The former Klan lawyer from Atlanta has always been interested in money. What's remarkable is how he's been able to earn it.
One afternoon in July of 2005, Atlanta real estate investor Steven Ogletree received an unusual phone call. On the other end of the line was a local retired lawyer and real estate prospector named Sam Dickson. Ogletree had never heard of Dickson, knew nothing of his outspoken white supremacism, and was surprised when the pushy stranger urged him to undersell a plot of land in Atlanta's resurgent Vine City district. Dickson claimed to have already bought out Ogletree's three junior partners; he now needed the remaining portion to gain full title. Dickson named a price and demanded that the deed be signed over to him at once.
Ogletree recoiled, refusing the offer. It took several more phone calls, offers and rejections before a flustered Dickson told Ogletree that he no longer believed he was speaking to the right person. The reason, Dickson said, was that Ogletree sounded African-American, which indeed he was. Dickson declared that "no black man was capable" of masterminding such a profitable investment, Ogletree said.
The statement was a revealing burst of honesty in Sam Dickson's short but lucrative career in real estate. The year before, Dickson had declared at a conference sponsored by former Klan leader David Duke that "Negroes ... are hopeless."
But not without their uses, especially when they own property. It was at that same conference that Dickson declared, apropos of not much at all, "I like money. There's no virtue in poverty. I want money."
So he does. Since 2001, Dickson, a 59-year-old former Klan attorney and active veteran of numerous extreme-right causes and groups, has built a multi-million dollar business in the niche field of tax lien and title acquisition. His success has depended in no small part on keeping his otherwise well-known racism concealed from his targets, many of whom are poor and black. According to those who have observed and worked with Dickson, his profits have been earned through a combination of bullying, stealth, and legal pretzel-making in the arcane world of tax lien purchases, redemptions and foreclosures. When contacted, Dickson declined to comment on the charges.
Though unusual for the surfacing of racist bile, Ogletree's anecdote is consistent with other reports of Dickson's methods.
"Before he insulted me, he tried to swindle me," says Ogletree. "Everything he told me was an exaggeration. He called me at midnight and threatened me, using jargon, as if he had some special powers because he passed the bar. I wasn't intimidated by him, but [what if] he does this to defenseless old ladies, and makes it sound as if a siren is coming to their door -- it's just evil."
It's profitable, too.
Famous for their complex legal and procedural nuances, tax lien and deed auctions are essentially how cities and counties collect delinquent property taxes. In the case of south Atlanta's newly revitalized black neighborhoods, where Dickson is most active, the lots in question are sometimes little more than narrow strips of overgrown weeds.
But in today's high-growth Atlanta, where land values are soaring in neighborhoods considered worthless a decade ago, these craggy patches are worth chasing.
The chase begins when someone like Dickson purchases an unpaid tax debt. The purchaser (or "transferee," because the tax debt has been transferred to him) then has a legal obligation to notify the owners of record of the property that the execution of the unpaid tax debt has been transferred to him. If the notice to an owner of record is returned undelivered, the transferee has an obligation to try to identify his whereabouts and notify him. At this stage the property owners can clear the tax debt by paying the amount owed, plus certain fees and interest at the statutory rate, to the transferee.
But the clock is ticking. If the transferee's bill goes unpaid too long, he can force a sale of the property. At such an official tax sale, there is rarely much money left over for the property owners after the taxes, interest, fees, and other expenses are paid. Faced with this prospect, the property owners may end up selling their property to someone like Dickson to get what they can.
"Sam Dickson creates a sense of false urgency about the back taxes," says Dan West, a disgruntled former business partner of Dickson's who runs a real estate firm specializing in tax lien and deed acquisition. "He won't inform people of their full rights. He'll twist the information to gain their interest in the lot."
There is an industry phrase for Dickson's style: "Bullying title." It's not illegal, but it's not a pretty sight.
Nightmare on Ormond Street
Deborah Hobson has seen Dickson the Bull charge. In 1993, Hobson's mother and father died within a month of each other. They left no will, but Hobson didn't think she needed a piece of paper to tell her that she and her two sisters had rights to her mother's "shotgun shack" at 76 Ormond Street in southwest Atlanta. Hobson paid the taxes on the land until 1995, when she fell behind. In September, 2003, Sam Dickson bought the tax deed on the south Atlanta property for $7,000.
Here began Deborah Hobson's self-described "nightmare."
Within days of acquiring the deed, Dickson approached Hobson about buying her interest in the property. She was entertaining the idea of selling, she says, until she realized that Dickson had no intention of offering anything near fair market value; his first offer was $1,500 on a lot worth between $35,000 and $60,000. She told him that she did not want to sell the land. Instead, she would try to pull together the money needed to redeem the tax deed and retain all her pre-existing rights to the property, possibly by cracking open her 401(k) account.
That's not what Sam Dickson wanted to hear. Hobson says that he stepped up pressure on her and her sisters to sell the property at once, telling them to forget ever trying to pay his bill. Unable to convince Deborah Hobson, Dickson began contacting her sisters independently, playing one off the other, whispering that their family spokesperson in the matter, Deborah, did not have their best interest at heart and was costing them money.
At one point, Dickson even tracked down a Hobson sister at the hospital where she was being treated for a head injury. He suggested he come down and she sign the papers then and there.
"When we refused to sell, he got aggressive. He was relentless. I felt like I was being stalked," remembers Deborah Hobson. "I considered trying to get my Cingular Wireless records and suing him for harassment."
"He'd leave these threatening letters on my door," says Hobson. "They'd say, 'I know you're bitter because you lost your land, but you aren't going to get it back so you might as well take what you can get.' It was like, how dare we question him! He's a liar and a snake in the grass."
Worn down and eager to be rid of Dickson, the Hobson sisters hired a lawyer to sell their property to someone else. The other buyer offered them more than Dickson — but still less than what the property was worth — but by then money was no longer the sisters' main concern.
"It got so ugly that we took the path of least resistance," explains Deborah Hobson. "We still didn't get fair market value, but I would have given it away just to keep that evil man from getting his hands on my mother's house."
It was after months of dealing with Dickson and his associates that Hobson learned of her suitor's Klan connections and extreme views on race. After running an Internet search on Dickson, she was furious and horrified.
"I started to have nightmares about him," she says. "I couldn't believe this man was coming to my home, that I ever talked business with him. It will always haunt me."
Weaned on Hate
Samuel Glasgow Dickson was born in Atlanta in 1947, the son of a Presbyterian minister. He was a precocious, right-wing youth. At 14 years old, he argued against the integration of his liberal Presbyterian Church; by 16, he had become an active Goldwater conservative -- anti-Communist and pro-states' rights. At the University of Georgia in the late '60s, Dickson was elected president of the Young Republicans and state chair of Young Americans for Freedom, a national Golderwaterite organization founded by William F. Buckley in 1960.
Dickson graduated from UGA Law in 1972 and set up a general practice in Atlanta. Throughout the '70s and '80s, Dickson would offer legal counsel to the Georgia Ku Klux Klan and establish relationships with white supremacists around the world, particularly in Britain. In 1978, he ran on a segregationist platform for lieutenant governor, garnering 11% of the vote.
Along with fighting liberals and integration at home, Dickson fought left-wing forces abroad. Most notably, he belonged to the Council on American Affairs, the American branch of the World Anti-Communist League, a global network of cold warriors that financed anti-left operations around the world. The league provided arms and cash to militias and rebel movements from Guatemala to Afghanistan, often outside the limits of U.S. and international law.
With the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Dickson became what he calls "a great Russophile" and dedicated himself to the preservation and exaltation of the white race, under siege from Miami to Moscow. Freed from the trappings of American patriotism implicit in the cold warrior's pose, Dickson became a full-fledged antigovernment white nationalist.
Dickson's post-Cold War efforts to save the white race have consisted largely of intellectual exercises. Although he belongs to the Council of Conservative Citizens -- a hate group with ties to some elected GOP officials that is the contemporary incarnation of the pro-segregation White Citizens Councils -- and was a close personal friend of the late leader of the far-right British National Party, John Tyndall, Dickson himself prefers the lectern and the study to the soapbox. (Occasionally, though, he will still take to the courtroom. In 1996, he filed a suit against an Atlanta suburb that sought to ban the flying of the Confederate stars and bars during a parade associated with the Olympics.)
His most regular appearances over the last 15 years have been his lectures at the biannual conference of American Renaissance, the journal addressing "racial differences and their consequences," launched by Jared Taylor in 1991. The pseudo-academic monthly gives a genteel sheen and articulate voice to what is essentially a racist vision of ethnically "pure" states. Dickson's keynote AR speech of May 2006 bemoaned the state of crisis in which the white race found itself, nowhere more so than in America.
"There comes a time," declared Dickson, "when the crisis is such that only a Corsican lieutenant can restore things." (The reference is to Napoleon Bonaparte, who crowned himself emperor of France.) Dickson went on to argue that his "old friend" David Duke's strong showing in the 1991 Louisiana governor's race — "better than Hitler" -- during a period of relative prosperity bodes well. We merely await, Dickson said, an economic catastrophe: "The worse the better. Let the bad times roll. That will be our opportunity."
When the bad times roll, they are unlikely to hurt Sam Dickson much. According to Fulton County records, the list of liens in Dickson's name totals more than 200. That fact will do much to keep him out of harm's way when the white race's catastrophic "opportunity" rolls around.
To be exact, it will place him in Key West, Fla., where Dickson owns a home and plans to retire.
But not just yet.
What's in a Name?
If Dickson had managed to gain title and "flip" Deborah Hobson's property, he would have deposited the profits with a chuckle. The entity Dickson employed in the Hobson case was named "Community Renewal and Redemption LLC" -- a cynical ploy in light of Dickson's profound loathing for blacks and hostility toward any "community" other than the white race. Other ironically titled limited liability companies organized by Dickson in recent years include "Progressive Development Alliance LLC," "United Community Redemption LLC," "United Community Uplift LLC," and "Teutoberg Collections LLC."
The last of these is a not-so-sly reference to the forest in which German tribes defeated Roman legions in the first century A.D. The name may have been the idea of Dickson's main business partner and heir apparent, 31-year-old Joshua Buckley. Like Dickson, Buckley took to extreme-right politics young, joining the violent neo-Nazi organization SS of America in 1991. (He is no longer a member.) Currently, Buckley publishes Tyr, an annual "radical traditionalist" anthology named after the pre-Christian, Germanic god of the sky. The collections "celebrate the myths, culture, and social institutions of pre-Christian, pre-modern Europe," an age of zero immigration and tall, blond forest tribes living out a martial, pagan ethos. While mostly backward looking, Tyr does feature interviews with contemporary figures like Alain de Benoist, the prolific French writer, historian and founder of the far-right think-tank Nouvelle Droit (New Right).
In business as in ideology, Buckley is Dickson's protégé. Together they have mastered the art of buying tax deeds, tracking down vulnerable heirs, entering their lives, and getting what they want.
Dealing With the Devil
Summer Hill. Pittsburgh. Grant Park. The Bluff.
A decade ago, small overgrown plots in these Atlanta neighborhoods were ignored by real estate developers. Today, as Atlanta continues to sprawl in every direction, feeding off its reputation as cosmopolitan hub of the New South and drawing thousands of young professionals back to the city, these once-neglected neighborhoods are hot -- "hotter than a firecracker," according to one local developer.
As competition for tax delinquent property in this environment increases, so does the presence of Sam Dickson and his protégé, Joshua Buckley. While growing their business, say many of their peers, they've changed the rules of the game. Once upon a time, prospectors respected each other's investments, but Sam Dickson was apparently the first to break this unwritten rule and is notorious for aggressively feeding off the work and investments of others by finding a back door into fractured ownership situations.
"Sam Dickson is essentially the terrorist of the Atlanta real estate community," says Andy Desmond, an Atlanta-based real estate genealogist, "if we define terrorist as one who is determined to win at any cost, with little or no regard for fairness, disclosure, truth, and compromise."
"Those of us who work within established rules to resolve tax delinquencies and repair fractured real estate titles despise him, not just the heirs whom he strong-arms," says Desmond. "I'm surprised his non-disclosure, half-truth, and bullying tactics haven't led to censure or disbarment, but I have no doubt they'll eventually catch up with him."
Whatever his business rivals may think of his tactics, those in the black community are just as disturbed by his politics.
"If any of these people he approaches knew who he was, they'd want nothing to do with him," says Dan West, Dickson's white former colleague.
Indeed, Dickson goes out of his way to conceal his racial views while playing the role of developer in Atlanta's black neighborhoods. The Klan attorney even donated $4,000 to the black-owned SUMMECH Community Development Corporation, according to Janis Ware, the group's executive director and the former president of the Atlanta Housing Authority. When making his tax-deductible donation to the affordable housing developer, Dickson told Ware that he "appreciated what [she] was doing for the community."
When he said this, Dickson likely appeared as a sweet and sincere Southern gentleman, as he did at first to Deborah Hobson, who later would feel shame at being taken in by Dickson, even for a moment.
"The devil doesn't always come at you with red horns and pitchfork," she says.
Hobson isn't the only person who's run into Dickson to invoke Satan in describing the man and his racket.
Komicheal Johnson runs the black-owned Atlanta development firm, J.L.W. Homes and Communities. Over the years he's bought numerous properties from Dickson, and has only recently become aware of his views on race. While he would prefer not to deal with Dickson at all, he says it's not so simple. If he doesn't buy Dickson's property, another developer will, one that builds poor quality or unaffordable homes, and who does not have strong community backing.
"I've seen it at least 10 times," says Johnson. "I'll pass on a piece of Dickson's property. Then he'll sell it to someone who makes a terrible product. He's a nutcase, no doubt, but my hands are tied. How do you deal with the devil?"