaimed anointed one, inventor and Christian evangelist Dennis Lee, who -- though he has actions pending against him by attorneys general and alerts filed by Better Business Bureaus in various states -- has been traveling the country, registering people for free power. The would-be, modern-day miracle-maker says that the Fourth of July will take on an extra special meaning this year. This July 4 will not just be Independence Day for our nation. It will be America's Declaration of Energy Independence Day. The day when their fabulous invention will be unveiled and the faithful will receive the free electricity that Lee's brethren have been promising for years.

You heard it right: Free electricity will shine down on believers, they say, in a 21st-century revelation, distinguishing the shepherds from the flock. The faithful will bask in light, and the nonbelievers will go on selling their souls to the Big Electric Companies.

Sound too good to be true?

With rising electricity costs and an increased focus on alternative energy sources it seems the nation's vulnerable underbelly has been exposed to these folks, whom skeptics consider little more than snake oil salesmen. And they seem to know exactly what population to target -- for example, disgruntled locals who show up at Public Utilities Commission hearings. At events like these, the sales representatives paper cars, sell videotapes and register people for "free electricity machines."

Others have found willing listeners in evangelical Christians looking to discover more of the lord's power, and the elderly, who find fellowship in Lee's following, and have money to invest in expensive dealerships.

Looks like the nation's power companies aren't the only ones hoping to strike it rich.

Perpetual Motion

"Our slogan is it's too good to be ignored," says Sorensen, 46, a former pipe-fitter who bought his dealership from Dennis Lee in November 1999 for $20,000 -- a good deal, considering they reportedly go for about $100,000 today.

Lee, who owns United Community Services of America Inc., Better World Technologies and International Tesla Electric Co., is known to attorneys general across the nation as a threat to consumers, and to followers as a practically divine inventor. Claiming God as his companies' chairman, Lee says he has access to a generator that uses magnets and runs at 500 percent efficiency. He's been peddling his devices since about 1987, having made two national tours appealing to charismatic Christian sensibilities and governmental-corporate paranoia.

While there's no actual proof that these devices exist, Lee insists -- in segments you can view and hear on his various Web sites -- that folks on his team have been killed and that the government and power companies will do anything and everything in their power to squash this new, threatening technology. Attorneys general across the country think otherwise, many filing legal action to keep Lee's companies from selling his wares in their states. Lee declined an interview via email through his assistant, Mike Hall, who didn't like my story angle.

"If you were doing an interview about the project and what we are trying to achieve, that would be one thing," wrote Hall. "But if all you are interested in is getting 'his' side to these accusations, then you can do your article without Dennis' assistance." (Please note: Hall bargained with me when I asked if I could quote him, saying I could do so only if I also wrote that anyone who mentioned this article could get a free videotape at www.power4free.com.)

But critics aside, Sorensen and 1,999 others across the nation, according to Lee, have invested in his rhetoric. They purchase dealerships and then sign people up for free electricity. Different dealers have different requirements. Some may charge a fee for shipping in their materials, others may charge for the videotapes, and some may require membership North American Special Discounts Club (you got it -- NASDAC).

Sorensen makes money off selling $15 videotapes of Lee's presentations and by selling goods from Lee's other companies -- silent jackhammers, oil-eating balls, radioactive waste neutralizers and cars that run on water, among other items. He says that he's signed up about 800 people for free electricity nationwide, many of whom he met during a stop on Lee's 50-state tour last year.

Although he went into hock to buy his dealership, Sorensen believes it to be a solid investment that, in due time, will pay off. He says he was willing to invest in it because he believes in the technology and the conspiracy that Lee claims keeps free electricity out of the public's hands.

"I see how inventors get suppressed all the time," he says. Further, Sorensen says that his involvement with the company has led him to God, and he's not alone.

"I think that most people, when they do get involved with it, they'll see that there really is a God," he says. "To tell you the truth, I wasn't much of a believer, it's just that I know that there's a God now because I've seen so many different things through this organization. We have 500 technologies we literally have on hold right now, waiting to bring out to the world, because we don't have no finances for them, but when we start selling the power, we will."

His goal right now is to recruit what Lee and his followers refer to as "witnesses." That means people who believe in free power. Witness status used to require a one-time investment of $275, but now, at least with Sorensen's clients, all they have to do is purchase the company's videotape and sign a contract.

"We're trying to recruit 1.6 million witnesses to view these generators being demonstrated in 100 homes throughout the country, two per state," Sorensen pitches. "We're sending out invitations to people to come witness on one day, hopefully July 4. We'll give the people who come view this free electricity for the rest of their life. What we sell is a generator that makes 30 kilowatts per hour; the average home only uses two.

"We're going to give you that free power in exchange for us to send that excess power back and sell it. We figure if we can sell 5-cents per kilowatt hour, that makes 12,000 per unit. So the homeowner doesn't have to put up any cost. We just ask for them to buy a video to explain what we're doing. Then we register you in line to have one of these generators put in."

After witnessing the proposed July 4 free electricity show, those who've already signed up to receive the free electricity are expected to proselytize the greatness they've witnessed, and sign up nine people. But since these nine wouldn't take a blind leap of faith, as the first witnesses did, they have to pay $1,500 for their lifetime of electricity.

"We'll give them two months to get nine additional people to us, and after that we can get them on our own," he says. "That was 16 million homes overnight that want this technology. With 116 million homes, that's 100 percent of electricity needs in the U.S., and 40 million voters. Then we can get the proper deregulation in every state."

Baddabing, baddaboom, national domination.

Down to the Wire

Taking a small step outside of the evangelistic community and into the scientific one provides a different perspective on the free energy pickle. Yahia Baghzouz, an electrical and computer engineering professor, looked at some of Lee's Web sites. He wasn't impressed.

"I read everything on various Web sites, and it's just contradictory what they are saying," Baghzouz says. "On some sites they say it's gravity turning the generator, on other sites they say 'Oh, we have supermagnets that are powered by a battery.' If you power something by a battery you are using electric power to turn the thing. In many places they said 'we are not using any input power whatsoever.' That's contradictory."

He's not alone in his opinion. Eric Krieg, an electrical engineer in Pennsylvania, laughs when he hears that Lee has set July 4 as the date for his revelation.

"For 15 years he's assigned a date. He said March in one show, July in another. When I first heard him in '96, he said at the end of that year. That's part of keeping the faithful perked up ... It's about keeping a flux of new suckers in."

Krieg has been following Lee's claims since 1996, when he saw a full-page ad for one of his demonstrations in the Philadelphia Enquirer. His first reaction was laughter. "It was amusing how he had butchered science and manipulated all these redneck people," he says.

But then he discovered that people were buying into it. After seeing too many older people hand over $10,000 to buy dealerships, Krieg decided to put up a Web site (www.phact.org/e/dennis.html) debunking Lee's claims and drawing attention to the troubles he's had throughout the country. He's even offered Lee $50,000 if he can prove that his machine works.

"I believe it's impossible for this kind of thing to work," Krieg says. "You can't get something for nothing, as far as I know. Hundreds of people have been failing for hundreds of years. I have no idea what percentage are con men versus what percentage are deluded somewhere between stupid and insane."

Crime-marked Past

It seems that Lee has learned much after clashing with the law in the past. These days, he words all contracts carefully. For example, when anyone signs up to get information about buying a dealership, they must initial two statements: "I/we affirm that neither UCSA or BWT are making promises about when technologies will be advanced to the market in the future," and "I/we will not be risking the welfare or security of my/our family by purchasing a UCSA dealership from an existing dealer." And when people like Sorensen accept any money, the buyer always gets something in exchange -- like a video. Because Lee's grown accustomed to investigations.

His name brings familiar smirks to people in attorneys general offices across the nation. With a three-decade-long history of arrests and complaints against him for fraud and violation of consumer protection laws, Lee has traveled the country with a show that's described as part crusade, part circus, peddling the wares of his many companies. Here's a look:

- In 1985 he was accused by Washington's attorney general of violating the consumer protection act. Though he agreed to pay $31,000 in fines, he left the state before doing so.

- He pleaded guilty to seven of 47 felony criminal counts filed by the Ventura County, Calif., district attorney in 1988 for violating the state's Seller Assisted Marketing Plan law, and grand theft. Lee served two years in a California state prison.

- The Kentucky's attorney general filed a lawsuit against Lee last month seeking to block him and companies connected to him from promoting their generator and holding seminars promoting the free-electricity device. Attorney General Ben Chandler says that these companies are defrauding customers because they don't disclose that their device doesn't actually exist, and is based on unproven scientific theory.

- Vermont, New Mexico and Tennessee obtained temporary restraining orders barring Lee from conducting his presentations.

- Attorneys general in Idaho and Arkansas have issued warnings to consumers to proceed with caution when dealing with Lee.

- Legal actions against Lee and his companies have been taken in Illinois, Alaska, Maine, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont and Washington, which include, among other things: charging a registration fee for a product that doesn't exist; failing to register to do business within those states; and representing that consumers will soon have technology that has not been scientifically proven to exist.

- Alerts have been filed against his companies by Better Business Bureaus in Arizona, Washington, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

- And in states like Nevada, where no complaints have been filed yet, officials seem to be waiting to pounce. "I'm talking to attorneys general from other states to be ready for when something does come, but I can't take action until I know he's (Lee's) done something," says Deputy Attorney General John McGlamery. "So I'm just sitting here waiting."

Keeping the faith When told of Lee's record, Sorensen is ready with a sympathetic response: "He was literally kidnapped twice because he was trying to demonstrate free electricity," he says of Lee. Sorensen also says he thinks that any problems Lee's had with attorneys general were straightened out after Lee sent videotapes of his demonstrations to them.

Sorensen then blames the media, which he says is controlled by electricity giants General Electric and Westinghouse, for suppressing proof of free electricity. It's in their best interest, he says, to ignore the revolution.

And he's confident that his and Lee's day will come July 4. They will bask in God-given light and be rewarded for their faith and innovative creation. And the nonbelievers?

"I think crows will be very scarce that day," he says. "I think there will be a lot of people eating crow."

Kate Silver writes for the Las Vegas Weekly, where an earlier version of this article originally appeared.

Rural Cow Mutilations Baffle Authorities

If there's a black market for cow organs, someone in Montana may be rolling in moo-lah. After the mutilation of 12 to 15 (depending on who you talk to) cows and steer in about seven months, folks in sleepy Pondera County are baffled. They're still hoping that National Institute for Discovery Science (NIDS), a place known for using the scientific method to explore such anomalies as UFOs, cattle mutilations and other controversial topics, can answer who, or what, is behind these strange deaths.

The Mystery

It began in June. A Montana farmer discovered that some kind of unauthorized surgical procedure had been performed on his cow-one that left it dead and lacking blood, organs and hide. By now, it's happened to many more. Whoever or whatever has been mutilating the cattle leaves behind no evidence, not even footprints. It's so mysterious that the townsfolk don't know whether to blame the government, aliens or satanic cults -- but the mutilations are nothing new. They seem to come in spurts every 10 years or so, according to Pondera County Commission Chair Bill Rappold. Only this time seems different, more extensive. Locals say it's the largest wave of bovine butchery since the 1970s, when 62 mutilations occurred in this area of Montana. And they're getting frustrated.

Ruby Bouma knows about this frustration firsthand. She and her husband, Glen, found their 9-month-old steer calf sliced up Nov. 1. Puzzled by its death, they're almost equally confused by the aftermath.

"When an animal dies, a predator, whether it be a coyote, wolf, whatever, they will chew into the animal and make a large enough hole so they can start eating into the flesh," Ruby explains. "... Nothing had eaten on this animal (almost two months after it was killed). "If you lose a calf you just take it back in the pasture and the predators will take care of it. ... In the mutilated ones, these wild animals won't do that. Why? I don't know. How are they dying? I don't know." She's certainly not alone in her confusion.

The Discovery

That's where the National Institute for Discovery Science comes in. Last June, the institute acquired its first sample from one of the mutilated Montana animals. "It interested us because underneath the left jaw, under the bone, was an area of what investigators described as green tissue, in contrast to the remaining tissue, which was the usual pink," says NIDS Deputy Director Colm Kelleher.

The head was shipped to NIDS, where a battery of tests was performed. NIDS also acquired a dead cow from a slaughterhouse to use as a control in the experiment. They allowed the cow to decompose under natural conditions for four days, protected from scavengers. Samples were taken and compared to the mutilated cow, and a surprising difference was found. A substance called oxindole was found in the mutilated cow but not in the control sample. "Oxindole has, at the kinds of concentration we found it in, been used as an experimental sedative," explains Kelleher. "It could have been used to drug the animal prior to or during the mutilation. We haven't nailed that down but that's one of the uses of oxindole."

So they've found a starting point, which comes as small relief to Pondera County folk. Only time will tell whether their discovery is significant; that is, if oxindole is found consistently in other mutilated cattle. And that, of course, depends on the mutilator striking again. The townsfolk know this and, at least for Ruby, the prospect is frightening. "What will be next?" Ruby ponders. "Why haven't these people, or whoever's doing this, why haven't they done horses or sheep? Why haven't they done other kinds of animal? And if it gets to (mutilating) people, then we really need to get it under control. The most scary part is the unknowing. When you don't know any answers, that's what's weird."

A 40-ounce Flavor Finder

Who got the hooch, baby?
Who got the only sweetest thing in the world?
Who got the love?
Who got the fresh-e-freshy?
Who got the only sweetest thing in the world?
Let's get real, let's get heavy
Till the water breaks the levee.
Let's get loose, loose.
Who got the hooch?

- From the song "Hooch" by Everything

In times of economic hardship, certain sacrifices must be made. And, as we all know, some of the most difficult items to give up are our decadent revelries. Like our hooch. If you're found in this position, I'm here to help. I'm sacrificing my time, liver, taste buds and, quite likely, a bit of stomach acid to bring you a taste test of 40-ounce malt liquors.

Before we begin, let's get a few things straight. First, never refer to these large bottles as 40-ouncers. They're 40s. When you're making your purchase, gladly accept the brown paper bag that the clerk offers you. It tends to enhance the mood of 40-guzzling. And by guzzling, I'm not kidding. They get warm quickly. The warmer they get, the more they taste like gasoline, so open your gullet and pour, if you can. Nota bene: Chilled mugs are considered an insult. You must drink from the bottle-using one hand, if possible.

WARNING TO TEETOTALERS AND 40-OZ. CONNOISSEURS: The reporter will be indulging in the sauce, so her taste buds may be affected and items further down the list may have an unfair advantage.

Olde English 800 Malt Liquor: 7.5 percent alc/vol.

This was typically my choice of firewater during high school/college 40s parties -- looking back, I have no idea why. One attribute of this brand is the size of the bottle's mouth: No warming-beer smells have a chance to waft from the swill below as you imbibe. Were you able to smell it, you'd have some difficulties continuing. This beverage seems to become sweeter the more you drink, which, to this liver-hardened reporter, is a turn-off.

Olde English High Gravity 800 Malt Liquor: 8 percent alc/vol.

Because there's more alcohol in this, it's more desirable than its predecessor (OE 800), but less desirable than the other samples. I found the main difference of "gravity" is in its accentuation. It's more acrid, pungent and thick-tasting than the gravity-free one. Still, none of those traits were so bad that they overshadowed its higher alcohol content.

Mickeys Fine Malt Liquor: unspecified percent.

While I went for the OE at those parties of my youth, my older and apparently smarter sister chose Mickeys. If only I'd followed in her footsteps. This is by far the best of all of the 40s purchased. It's smooth and bland -- a good thing with this kind of beverage. The mild flavor makes it less offensive than any other, as the bottle warms from the heat of your hand. It's also surprisingly refreshing, and results in the most inoffensive burps.

Mickeys Ice: 5.8 percent alc/vol.

Though I didn't notice when I purchased Mickeys Ice, it's actually an ice-brewed ale, so it doesn't count as a malt liquor. Still, its highlight was a fresh, almost minty smell upon opening. A fine flavor going down. But next to Mickeys, whose alcohol content is higher by its malt-liquor nature, there's no comparison. Go for the original.

King Cobra Premium Malt Liquor: Unspecified percent

Disclosure: This one's only 32 ounces.

At first, King Cobra wasn't great. It had a sour aftertaste. But the drinking of all the others beforehand helped dull my taste buds, and the King worked its way ahead of the OE, hands down. Translation: Drink it fast and you won't notice the bad flavor.

Magnum 32 Malt Liquor: 6 percent

Disclosure: Another 32-ouncer.

Similar to King Cobra, it was initially highly undesirable. It smelled slightly of urine, which made it difficult to really appreciate any flavor. Certainly this was the most bitter, and produced the most offensive burps. But after a few rounds of the other spirits this, too, became palatable and fairly enjoyable -- better than the OE, anyway.

One Toke Over the Line

Heading up north to Utah for the Winter Olympics next year? Have fun, but be sure to leave the medical marijuana at home.

A night in jail taught Dennis Peron, drafter of California's Proposition 215 that legalized medical marijuana in 1996, that Utah doesn't take kindly to pot smokers. Utah is one of 41 states where marijuana -- prescribed or not -- is illegal. And Peron worries that with the Winter Olympics coming there may be more medical marijuana patients/Utah tourists suffering if they're not allowed to smoke.

"Cancer doesn't stop at the Utah border," says Peron, who was arrested in Cedar City. "Neither does illness, mental illness or multiple sclerosis. It happens in Utah and ... when (officials) hear my doctor tell how marijuana helped me, I think they'll quit. I believe this will be the impetus to change the law."

Peron says he uses marijuana to combat his alcoholism. "Anything that keeps me away from alcohol is good," he says. On Nov. 14, along with John Entwistle (who also smokes pot to combat alcoholism) and Kasey Conder (who uses it to alleviate depression), Peron pulled into a Motel 6 on their way to Zion National Park. When a desk clerk smelled marijuana smoke coming from their room, she called the police.

The police searched the hotel room and the men's cars. Peron says the cops found two to three ounces of pot, but police reports say that together the three men had a pound -- a weight Peron says must have included his pot-laced brownies. They also found rolling papers and $3,000 to $4,000 cash.

They were taken to jail for possession of marijuana with the intent to sell -- a felony. They were released the next day on $5,000 bail and will return to Utah for trial Dec. 11. They could face a sentence of 30 days to five years in prison.

Iron County Attorney Scott Burns says this is the first instance in his 15 years on the job that someone who was charged with marijuana possession has shown him a prescription for the drug. For him, the prescription means nothing.

"It's illegal to possess marijuana here. It's illegal to smoke marijuana here," he says. "He does not have any legitimate basis, in my opinion, to have it or to smoke it."

Though residents in California, Nevada, Arizona, Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, Alaska, Maine and Colorado, as well as the District of Columbia, have voted for the right to use medical marijuana, Burns says that doesn't change Utah's stance, no matter how close those states are in proximity.

"It is a crime in Utah. He does not have a prescription from a Utah doctor and his use or actions in California are irrelevant to Cedar City, Utah," he says.

Gina Palencar, spokeswoman for Americans for Medical Rights, the association that helped get medical marijuana on ballots in Nevada, says Peron's arrest is indicative of more problems yet to come because of inconsistent state laws.

"That's a problem right now, that there's no interstate recognition of these kinds of medical marijuana rights of patients," she says.

And federally, marijuana use and possession is still a crime.

"It's a reminder that we have patients in some states protected because (medical marijuana) laws passed, but we're still at an impasse in recognizing laws of medical marijuana patients in this country because of the way federal law is, and we won't see any solution to this until federal law changes."

Kate Silver is a staff writer at the Las Vegas Weekly and can be reached at silver@vegas.com.

Fetus Friends

Catherine Jacobs makes fetus dolls for a living. Oh, she calls them something different -- micro-preemies. But they're fetus dolls, all right. She makes them out of cloth or resin, starting at three weeks' gestation and going up to 36 weeks, and charges up to $190 for the little critters. She also sells clothes and baskets to go with them -- even fake incubators.

It's more than a little bit creepy.

Jacobs isn't subtle about her pro-life beliefs. Atop her Web site (www.godslittleones.com) reads "U.S. abortion rate: 1.3 million every year. ... This site is dedicated to these little Americans." But pro-lifery isn't her only motivation for sewing baby fetus dolls. Jacobs had a miscarriage. She decided making the dolls would help women with miscarriages grieve. So she began selling them.

"I create these life-size portraits to celebrate the lives of these little ones, no matter how small and young they are," she explained via email.

And Jacobs isn't alone. Sandy Eding, of Zeeland, Mich., is another maker of fetal merchandise (www.macatawa.org/~eding/). Eding calls her creations bereavement dolls, made to help grieving parents.

"I believe they are very helpful to the healing process," said Eding, through email. "While I believe it is not good either to push away grieving for a loss, or to submerge oneself in it too much, I think having something to hold while adjusting to the loss can be very helpful."

In the 17 months she's been in business, Eding has sold 256 dolls. Prices range from $40 to $120, beginning at 11 weeks' gestation and going up to 40 weeks, and they're made according to your baby's specifications-heck, she'll even put a shunt in the doll if you provide it. The baby-fetus dolls color choices include ecru, flesh, tan, toast, camel and bark.

I purchased a toast-colored, 12-week fetus, with face -- another option. The wrinkled creature looked just like a small doll, complete with long, squirmy arms and legs. It came curled up in the fetal position, wearing a diaper and hat, bundled in a blanket. And it's filled with sand, so it's heavier than it looks. Eding calls that the "the feel-real weight."

It gave me the willies.

I took the inanimate fetus over to Planned Parenthood to get a reaction from a pro-choice organization that deals with reproductive issues on a daily basis. They were unaware of this market for sand-filled critters, and, well, they got the willies, too.

Executive Director Denise Fowler was taken aback when she saw my hand-sewn fetus. She was quick to point out that if this helps someone grieve, then she's no one to judge. But the best adjective she could find to describe the little fetus was "interesting."

"I've worked in this field since 1979," she said. "I have worked in abortion clinics, I've worked with women who have had abortions. I've worked with women who have had children and adopted them out. I've worked with thousands of women who had babies, and they were just 'failure-to-thrive.' I've worked with women who had miscarriages, who wanted a child or didn't want a child, but had a miscarriage. And everyone has a different way of dealing with grief. Whether it's a healthy way of dealing with it, I think that's probably a personal bias or perspective."

Fowler pointed out that since she has never lost a child, and she isn't a counselor, she may not be in a position to judge. So I called a grief counselor.

Christine Needham, a marriage and family therapist and registered nurse, suggested that counseling would be more helpful to those grieving than purchasing a fetal replica of their deceased child.

"I would be concerned with a doll or something like that that isolates," Needham said. "One healthy way to deal with grief is in group or individual counseling. That way you're actively involved in the healing process. (The doll) may actually intensify the grief, if you think about it. You're looking at a constant reminder -- it wasn't a very happy time. That would be my feeling on it."

For more fetal merchandise, see www.preemie-babies.com and www.midwiferytoday.com/loves/alliealden.html.

Bin Laden Merchandisers Cash In

Can't you just picture it?

Osama bin Laden, AK-47 in hand, has been hanged.

A blindfold is put around the eyes of the birthday boy, an eager 8 year old. A wooden bat is placed in his hands.

The boy approaches the hanged figure and swings. He misses. Swings again. Hits. The terrorist spins, silently, on his makeshift noose.

And the roomful of children cheer, as their parents look on with pride at the fallen Osama pinata.

The object of the pinata game, we all know: Children continue whacking at a paper maché character until it breaks apart and candy spills everywhere. The kids run amok trying to collect the most candy, and the game ends. At least, that's how it used to be.

In this scene, the once-innocent game has taken on a demonic tinge. To some, the image of children whacking at a terrorist until he explodes into a candy-filled blast is horrid; the thought that someone is making money off of this creation, frightening.

To others, images like this are acceptable, even "cute." Children taking out their aggressions on this symbol simply means they're growing up American, proud and strong.

Who's right?

Who knows?

After discussing the proliferation of items like the pinata with experts in marketing, culture and psychology, it's become clear: The line between patriotism and profiteering is paper-thin.

Immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, red, white and blue began coloring our nation as a wave of patriotism swept across the country. The patriotic corporate campaigns became commonplace: General Motors came up with "Keep America Rolling"; Ford used "Ford drives America"; For Coca-Cola, it's "We live as many, we stand as one." And red-blooded American capitalists were selling the American flag in everything from gas stations to liquor stores.

Now, two months later, the Stars and Stripes remain. But something else has crept into storefronts and onto Web sites across the nation. Call them terrorist trinkets, Al Qaeda kitsch, salacious souvenirs. Whatever name you choose, entrepreneurs and Web masters have extensively expanded their product lines in the last eight weeks to include violent merchandise and video games. They've chosen such illustrative URLs as blowshitup.com, kissmyUSbutt.com, f-osama.com, f-usama.com, nukeafghanistan.com, osamayomama.com, makempay.com, killosama.com, and fuqafghanistan.com.

Their wares also run the gamut of tastelessness and tackiness, with a variety of anti-Osama bin Laden pinatas, toilet paper, condoms, coffee mugs, T-shirts, dartboards, video games, slogans, and anything else their brains could come up with -- and their pocketbooks could cash in on.

The hatred that Americans are feeling and the way they're expressing it is similar to what's going on in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where they're burning effigies of President Bush. But Americans are also taking advantage of one of the things the Al Qaeda is attacking: capitalism. And whether or not you believe these entrepreneurs are exploiting a national tragedy, they're still doing it well.

Reactive Prophylactics

Jeff Weiss has decided it's time for America to say "screw you" to Osama bin Laden, so he's making Al Qaeda condoms for all to buy. Sound like every woman's sexual fantasy? Doubtful. A quick way to make a buck? Possibly.

Weiss, a resident of South Orange, N.J., is one of hundreds of manufacturers of bin Laden merchandise.

"It's serving a dual purpose: It's putting this guy down in the ultimate way ... and yes, I'm trying to make some money, too," Weiss says. "This is the American way. It's capitalism."

Weiss says he selected the condom from hundreds of thousands of items on which to put bin Laden's face. His Web site, www.hotlogo.com, boasts more than a million "imprintable" products, meaning that you pick the product, send him your logo or whatever you want printed on the product, and there's your personalized item.

The condom just seemed right.

"Condoms are like, you know, a funny thing," he says. "I'm thinking of having his picture in color with a target (on top of it). I believe most people would save it as a collector's item. The other idea (from Wireless Flash News) is to put the wrapper in the toilet and use it for target practice, you know what I'm saying? Maybe a woman would not be as accurate as a man."

He expects the product to be ready within the next week, and says he may donate some of the proceeds to help out victims of the World Trade Center attacks.

"I'd like to make some money," he says. "But I'd like to have a good rip on this guy, too."

The Marketplace

A few shops around town offer bin Laden trinkets, but the Internet undoubtedly boasts the best variety. Here, the variety of toilet paper alone is extensive. For example, at wipewithbinladen.com, you can choose from three slogans: "Wipe out bin Laden"; "If he wants to attack he can start with my crack"' or "If your butt gets to cloddin' just wipe with bin Laden." Then there's Makempay.com, with four choices, each with a picture of Osama: "Osama ...Yo Mama!"; "bin Laden, been hidin? Time's up! You lose!"; Osama ... you look flushed!"; and "Ready or not ... Here we come!" At kissmyusbutt.com, there's the less creative "Wipe out terrorism." And that's just the beginning.

The T-shirt variety far exceeds toilet paper offerings. OsamaYoMama.com sells its namesake logos, as well as "Bitch Gear" -- with Osama's picture covered by the word "bitch" -- and other items that read "Thrax 'em back." Bin-Laden-T-shirts.com sells a "Wanted dead not alive" shirt. Cachebeauty.com has Osama's picture with a bulls-eye drawn through it. And dozens of other sites have come up with catchy phrases and pictures designed to attract credit-card holders.

Then there are the trinkets. Brotherguido.com has voodoo dolls. SubmarineStore.com has National Rifle Association shooting targets. Other sites offer golf balls, underwear, sweat pants and hats. There's even Osama porn out there.

These products disgust Jim Gath, CEO of Las Vegas' Mojave Moon Marketing and Entertainment. He refuses to jump on the terrorist-trinket bandwagon, and says that selling these products is exploitative and wrong.

"What happens is, a lot of entrepreneurs play on people's senses of patriotism," says Gath. "It happened during the Gulf War, too. Entrepreneurs are really entrepreneurs because they're out to make money and they really don't care about the bigger picture. Too many people in the American public feel they're doing their patriotic duty by buying these things. To me, they're just fomenting more and more bad feelings."

Gath wants more people to ask why so many people hate Americans, rather than blindly purchasing patriotic items. Buying knickknacks does little good for anyone, he adds, except the company profiting from the sale.

"People think they can hide behind some of this flag stuff or this overly patriotic stuff and they're done," he says. "That's all they have to do."

Gath agrees that those responsible for the attacks must be stopped, but says that people need to look at our relationship with Afghanistan in a more discerning way. Rather than spending their time blowing up bin Laden in video games or searching for the newest line of terrorist toilet paper, Gath says that people should focus on understanding more about other cultures. That way, he adds, we can work towards eliminating a future full of terrorist acts.

"What people need to do is try to understand there are other people and other beliefs and other economic systems in this world and we ought to begin to study those, read the newspaper, watch TV and begin to understand other people," he notes. "That's not saying we shouldn't go apprehend the people responsible for this. But if we want this to stop this from happening in the future, we're going to have to look at it differently than we've been looking at it."

Shoot 'em Up, Slice 'em Up, Ra Ra Ra!

Anti-bin Laden video games have become another flavor of the day for vengeful Americans, with plots allowing users to cut, nuke, bomb, distort and shoot bin Laden. Some are frighteningly realistic.

Larry Gardner, CEO of CyberExtruder (www.cyberextruder.com), a software company that converts photographs into three-dimensional characters (think The Sims), says his company started incorporating bin Laden's image on his Web site about two weeks after the attacks.

"Shortly after the attacks, one of my partners took a photograph of Osama bin Laden from the Internet and put it on a character in Unreal Tournament (a gladiator type of shooting game that is very popular all over the world). He was playing the game and taking his frustrations out on the bin Laden character when others noticed and asked for copies so they could do the same," Gardner notes in an email interview. "He noticed the minor relief it seemed to bring to others, so he posted it publicly to the Internet." Since the image was posted, more than 150,000 users have downloaded the files. Gardner says that since most Americans would like to wreak havoc on bin Laden themselves, doing so in a video game is helpful.

Robert Thompson, former president of the International Popular Culture Association and professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University in New York, agrees with Gardner. "There is so much anger out there and frustration, that as ugly as some of this is, it's a way for people to express it," says Thompson. "It's like a safety (valve) for some of this energy. Without outlets, anger could be vented in a much worse way than telling nasty jokes."

Thompson says that though not all of the products and video games out there are tasteful, they're certainly expected.

"There's some stuff that's obviously really, really creepy, it's so full of anger and hate and angst, but it was absolutely inevitable," he says. "We all saw the Saddam Hussein toilet seats during the Gulf War, and that war was so short, if you were doing your French homework one night you may have missed it."

Thompson points out that during World War II, there was a proliferation of songs and comic strips about Adolf Hitler. With the aid of the Internet today, our communication and marketing capabilities have expanded immensely, allowing anti-bin Laden material to spread much more quickly, making it difficult to compare today's proliferation with any unifying event in the past.

And though he says the products are a "frustrated ... attempt to vent in some way," he also views them as fairly healthy expressions.

"A lot of them are based on humor," he says, "and there is an extent to which humor acts as a lubricant and in some way a fire extinguisher to some volatile emotions, and there is a place for some of that stuff."

United in Anger, and Disposable Income

"Everyone's out to make a buck," says Dr. Robert Butterworth, an LA psychologist specializing in trauma.

While Butterworth isn't too fond of the terrorist trinkets, he, too, agrees that they fulfill a certain need. He explains that human response to trauma or tragedy starts with fear, and turns into anger. Entrepreneurs exploit these emotions.

Think about it: How many emails have you gotten that have tried to sell you Cipro or gas masks to exploit the anthrax anxiety that's circling the country? Those items prey on fear. The trinkets have progressed to the next stage.

"(These) things fulfill our needs for anger. Let's wipe our butt with bin Laden, that's what it means," Butterworth says, adding that some Americans feel as though purchasing these kinds of products is the only thing they can do.

"It's not like the Revolutionary War or the Civil War," he says. "You can't run to the closet and get a rifle and start shooting enemies. So we do it in a vicarious way."

And, strange as it may sound, buying all of this bin Laden crap is something that at least gives some Americans a commonality. "(Bin Laden) hated that we were having fun and I guess we're going to have fun with this," says Butterworth. "And as long as we're angry, as long as we're still doing this, we're all still united."

There is a line to be drawn, however, when this hatred crosses the racist boundary -- and in many places, it has. There are Web sites out there -- like allahsucks.com and deadarab.com-which are bigoted and hateful. And, well, if you take a look at the pinata featured in this story, its identity is certainly not limited to bin Laden. It looks like an Arab man in traditional dress. In this realm, Butterworth says that people have gone too far. He adds that the bin Laden items, whether they exploit a horrific tragedy or not, aren't dangerous.

Nevertheless, he stumbles when asked if producing these items constitutes a "healthy" reaction. "Healthy," he says, is hard to define.

"The merchandise and sales of the merchandise is a good indication of how we're feeling right now," Butterworth says. "If people are buying toilet paper and doing with it with bin Laden what you do with toilet paper, that's a very primitive way of saying how you feel."

Still, he doesn't like it.

"I hate making people rich on all this crap."

Alien Worshippers Blame Monotheism for Terrorist Attacks

Pacifists come in all shapes and sizes: Even extraterrestrial.

The Raelians -- an international religious sect that believes human life was created by aliens and holds science as its highest religion -- have been actively spreading their beliefs since last month's terrorist attacks. On Sept. 14, they issued a statement about cloning -- one of their loftiest scientific goals, which they feel will bring them closer to their creators -- saying that to accelerate the process would "make terrorist attacks inefficient in the future."

Last Tuesday they tackled a different issue, focusing on the problems of monotheistic religions and blaming religious fanaticism for the attacks. About 10 people attended a meeting at a library near the Raelian headquarters (outside of Las Vegas) to hear the most recent statement of Rael -- the Raelians's prophet -- entitled "Monotheistic religions are dangerous and responsible for the greatest crimes against humanity."

The meeting focused on religious hypocrisy, violence and fanaticism. And they brought up some valid points. But Rael's solution is, shall we say, otherworldly at best. He suggests censoring the ancient texts of world religions as a way of promoting peace.

"The truth of the matter is that this belief in a single and Almighty God is the very cause of the greatest tragedies that humanity has known," reads the prophet's statement. "From the colonization of Europe by Muslims, through the Crusades, the wars of religion, the Inquisition, Nazism, up until today with the wars between Pakistan and India, Cypress, Ireland, Kosovo, the Middle East, everywhere, it's always in the name of an Almighty God that people tear each other to pieces and kill one another."

Rael's statement aroused protest from a few local college students, who'd been attracted to the meeting by its ominous title. The students had come to defend Islam, but when they confronted U.S. Raelian President Ricky Roehr, they were told that neither they, nor their religion -- in its entirety -- were under attack.

"We respect everyone's beliefs," Roehr explained. "We're not here to convince you of anything, because that's not respectful."

Roehr said that Rael's main point was to remove from religious texts any reference to violence, discrimination or compromising of human rights that people could take out of context and exploit, like last month's suicidal terrorists who killed thousands in the name of Allah.

"The only solution, as I have sought after for more than 20 years, is for all the old and new religious texts from traditional religions and religious minorities to be censored so as to expurgate from them all writings that do not respect human rights and laws of democratic countries or encourage hatred and violence," Rael wrote.

Some examples Rael thinks should be censored from the Koran include: "So when the sacred months have passed away, then slay the idolaters wherever you find them." And "Do not take the Jews and the Christians for friends; they are friends of each other; and whoever amongst you takes them for a friend, then surely he is one of them; surely Allah does not guide the unjust people."

Roehr made it clear that these passages are taken out of context -- but that's the point. It's easy to take sections of anything out of context and proselytize just the sections that support someone's cause. Should the violent passages remain in the Bible, the Torah and the Koran, Roehr fears that wars based on religion will continue being fought as they always have, since the same values will continue being passed on to our children.

"Violence always begets more violence," he says. "It never goes in any other direction."

Still, while erasing a few passages in some religious books may seem an easy solution to the Alien-aspiring Raelians, they've neglected to foresee the ensuing reactions. You see, in some countries, altering ancient religious texts begets beheading.

A Visit to a Government Germ Factory

For little more than a million smackeroos, some shiny equipment bought from your neighborhood hardware store, and a wee bit of science know-how, you could start your own germ-making factory. That's right: Choose from anthrax, Ebola, typhus, whooping cough, smallpox or any number of lethal pathogens to make in your own designer-disease lab.

That's just what they did at Building 12-7 of the Nevada Test Site, some 100 miles north of Las Vegas, from 1998 to 2000.

Germ warfare has been referred to as "the poor man's atomic bomb." So it's no surprise the Nevada Test Site, which was once the proverbial mecca for nuclear weapons testing -- and Monday was proposed for use as a national anti-terrorism training center by Sen. Harry Reid -- was the premier destination for the simulation. The Test Site was mostly closed down when the 1992 nuclear weapons testing moratorium was enacted.

The germs they were making weren't lethal, say officials from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), a Department of Defense agency in charge of safeguarding national security. And their purpose wasn't to disperse the biological agents. Rather, they wanted to see just how difficult and costly it would be to manufacture a germ-making plant. From there, they performed tests to see if any "signatures" were given off from the factory that would enable outside detection, according to Public Affairs Officer Army Maj. Linda Ritchie. Hence the project's name: BACUS, an acronym for Biotechnology Activity Characterized by Unusual Signatures.

"A signature is any change in activity. They were looking for signatures to see if they could pick up something that would allow them to know what was going on within this building," Ritchie explained. She refused to elaborate on what any of those signatures were, or whether there were any at all. That's classified -- as is most of the information from the project. Big surprise.

Spores Galore and the Fungus Among Us

BACUS consisted of two tests, one in November 1999 and the second in August 2000. It was in an old recreation hall, about 50 miles inside the Rhode Island-sized site. Though the hall has been closed to recreational activity for years, its spirit remains.

Getting to the room where the lab is located is an eerie jaunt: Follow the old signs reminiscent of the fallout days -- "In case of fire awaken sleeping employees slowly to prevent nervous shock and leave as fast as you do at quitting time" -- past the musty pool tables and the dusty bar, beyond the barren barbershop and unsightly urinals and into The Lab.

No fancier than a standard biology lab, the room -- about 20 feet by 10 feet -- is filled with metallic machinery, valves, beakers, tubing, funnels, gauges, pumps, scales, sterilizers and plastic baggies. You'd never know they were producing a spore-forming agent to simulate anthrax here a little more than a year ago.

"What happened was the project provided a realistic environment. That's why this particular location was chosen. The biological technology equipment and all of the equipment (used here) is commercially available," Ritchie explained.

The products they were using -- Bt and Bg -- are nonharmful biological agents found in pesticides and soil. Ritchie stressed these agents were what she called "simulants" only, and were never dispersed. The goal lay in the preparation and detection, not in their release. She also said that none of the scientists became ill during the experiments.

"In the tests, no actual biological warfare agents were involved," she said. "Bt and Bg are normally found in soil. Bt is commonly used in pesticides under the name of Dipel, and Bg is a benign simulant that is not commercially used.... Bt and Bg are spore formers, they were used to simulate the biological agent anthrax, which also forms spores."

Ritchie wouldn't elaborate on why the tests were launched, but insisted they weren't prompted by an imminent threat. She stressed the threat of biological terrorism is always out there.

"The concern is that there may be people out there who have the intention of doing this. And we would want to be able to detect it if that were happening," she said.

DTRA seemed to carry out the project with ease, for a mere $1.6 million. And though a simple lay person may not be able to do this, it doesn't take a rocket scientist.

"There was some technical knowledge that would be required for someone to do this," Ritchie said. "You would have to have some knowledge of maybe microbiology, electricity, how to operate a biological agent production system. It would be difficult for someone like me, with no technical background, to come in and do it."

Classified Information

Ritchie was unable to answer a wide range of questions about the lab, such as: Are there labs like these elsewhere in the country? Was this part of a series of tests, or does it stand alone? How many people would have been affected by the germs made here. Were they anthrax? How many people worked here? Did the tests yield any results?

It's no surprise that these questions remained unanswered. It is the military we're dealing with -- and with the increased emphasis on national security in the wake of war, what could you expect?

What was surprising, however, was the agent's reaction to the attention the lab had been receiving.

"It's not that exciting of a story!" Ritchie said, laughing in disbelief over the barrage of questions she resisted answering.

If a million-dollar germ-making factory isn't deemed exciting -- it makes you wonder what billion-dollar biological enterprises our country could have up its pestilence-producing sleeve.

The Scourge of Scrapbooking

When they started using the word "scrapbook" as a verb, I knew we were doomed.

"I scrapbooked this weekend."

"Do you scrapbook?"

"(He, she or it) scrapbooks."

Boy do they. Folks around the world are spending hours and hours and hours of their lives cutting, pasting, stickering, hole punching, and whatever else it takes to tell the story through creativity and photographs. Gone are the days of boxes for old photos and the obsolete album. Welcome to the doldrums of the new bastardized verb: scrapbooking.

The growth of the scrapbook industry has tripled in the past few years, with new scrapbook stores popping out like your grandmother's gangly mole hair -- unexpected, unattractive and overall mysterious -- all across town. Talk of the activity fills cafeterias, parish halls and women's restrooms -- and don't even get me started on the "I love scrapbooking" license plate frames. It's like the millennial Beanie Baby syndrome -- there's nothing we can do to stop it.

There are sites all over the Internet, distinguished by frilly, frou-frou-frou patches, stickers, balloons, hearts, unicorns, babies and all shades of pastel and pony. There's even a "Scrapbooking University" in Utah, where you can get your scrapbooking degree in a mere three days. Ain't that cute?

Angie Randall, editor of Paperkuts Scrapbooking Magazine, says that scrapbooking has its roots in Utah. Genealogy and documentation is an important part of the Mormon religion, she says.

"(Mormons) love to do our genealogy, and we do try to keep journals. We're told from our prophet to do our best to keep our journals and to keep our history."

Randall agrees that this craft is sweeping the country -- her publication alone has 68,000 readers. She says that part of the appeal is that everyone can be a scrapbooker. Even people who aren't normally good at crafting.

"You don't have to be a crafty person to scrapbook. This is something anyone can do and they all have photos," she says. "I think its really addictive and there so many new, new products that come out all the time ... and we just keep taking photos." And, apparently, it's not just an American phenomenon. Oh no -- Randall says it's picking up quickly over in England and Australia, too.

But just what is this odd activity that people spend so much money and time on?

Jennifer Wellborn works at The Memory Tree, a local scrapbooking store, and gets a taste of the fastest-growing hobby in the craft industry firsthand.

"People like to do crafty things anyway, but it's such a personal craft because you're preserving photographs and memories and heritage and passing it down to the generations after you."

OK. What exactly do you do when you scrapbook?

"You take photographs and take archivally safe materials that won't damage the photos. You put them onto a page and with the page you add the story behind the photo."

Apparently, the task involves lots of cutting, assembling, hole punching, gluing and, most of all, time. Lots and lots of time. And it doesn't have to be a solitary activity, either. People form clubs, classes, conventions, parties -- move over Tupperware. Now there's something keener.

"Scrapbooking's been around for a long, long time. The way our grandmothers did it, they'd take scraps of paper, tickets and paste them in a book. This is called scrapbooking II and it's mainly photographs," Wellborn explained.

One scrapbooker spoke with us under the guarantee of anonymity. She recently had a child, and since she's not working, scrapbooking has become a hobby -- she generally does it for about four or five hours a day. But the woman is something of an elitist scrapbooker, quick to point out that she avoids the frilly, ribbony, tacky mementos commonly associated with the industry -- like creepy little dolls, bubbly letters and fuzzy characters. "It's amazing how much crap there is for it," she says.

Now, imagine what would happen if they'd just take the letter "s" out of the word scrapbook ...

Footing the Bill

When in doubt, cut it out.

That's what 33-year-old Paul Morgan decided years ago, after numerous surgeries, indescribable pain and feet that just won't work like they should. So he's started a Web site (www.cutoffmyfeet.com), he's building a guillotine, and, if all goes as planned, hundreds of people will pay $19.99 to watch the Web-cast as he amputates his own ambulators on Halloween.

Crazy, you ask? Frighteningly enough, it actually makes some sense. Morgan was in a bad accident back in 1986. He was riding in the bed of a pickup truck, which was towing a boat. While travelling 50-plus miles an hour, Morgan decided to climb from the truck into the boat. He never made it. After falling from the truck, the boat was pulled on top of him, partially breaking his vertebrate. Because of this, he can't feel his feet and has limited use of his legs. He wears braces around his atrophied appendages, which allow him to walk at about half speed.

With all of the medical developments that have happened in the last 15 years, Morgan knows that with the help of prosthetics, he can walk, run and be normal again. Problem is, neither Medicaid nor Medicare will cover the cost of the amputation or the prosthetics, because his legs don't offer any kind of threat to his health.

So he's taken matters into his own hands, er, feet. And the if-it-bleeds, it-leads newshounds across the country have eaten it up. Morgan has been on Howard Stern's radio show, as well as other shows broadcast in Detroit, Philadelphia, Toronto, Miami, Palm Beach, and Dallas, just to name a few.

"I knew this would grip the media like this. I'm trying to pump it up to so I can make the money for it, chop my feet off, then I can get the prosthetic, then I'm good to go," he says. He hopes to bring at least $250,000.

But in a country where it's illegal to take your own life, is it legal to sacrifice your own limbs? In Morgan's home state of Mississippi, it appears he could be able to get away with it.

"In Mississippi, the only thing applicable could be breaking mayhem laws, which would be a maximum of seven years, but they can't really do anything until I amputate them."

In the meantime, he's got a lot of work to do. Morgan says that he's looking for any kind of suggestions on building the guillotine. Once that's constructed, he'll place meat in it, to make sure that it will quickly and cleanly do the trick. He's not yet decided what his animal of choice is. "Something, the carcass, so its got meat and bone tissue on it. Whatever I'll be testing on will be much bigger than my legs," he explained, calmly.

He'll have doctors standing by and will get a local anesthetic in his legs. Although he can't feel anything below his feet, the guillotine will slice his legs about an inch above his ankles-an area he can feel. Still, he says he's not nervous about the procedure.

"Nervous? No, not so much. The only thing I'm nervous about is taking proper precautionary measures. Actually cutting them off, no, I don't have a problem with that."

Morgan says he's asked all the time if he'll put the feet up on eBay. He won't--it's illegal to sell body parts in the United States. So he plans to have them frozen, in the hopes that some day there will be enough medical advances that he can use them again. But he's gotten some interesting emails with ideas suggesting what he could do with his feet.

"I've gotten emails from a cannibal who actually wants to eat my feet," he says. "It was a very tactful letter. I read it, and I said 'What do I say to that?'"

How about "Pass the fillet of sole?"

Cows Mutilated? Who Ya Gonna Call?

There's a town in middle America that just breathes "sleepy." With a population of about 6,400, the farming community of Conrad, Mont., has always been proud of its major annual activity: Whoop-Up Trail Days, a two-day rodeo event.

Then came the cattle mutilations.

And then the invitation for Las Vegas' National Institute for Discovery Science (NIDS) to help figure out what's going on. Suddenly, Conrad ain't so sleepy anymore.

Since mid-June, there have been four mysterious deaths, according to Pondera County Deputy Sheriff Dan Campbell. Two have been confirmed by the county, one lies in a different county, and the fourth remains unconfirmed. "There's not enough left to do anything with," he says of the mutilated carcass.

But the two that the county has confirmed shared many characteristics. "They're missing the left side of their faces, missing their tongues, part of the udder, and on one, all the tail-end section's gone. Pretty similar to the '70s," Campbell says, referring to a slew of killings that crossed five Montana counties and left more than 60 cows mutilated.

"Can you fax me the police report?" I ask.

"I would, if I'd written it up," he replies.

Ah, small towns. And so they called on the big city folk to step in. Where else, but Las Vegas?

NIDS to the rescue

The National Institute for Discovery Science was founded in 1995 by Robert Bigelow, a local UFO aficionado who owns the Budget Suites chain and started the Bigelow Consciousness Studies program, devoted to studying parapsychology, at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The institute consists of scientists and retired cops who use the scientific method to explore such topics as UFOs, cattle mutilation, consciousness and other controversial topics.

It ain't always the most glamorous job in the world.

"The biggest drawback is getting to the animal in time to do forensic analysis," says Dr. Colm Kelleher, deputy administrator for NIDS. "It's not possible after three to four days sitting in 90-degree heat. The organs start to liquefy after 48 hours. That means the analysis becomes very suspect. If you start interpreting a five-day old animal, you start making very shaky interpretations."

Fortunately, the authorities in Montana called them within a reasonable amount of time, and samples were extracted for the institute.

"We're working on the tissues of one of the animals now. It's much too early to say anything," says Kelleher. But he goes into details of how the cow was found: "The cow that we're dealing with now, the left side of its jaw, tissue and hide, were gone. The tongue was partially removed, the left eye and ear are gone, the rear end removed, the reproductive and excretory apparatus were removed.

"Whoever's doing it is very organized and probably very well equipped. Some of the cuts have been very skillful, someone has a reasonable background in surgery."

History has shown that the fleshy parts removed from this particular cow are among the most common ones removed-but no one's actually figured out why. Kelleher admits that he hasn't.

"These are standard parts to remove. Nobody knows why. It's kind of a waste of time to speculate," he says. "The perpetrators know, but we certainly don't."

In the '70s, and even now, blame is often aimed at Satanic cults and ritual sacrifices. Kelleher doesn't buy that.

"One of the first things we did was investigate cult activity but were never able to nail it down," he says. "Traditional cults tend to use smaller animals like chicken and goats. Tackling a 2,000-pound bull is not the kind of things cults are known for."

The aliens

Further adding to the mystery: In animal mutilations, there are usually no tracks and footprints, no evidence, and often little or no blood, Kelleher says. That leaves ample opportunity for people to speculate about aliens, government conspiracies, and, well, almost anything.

Speculation aside, Kelleher says there is a correlation between animal mutilations and UFO sightings. NIDS reported that from 1974 to 1977, in the area surrounding Montana's Malstrom Air Force Base, there were 62 animal mutilations, and investigations of 192 UFO and unknown helicopter sightings. The increase also corresponded with similar anomalous incidents occurring in 1975 at Loring Air Force Base in Maine; Wurdsmith Air Force Base in Michigan; Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota; and at the Canadian Air Force Base at Falconbridge, Ontario.

"We're not trying to add anything mysterious to this," Kelleher says. "The bottom line is we're not going to draw a cause and effect between UFOs and animal mutilation."

They'll leave that to the die-hard conspiracists and alien abductees.

Since Kelleher wouldn't elaborate about any perceived connection between the sightings and the mutilations, I took the question to Alan Gudaitis, director for Nevada's Mutual UFO Network Inc. (MUFON). Though he was unwilling to draw any connections between aliens and animal mutilation, he made it clear that whatever was going on wasn't natural-these weren't predators attacking the cattle. But like everyone else involved in this issue, Gudaitis just doesn't get it.

"I have no idea," he says. "First, we'd have to prove aliens existed. And then, would they do something like this?"

Don Emory, manager of Area 51 Research Center, a trailer out in Rachel, Nev., known for its research on military, UFO and aerospace topics, is also befuddled.

"Supposedly, that people start making the connection that this was alien mostly derives from farmers seeing strange lights in the field the night before," he says. "There's also the connection that maybe this wasn't alien, it was actually some kind of military testing."

Basically, Emory says, the correlation depends on your beliefs. "The UFO people think that its UFOs, conspiracy people think it's the government," he says. "Myself, I just don't know."

Alien Worshipers May Sue FDA Over Cloning Freeze

Beam me up Scotty. Life is frigging weird down here.

A few months ago, I ventured into the world of Raëlians for a UFO article, interviewing a couple of unique humanoids who believe they were created by aliens who live on a planet, by a star, a little less than one light year away.

The aliens, they said, are waiting until we humans are intellectually ready for them and have built them an embassy somewhere, before they come down to join us, their children.

Now it appears that one Raëlian business is contemplating taking on the Food and Drug Administration. It's not every day that the aliens challenge the government. Usually, it's the other way around.

Brigitte Boisselier, director of Clonaid (yes, that's their real name), a company describing itself as "the first laboratory trying to clone a human being," may sue the FDA for putting "an illegal freeze on the cloning process."

This "freeze" hits very close to home with Raëlians, who believe that cloning will get them one step closer to eternal life, and human creation. Here's how Ricky Roehr, president of the U.S. leg of the Raëlian religion, explained their perspectives on cloning back in April: "The Elohim, the extra terrestrials, created all life through genetic engineering. Not through cloning--but actually from the ground up. Cloning is only copying. But if you can copy, then you can do the reverse engineering and understand how it's built. ... But like any technology, when it's first introduced to the public, everybody wants to shut it down. And it won't be shut down."

The government, of course, disagrees.

The FDA says that human cloning experiments will need the agency's approval. But they don't plan on giving their approval any time soon because of safety concerns.

According to FDA spokeswoman Lenore Gelb, the government group inspected Boisselier's lab, and she agreed not to attempt cloning in the United States. Gelb couldn't elaborate further.

But now Boisselier is traveling across the country trying to popularize cloning and get support from journalists. She's making it clear that a lawsuit is on the horizon, and she already has the support of 55,000 members in 84 countries.

Clonaid, located in Syracuse, N.Y., and at another undisclosed site outside the United States, was started in 1997 by Raël, the Raëlian's founder who communicates with the Elohim or "people from the sky." He shares the Elohim's message with his devotees.

The Clonaid Web site seems more satirical than reality. It refers to the process as though it's a new lemon-scented dish detergent, or life-changing vitamin. And it can be yours for a mere $200,000! (Even though they've yet to successfully clone a human.) You can also cash in on INSURACLONE, which is "Available now!!!! Your cells preserved for a lifetime!!!" And you can get cloned for any old reason, the site boasts.

"If you are a sterile couple with no more hopes to get the child you have dreamed of, if you are a homosexual couple deeply wanting to have a child carrying your own genes," according to the site. "If you want to be cloned, whatever your reasons may be, then Clonaid has the right program for you either as a client or a partner."

And for those who are rich, or at least harbor cash-cloning skills, CLONAID also offers CLONAPET, a new service. "CLONAID, the human cloning company in the process of being structured, will soon offer a new service: the cloning of pets to wealthy individuals who wish to see their lost pet be brought back to life," according to the site. "This service will be offered to owners of racing horses, a very promising market given the outrageous prices paid for champions."

For more information about clonaid, see www.clonaid.com.

Drug Trafficking on the Information Highway

As a tribute to Internet drug trade, I suggest we all begin stressing the "high" in information highway.

Access to Viagra, Soma, Valium, Steroids and any other cocktail addition is at your fingertips, as long as you have Internet and credit card access. The search engine Excite, alone, boasts 14,129,860 entries when you type in "online pharmacy." Google has 319,000; Lycos has 392,879; Northern Light has 281,965. Log on and load up -- could be a great sales slogan.

On most of the sites, you don't even need a prescription to get what you want -- just fill out a survey for a doctor to "evaluate." The survey includes questions about your height, weight, current medications and medical history. After you agree to an $85 (or more) fee, some guy you'll never meet will write you the prescription you requested -- once you sign a waiver protecting the site from any responsibility, of course. After a few days or weeks, your drug of choice is delivered to your doorstep.

The problem here goes beyond the mere availability of drugs. Flaws center on drug interactions, prescribing the wrong medication, allergic reactions, patient history, no doctor interaction or examination and potential side effects that accompany drugs. Once you pass your initial survey, your drug spree is doctor-free.

We're not talking your common cold medicine or heartburn reliever here, either. The most common online meds include Viagra (erectile dysfunction), Meridia (weight loss) Propecia (hair loss), Claritin (allergies), Celebrex (arthritis pain) and Zyban (smoking cessation). With a more extensive search, it's also easy to find muscle relaxants like Soma, painkillers Hydrocodone (Vicodin) and Oxycodone (Percodan), anti-anxiety medications like Diazepam (Valium) and antidepressants (Prozac).

But it's the foreign pharmacy sites that would make a cokehead sniff. On those, you can find things like childbirth painkiller Stadol, acne medication Accutane, minor tranquilizer Alprazolam, highly addictive codeine and even penicillin. And, according to the sites, consumers can legally purchase up to a three-month supply of each medication at a time.

Nevada, a pioneer?

The state of Nevada has responded to the Web drug trade increase with "one of the toughest pharmacy laws in the country," according to Louis Ling, Nevada's Board of Pharmacy general counsel. He's referring to a new law that focuses on examining Internet pharmacies and aims to crack down on the illegal ones. The law will go into effect in October. The bill was sponsored by Valerie Wiener, D-Las Vegas, who says it's the first of its type in the country.

Internet pharmacies struck home with Wiener because they impact so many, including seniors, juveniles and substance abusers. Fearful of medications -- often outdated or imitations -- falling into the wrong hands, she decided something needed to be done. "This bill's important to me as a consumer protection bill -- because that's what it is," she says.

Wiener also feared that Nevada would become some kind of Internet pharmacy headquarters. "It's a good start to make sure that Nevada doesn't become in Internet pharmaceuticals what it has become in telemarketing," she says.

The law will require all pharmacies that do business with Nevada residents to be licensed by the Pharmacy Board. It also requires that patients see a doctor within the past 6 months, and that the doctor has prescribed them the medicine they're buying.

"Most Internet pharmacists do questionnaires, but they don't validate it, don't view it, and charge up to $100," Wiener says. "The Md.'s don't even see the patients."

Once the law goes into effect, district attorneys and the attorney general will try to enforce it. "Enforcing it's going to be tough," Wiener admits. "A lot of enforcement will come from complaints."

Federally-encouraged crackdown

On the national level, the Food and Drug Administration is also trying to cut back on Internet pill pushing. Their Web site reports that the seizure of scheduled or controlled substances at international mail facilities increased 450 percent in 1999.

According to Tom McGinnis, Director of Pharmacy Affairs at the FDA, there are three types of Internet pharmacies. There are legitimate ones, like Drugstore.com and Walgreens.com, which are state licensed and require a legitimate doctor's prescription. Then there are two categories he referred to as "rogue" sites: the ones where you fill out a survey and an online "doctor" reviews it and fills a prescription; and foreign pharmacies selling just about anything, including prescription drugs not approved in this country.

In 2000, the FDA sent out several dozen "cyberletters" -- emails -- warning companies thought to be selling illegal drugs. They will continue with this practice, as email is the only way to contact an Internet pharmacy that gives no physical address or phone number.

In the future, McGinnis is counting on states to follow Nevada's lead and target these illegal pharmacies. "Most of the laws were written back in the '50s when everyone knew where the pharmacy was. Now, online it's hard to find out where these rogue pharmacies are located. So they are updating laws that will make it tougher on some of these illegal online pharmacies," he says.

As with all legislation, it's a matter of jumping through political fire hoops before we can expect any positive changes to occur. For now, if you come across an online prescription site that seems suspicious, you can log onto the FDA website and let them know. Last year, McGinnis says, the agency checked out more than 3,000 tips.

Serving Up the McDictionary

The Golden Arches are said to be more widely recognized than a Christian cross. All thanks to Ronald McDonald.

McDonald's represents capitalistic imperialism at its best, pushing hamburglars and cheeseburglars into countries where people used to value things like kosher products, low-fat foods and vegetarianism. And the xenophobic clown won't be stopped.

Still, with more than 26,000 restaurants worldwide, they're obviously doing something right. Besides stepping on toes in other countries, they also create items adapted to different cultures. In Hong Kong, they have things called the Curry Potato Pie, Shake Shake Fries and a Red Bean Sunday. In Italy, they have four salads: Marinara, with shrimp and salmon; Vegetariana; Mediterranea; and Fiordiriso, with rice, tuna, ham and mushrooms. In Japan, they have the Teriyaki McBurger, which is sausage on a bun with teriyaki sauce. In the Netherlands, they have the McKroket, a burger made of beef ragout with a crispy layer around it, topped with a mustard/mayonnaise sauce. Switzerland serves a Vegi Mac.

Yes, that redheaded clown has bought and sold his way into the hearts of billions.

But to some, McDonalds is an evil empire. They market unhealthy, fat-packed, fiber-filled food to small children through their grease-painted spokesman and toy-strewn happy meals. They produce ungodly amounts of waste. And more cows die for your Big Mac attacks than for any other company.

McDonalds has restaurants in 120 different countries and serves a whopping 29 million people a day. But here's something you may not have known: They also own 131 different words and phrases--including such surprises as "Black History Makers of tomorrow" and "Healthy Growing Up." They've trademarked them so no one else can use them. We've copied them off the McDonalds Web site to show you that if we're not careful, McDonalds may someday own the McWorld. Literally.

According to the Web site, "(t)he following trademarks used herein are owned by the McDonald's Corporation and its affiliates:

1-800-MC1-STCK; Always Quality. Always Fun; America's Favorite Fries; Arch Deluxe; Automac; Big Mac; Big N'Tasty; Big Xtra!; Birdie, the Early Bird and Design; Bolshoi Mac; Boston Market; Cajita Feliz; Changing The Face of The World; Chicken McGrill; Chicken McNuggets;

Chipolte Mexican Grill; Cuarto De Libra; Did Somebody Say; Donatos Pizza; emac digital; Egg McMuffin; Extra Value Meal; Filet-O-Fish; French Fry Box Design; Gep Op Mac; Golden Arches; Golden Arches Logo; Good Jobs For Good People; Good Times. Great Taste; Gospelfest; Great Breaks; Grimace and Design; Groenteburger; HACER; Hamburglar and Design, Hamburger University, Happy Meal, Happy Meal Box Design, Have You Had Your Break Today?;

Helping Hands Logo; Hey, It Could Happen!; Iam Hungry and Design; Immunize for Healthy Lives; Lifting Kids To A Better Tomorrow; Mac Attack; Mac Tonight and Design; McDonald's Racing Team Design; Made For You; McBaby; McBacon; McBurger; McBus; McCafe; McChicken; McDia Feliz; MCDirect Shares; McDonaldland; McDonald's; McDonald's Earth Effort; McDonald's Earth Effort Logo; McDonald's Express; McDonald's Express Logo; McDonald's Is Your Kind of Place; McDonald's Means Opportunity; McDouble; McDrive; McExpress; McFamily; McFlurry; McFranchise; McGrilled Chicken; McHappy Day; McHero; McJobs; McKids; McKroket; McMaco; McMemories; McMenu; McMusic; McNifica; McNuggets; McNuggets Kip; McOz; McPlane; McPollo; McPrep; McRecycle USA; McRib; McRoyal; McScholar; McScholar of the Year; McSwing; McWorld;

Mighty Wings; Millennium Dreamers; Morning Mac; Quarter Pounder; Ronald McDonald and Design; Ronald McDonald House; Ronald McDonald House Charities; Ronald McDonald House Charities Logo; Ronald McDonald House Logo; Ronald Scholars; Sausage McMuffin; Single Arch Logo; Speedee Logo; Super Size; The House That Love Built; The House That Love Built Design; twoallbeefpattiesspecialsaucelettucecheesepicklesoniononasesameseedbun; We Love to See You Smile; What's On Your Place; When the U.S. Wins You Win; World Famous Fries; You Deserve a Break Today."

For information about McDonald's that's not from the perspective of a happy clown, see www.McSpotlight.com.

Screw You U

For a mere $1,100, I could be Dr. Silver. Oh wait, tack on a few hundred extra, because if I'm getting my doctorate, it might as well be magna cum laude. And I'd like to be on the Dean's List. And, well, dad always wanted a doctor in the family.

Now he can have one -- schooled or not. The concept of sitting through class, taking tests and learning has practically become obsolete in our morally bankrupt, educationally depraved society. Why waste time and money on college? For about $300, you can buy yourself a degree -- or three, if you want, from hundreds of Internet sites dedicated to fattening your status. And their wallets.

In the last two weeks, I've received three copies of the same email from a British-based company that calls itself the University Degree Program:

"Obtain a prosperous future, money earning power and the admiration of all. Diplomas from prestigious, non-accredited universities based on your present knowledge and life experience. No required tests, classes, books, or interviews. Bachelors, masters, MBA and doctorate (Ph.D.) diplomas available in the field of your choice. No one is turned down."

It definitely deserved a phone call.

After leaving a message on the firm's Texas-based answering machine, a representative called me three days later. "We give full credit for life experience," he said. "We take your word on your experience." He was pleasant enough but frustrated by my questions about the program. I explained that I simply wanted to see a pamphlet, something in writing, before making my decision. He insisted that they could provide nothing of the sort -- only the degree.

And, best yet: "Your graduation day corresponds to your experience -- to blend in," he told me, I guess meaning that if I wanted my degree dated 20 years ago, well, they wouldn't tell anyone if I wouldn't.

Guess they didn't realize I would.

Getting Edumacated

Degree mills are popping up everywhere, thanks to the Internet. But they're nothing new. In the late 1970s, the FBI launched DipScam (diploma scam), an operation run by a team of agents who investigated such institutions in the United States. The team closed numerous schools, sending their operators off for a stint in the Big House. But when Special Agent Allen Ezell -- head of the operation -- retired in 1992, DipScam was through.

So, with no special task force, there's even less oversight now than during the mail-order-ministers heyday.

One vocal activist and former member of DipScam is Dr. John Bear, co-author of Bear's Guide to Earning College Degrees Nontraditionally and College Degrees by Mail and Modem, among other books.

According to Bear, 481 new Internet degree mills have set up shop this year -- that's an almost 50 percent increase since last year. And it's only going to get worse.

"The essence of the problem is: Are the people who buy these things really being fooled, or are they buying them for their own nefarious purposes?" Bear asks. He fears the latter.

One of the main reasons these businesses continue to flourish lies in the difficulty of legally defining just what a degree or diploma mill is. While some of these places simply ask for money, others may require a dissertation before awarding a doctorate. The situation gets sticky when there's actual course work done. Who's to say that someone's work doesn't merit recognition?

Bear also blames the media. Many nationally respected newspapers and magazines have no qualms about running degree mill ads. And the Internet makes it even easier. Bear doesn't see the problem decreasing any time soon.

"Public attention and awareness is the only hope I see," he says, "at least to the point of asking a few questions."

Education Here is Bad -- But Not That Bad

Nevada has few problems with fake degrees -- at least on the granting end of it, according to David Perlman, administrator for the Nevada Commission on Post Secondary Education. "Nevada law doesn't allow degree-granting institutions unless they're accredited," he says.

But that matters little in a time when Internet businesses have all but dissolved geographic boundaries.

One of the more vexing aspects of degree mills is that they tend to operate in other countries. They request that you wire money through, or send it to, a P.O. Box, making them very difficult to track down. And, as long as they're not operating in Nevada, there's little state officials can do.

On the hiring end, it may be another story, though. "No one in Nevada says 'If your degree's not accredited, we won't accept it.'" Perlman notes. "It's left up to individual business operators what they will and will not accept."

That's where it gets scary.

The main selling point for some of these places is convincing someone that through their life experience, they've already earned their degrees. Some institutions insist, then, that they're merely a vehicle for providing a piece of paper for something that's rightfully yours.

But when it comes to life experience, your word is often all that matters. Degree mills don't ask for phone numbers, addresses, or references. For all they know, you're an 8-year-old kid who got a hold of mom's credit card, copied a resume off the Internet, and decided to be called doctor. The credit card all but guarantees you that title.

Even more frightening is the profession that most frequents degree mills -- nuclear engineers. "[Nuclear engineers] don't need their doctorate," Bear explains, "But they want to be called doctor and get their salary increase."

He says he's also seen the fake degrees attached to such professions as heads of charities, neonatal nursing, burn-units employees, medical doctors and surgeons -- the list goes on and on.

Gonna Git Me a Degree

To test the difficulty of getting a degree, Las Vegas Weekly made some phone calls, filled out some applications, and sent some emails. The bottom line? Yep, a credit card can do just about anything.

One of the schools I applied to is accredited by Distance Graduation Accrediting Association, which proclaims on its Web site: "We do not seek approval from individual governments, but operate beyond frontiers of national or cultural interest which we consider fictitious in this century of boundless international education resources."

To Dr. Stephen Barrett, board chairman of Quackwatch Inc., a nonprofit corporation that combats health-related frauds, says the DGAA's self-description is simple: "That means they are not recognized in the United States, and may not be recognized elsewhere." Fair enough.

I applied to the "school" using a resume I'd copied off of the Internet, listing my extensive (nonexistent) computer experience. I received a reply the next day saying my resume had been approved -- all I needed to do was enroll (i.e. give them my credit card number), and I'd be a doctor in 14 days. I declined enrollment.

Some diploma mills aren't shy about admitting their purpose, either. At degrees-r-us.com you can get your degree in just 10 business days. Their site reads: "The University has no campus, neither faculty, nor student body. It exists on paper and on the Web for that reason, the degrees will not be recognized by other educational institutions."

The Web site is typical: They won't disclose the name of the university that will appear on your degree until your check is in their hand -- allegedly to protect the university's integrity.

The DGAA program even has a budget diploma. It costs $200, as opposed to the Bachelors, for $385; and it's printed on 8.5- by 11-inch paper, rather than the 14-by-11-inch you get if you pay more. You can also get your B.A., M.A. and Ph.D package for $1,400.

Degrees-R-us and graduatenow.com are actually accompanied by a disclaimer, that reads: "These college diplomas are being distributed to boost your confidence and esteem. By ordering a diploma or transcripts, you are certifying that you will not misuse the diploma, the listing in the University's records or any other improper use."

Obviously, $1,400 is a lot to pay for a boost of confidence. I hear a couple shots of whiskey does the same thing -- for a lot less.