Talk of Manoogian Mansion bash is still just a rumor

For decades, the Manoogian Mansion was simply the city-owned home on the Detroit River where the mayor and his family lived.

Now, it’s code for one of the most sensational parties in Detroit history.

A much-rumored, never-proven, alleged party.

As in all stories about the party, it is necessary to use those qualifiers. Because despite half a decade of gossip, investigations and speculation, the Manoogian party remains a myth.

In almost six years, while a torrent of information has gushed forth about Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick — from the leasing of a Lincoln Navigator for his wife to text messages with his lover to criminal charges — virtually nothing solid has surfaced about the party.

No one has produced first-hand information about it. No one has said, “I was there.” No one has claimed to have in their possession any text messages, e-mails, voice mails, printouts, letters, documents, computer tapes, police or EMS run sheets or hospital records with evidence of an out-of-control party, a stripper’s beat down by the first lady or a quick trip to the ER.

Maybe the time has come to declare the party a rumor and only a rumor and file it away with Al Capone’s secret vault, the death of Paul McCartney and the tale of the vanishing hitchhiker.

But even if it didn’t happen, it’s a remarkable party, because the very idea that it could have happened touched off the chain of events that has led to Detroit’s ongoing constitutional crisis over what to do with its mayor.

Rumors — not first-hand information — prompted a Kilpatrick bodyguard to take what little he knew to the Detroit Police Internal Affairs unit, where the boss, Gary Brown, wrote a memo, and the rest, as they say, is scandal.

Brown said he believes the party happened partly because, he said, a female acquaintance told him she had first-hand information about it. But he acknowledged: “It’s definitely possible that it didn’t take place.”

Facts aside, there are many people — no matter what their proximity to City Hall, no matter how much they know or care about Detroit in normal times — who believe the party happened, even if they have no first-hand knowledge. Some claim inside information, such as from a brother-in-law who is a cop who knows someone in the mayor’s security detail.

Janet Langlois, an English professor who teaches a course in rumors and legends at Wayne State University, said students have discussed the Manoogian party frequently. Most believe it happened.

Referring to Attorney General Mike Cox’s denunciation of the party rumors as urban legend, Langlois said that phrase is exactly the characterization academics would give such a long-running story with no resolution. Calling something an urban legend does not mean the story doesn’t carry some truth, Langlois said.

Urban legends often surface when something goes wrong, such as a city crime wave or misbehavior in a mayoral administration, said Langlois.

“It could be symbolic of greater problems and might not be literally true. But it also might be,” she said.

The beginning

Many facts about the party are ambiguous, such as the date, which is rarely given as a specific day, but mostly as September 2002, nine months into the mayor’s first term.

At that time, the then-32-year-old Kilpatrick was still enjoying a political honeymoon. The eventual embarrassments — such as the revelation of spending on the city credit card and the Navigator lease — remained three years away.

Kilpatrick is hardly the first politician to battle rumors.

Nicholas DiFonzo, coauthor of the 2007 book “Rumor Psychology,” said political rumors are often started by enemies or employees upset with policies.

For a rumor to have legs, though, it must seem plausible. Kilpatrick’s spa visits billed to a city-issued credit card or nightclub-hopping in Washington D.C., suggest the mayor likes to party.

“This rumor seems believable because of Mayor Kilpatrick’s behavior pattern,” DiFonzo said.

Fuel for the fire

The rumor has been fueled by media reports because of its centrality to the police whistle-blower lawsuits that spawned the scandal surrounding Kilpatrick.

Interest also is stoked by a federal lawsuit by family members of Tamara Greene, the stripper known as Strawberry who — in one of the central tenets of the rumor — danced at the Manoogian party and was assaulted by the mayor’s wife, Carlita. Greene was later murdered in a drive-by shooting in an effort, conspiracy theorists will tell you, to prevent her from blabbing about the assault.

State Police investigated the party, without any revelations.

Cox’s office also looked into it, though critics have ridiculed him for questioning the mayor personally, and not under oath, and for refusing to question Carlita Kilpatrick.

The mayor has insisted the party did not take place. Bob Berg, his media consultant, notes that “if in fact something happened, there is no way it would have been kept quiet.”

The rumor spreads

The rumor first circulated among Detroit police and political, labor and other circles in late 2002 and early 2003.

Members of the mayor’s executive protection unit began hearing stories in the last two weeks of September 2002, according to the sworn deposition of Harold Nelthrope, the EPU member who passed on the rumor to police internal affairs and was eventually forced out of the department.

“People would come to me,” Nelthrope testified in his whistle-blower suit. “Officers that knew I worked there would ask me about it. Then people who weren’t police officers would mention it.”

Nelthrope said he never heard anyone say he or she had attended the party.

By late 2002, the rumor had spread to the newspapers and TV stations, whose staffers pursued it aggressively.

Darci McConnell, then a Detroit News reporter and now the owner of McConnell Communications, said she spent several weeks interviewing Manoogian neighbors, cops, strippers, EMS staffers, hospital workers and others in the fall of 2002.

“It was a wild goose chase,” said McConnell, who, like many reporters who have investigated it, said she does not believe a party took place. “The entire Detroit press corps was on the story, and they found nothing.”

The only published reference to the party rumor before May 2003 seems to have appeared in the February 2003 issue of Hour Detroit.

Writer Jack Lessenberry, interviewing Kilpatrick on his first year in office, asked: “There are all these wild stories about orgies at the Manoogian Mansion, wild bachelor parties. Is there any truth to this?”

Kilpatrick responded: “There is absolutely no truth. We hear new ones every day. I think the reason that it comes out is that we are sexy. I think this is a sexy administration.”

Everything changed May 13, 2003, when Brown held a news conference and accused the mayor of firing him for investigating his family and security detail, including allegations of the party.

Proving the party

The one person in metro Detroit working hardest to prove the party took place is Norman Yatooma, the attorney for Tamara Greene’s family.

In preparing for his day in court, Yatooma has been collecting sworn affidavits, most notably from a former Detroit police clerk who says she saw a police report in 2002 in which Greene described being attacked by Carlita Kilpatrick during a party at the Manoogian Mansion.

That affidavit, by 65-year-old Joyce Carolyn Rogers of Troy, marked the first time a police employee has said a report existed. But even this development leaves room for doubt.

For one thing, Rogers does not have the report. For another, she told the Free Press she came forward on the advice of her psychiatrist.

Perhaps most damaging, Brown told the Free Press he interviewed Rogers in 2003, when he was suing the city, and her account would have helped his whistle-blower lawsuit. But Brown decided that as much as he would have liked to believe Rogers, he just couldn’t verify her account.

For his part, Yatooma rightly notes that he does not have to prove the existence of the much-rumored, never-proven, alleged party to prove the homicide investigation was derailed. But finding a smoking gun would sure help his cause.

“I admit it’s never been proven,” Yatooma said.

He added: “We’re going through the process of proving it.”

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