The Long, Violent Fall of Tanning Mogul Todd Beckman

The Long, Violent Fall of Tanning Mogul Todd Beckman
ILLUSTRATION BY EVAN SULT

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Caleb Laubinger helped his brother hunt and kidnap Ellis Athanas III. - COURTESY ST. CHARLES COUNTY
COURTESY ST. CHARLES COUNTY
Caleb Laubinger helped his brother hunt and kidnap Ellis Athanas III.

The Laubinger brothers spent more than three weeks desperately hunting Athanas. They told mutual friends to watch for him, and soon tips began to trickle in. They missed him in Springfield after he was supposedly spotted hanging around Missouri State University. They almost had him another time at a Steak 'n Shake in Sunset Hills, but he bolted through a back door, jumped in his car and escaped during a wild, wrong-way chase on I-44. Athanas was turning out to be a ghost.

Adding to the pressure was Blake's relationship with Beckman. The young dealer's attorney, Scott Rosenblum, would later describe it as nearly paternalistic. The Laubingers' own father had been physically and emotionally abusive, Rosenblum told a judge, and Blake was easily impressed by Beckman's money, cars, beautiful women and "sparkling tan." The younger man talked about his buddy "Todd" so much so that his mother began to wonder about what she assumed was another twenty-something. She was alarmed when she discovered her son's new friend was a middle-aged CEO.

On social media, Blake hyped his new lifestyle and connections. Alongside a photo of his ride next to Beckman's souped-up sports car, he wrote, "Me and todd on the way to the race track had to snap a pic lol."

But Rosenblum contends there was always an "element of fear" in the relationship. And when Athanas stole his money and drugs, Beckman was adamant that Blake "get" him, authorities say.

The Laubingers finally caught a break on November 21, 2016, when they learned Athanas was staying at a house in Maplewood. That evening, they slipped inside and waited in the dark. It was a modest place — two bedrooms, set off a one-block street south of Manchester Road — and the brothers searched for any sign of the stolen bounty. They knew it was a long shot. Blake had heard Athanas bought not one, but two luxury cars after the burglary. He was making them look stupid. And the money was still gone.

Their target finally returned home after an evening out, and Blake punched him hard in the face. Six feet tall and 200 pounds, Blake had a size advantage of three inches and about 30 pounds. But Athanas was wily. A fitness fanatic, he occasionally posted shirtless photos of his ripped physique on social media and filmed himself doing acrobatic flips. The two rivals traded blows in the cramped kitchen.

The fight ended when Caleb, bigger and stronger than them both, rushed in from behind. He clamped his arm around Athanas' windpipe and squeezed until the smaller man passed out. Blake bound his adversary's wrists and ankles with plastic zip ties.

When Athanas awoke, Blake grilled him about the drugs and money, but he was too late — Athanas had already sold all the weed and spent the cash.

Blake called Beckman to tell him what happened, and then the brothers carried their captive outside to a truck. It was dark outside, and things were getting complicated. They still had no money and no drugs, and now they had a live hostage who knew plenty about them.

The Laubingers crept out of the neighborhood and onto the highway. Blake drove while Caleb sat in the back with Athanas. It is a 30-minute trip from Maplewood to Pacific, and Athanas was frightened. Part of the reason he was so hard to find after the burglary was because he had fled to Florida, where his mother lives. Now that he was back, he wondered if he was going to be killed.

As the truck sped down the highway, Athanas made one last, frantic attempt to escape. He flung himself into the front seat and kicked furiously at Blake. The truck spun out before Caleb was able to grab Athanas, punching him and dragging him back into the rear seat.

Once they arrived at Blake's house in Pacific, the brothers pulled into the garage and carried Athanas down to the basement. They laid a plastic tarp across the floor — for the "blood stains," they said — and tied their hostage by his wrists to a pole.

Within the hour, Beckman and Kerry Roades arrived. The tanning mogul glared at Athanas.

"You fucked up," he said.

Ellis Athanas III, shown in his mugshot for a 2015 arrest in Florida, had grown his hair to 26 inches before kidnappers shaved his head. - COURTESY LEE COUNTY SHERIFF
COURTESY LEE COUNTY SHERIFF
Ellis Athanas III, shown in his mugshot for a 2015 arrest in Florida, had grown his hair to 26 inches before kidnappers shaved his head.

It was like a movie — like the four had watched a bad movie about drug dealers or kidnappers and decided this was the way to handle a thieving double-crosser.

The plastic tarp was one thing. Then Beckman pulled electric hair clippers out of his backpack. Athanas had spent years growing his hair, proudly measuring the length at 26 inches. If there was one thing Beckman understood instinctively, it was the psychological power of your looks. The former hairstylist had, after all, become a rich man by playing to his customers' vanity. Now he intended to turn it against his captive as a form of mental torture.

The clippers buzzed as Beckman shaved Athanas' head down to the scalp. When he was done, he collected the hair and said he planned to send it to his marijuana supplier in California to prove they had caught the thief.

Athanas later testified the men took turns beating him. Blake had a Taser, and they shocked him over and over as they threatened his life. Roades suggested they shoot him, chop him into pieces and shrink wrap him for shipment back to the supplier in California, according to Athanas. Beckman alternately pistol whipped him and jammed the barrel of the gun against his head, pulling the trigger with a sickening click as the pistol's hammer slammed forward into an empty chamber.

"I was convinced I was going to die," Athanas later testified.

Blake's French bulldog, Louie, had befriended Athanas during previous visits. At one point, all the screaming and beating freaked out Louie so much the protective pup nipped Beckman's face.

Finally, sometime after midnight, Beckman and Roades went home, leaving the Laubinger brothers to keep watch. Athanas was a mess. He had two black eyes and cuts across the top of his head. His face was puffy and swollen, and the cartilage in one shoulder was torn. The zip ties used to bind his wrists and ankles had cut off the blood flow, causing his hands and feet to turn darker and darker purple as they went numb. He begged the brothers to let him go or at least loosen the restraints, but it was no use.

In the morning, Beckman returned. He had been shopping at Lowe's, and he held up a roll of shrink wrap and a heat gun. If Athanas did not come up with some cash, Beckman warned, they really would kill him and ship him to California.

It was to be a long and violent day. By now, the four kidnappers knew Athanas no longer had their money, so they settled on a new plan — they would call his parents. They dialed his father in St. Louis first, then his mother in Florida. During the calls, they put Athanas on the phone, demanding he ask for money. They beat him so his parents could hear him suffer and warned if they did not pay, their son would be dead by Thanksgiving — two days away.

The calls — and beatings — continued throughout the morning as the kidnappers increased the pressure. The worried parents started gathering cash, but it was difficult. They were working-class people with no piles of money lying around. Athanas' father rehabbed houses, and his mom had her nursing license. Slowing the process, the mother had to drive from Florida and would not arrive until the next day.

Blake was getting worried about the crime scene unfolding in his home. The house was surrounded on all sides by neighbors, including ones just across a small backyard from the walkout basement where he and his friends had been torturing a man for nearly 24 hours. Anyone was liable to show up.

In fact, one of Blake's buddies, 24-year-old Zachary Smith, did just that. Smith, who had gone on one of the unsuccessful Springfield search missions, tromped down to the basement where Athanas dangled from his wrists, his head shaved and covered in bruises. There would later be some debate about whether Smith took a turn with the Taser or just watched and left. Regardless, they needed a more secluded location.

Beckman suggested moving the operation to some rural land owned by the Laubinger family, but Blake balked at that idea. Instead, they settled on a wooded property Beckman had on the edge of Fenton. He and Roades left to make preparations.

Blake and Caleb waited until dark, then loaded Athanas into a rented blue pickup and headed out. Athanas watched out the window as they turned onto I-44 again, this time headed east. As they neared Six Flags, they draped a blanket over his head so he could not see.

Riding blindly, he felt the truck pull over. The door opened, someone else got in and he heard a familiar voice.

"Now we're going to take you to where you're going to die," Beckman said, according to Athanas.

The tanned CEO reached back and clocked him in the head with a pistol. Blake put the truck in gear, and the four of them turned back onto the road.

Todd Beckman's land in Fenton was on the top of a hill overlooking Bud Weil Memorial Park.

He had been renovating a two-story house there until a suspicious explosion wrecked the place in 2006. According to law-enforcement records of the investigation, St. Louis County detectives found a gas line had been left wide open, filling the garage with combustible fumes until a space heater, stuffed with paper and hot wired to an electric timer, kicked on. The blast cracked the walls, blew out windows and flung the garage door 50 feet from the house. Neighbors more than 400 feet away felt their homes shake and called 911. Investigators noted it could have been worse — the five-gallon containers of fuel staged around the heater somehow did not ignite.

Beckman had left for Cancun just before the incident. Detectives later arrested one of his boyhood friends, a caretaker for the property, on an arson charge (they found a charred scrap of envelope addressed to the man among the shreds of paper near the heater). But county prosecutors later dropped the case, and a lawsuit Beckman filed against his insurer, which had denied his homeowner's claim, was settled out of court.

By the time the kidnappers arrived on November 22, 2016, it was an eerie sight. A large fish pond sat in a clearing just beyond the end of the drive. Where the house once stood was barren ground. The trio dragged Athanas out of the truck. His hands and feet were still cinched together by zip ties, and they had added a set of handcuffs. He hopped along as they pulled him by his shoulders toward an industrial shipping container at the edge of the property.

Kerry Roades, the jack of all trades, had anchored steel cables to the inside of the container. The men laid their hostage on a blanket and fastened his arms and legs to the cables. They continued to beat him as they worked. Athanas was a mass of bruises on top of bruises by then.

"I was terrified," he later testified. "It was the scariest thing that's ever happened to me in my life. I really thought I was going to die."

Once they were done, the kidnappers shut the heavy steel doors to the container and left Athanas lying in the cold of the November night. He was wearing khakis and a long-sleeve shirt. The cables didn't have enough slack to permit him to stand, so he just lay there in the dark, listening to rain beat against the shipping container. A small hole in the roof was his only light.

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