Fred Sawyers, 34, spent much of this harsh winter inside his rooms on the ground floor of a garden apartment complex in Indianapolis. A $24,000-a-year clerk at a direct-mail company, Sawyers has been battling leukemia and depression for several years. In seasons past he relieved his loneliness by chatting with Russell Harding, his longtime internet pen pal.
But the two men stopped communicating in the summer of 2001 when Harding became outraged that Sawyers—who had been given a free trip to New York by his cancer support group—might finally try to meet him face to face.
“Aren’t you ever going to fucking grow up,” an irate Harding typed that day. “I’ve been better to you than anyone else ever has and this is how you repay me, by trying to corner me into letting you come to NYC. Forget it Fred, fucking forget it.”
Harding too stayed holed up this winter, either at his East 62nd Street apartment or at his parents’ country home in Columbia County. There, the 38-year-old Harding waited to see what would come of the dual city-federal investigation into allegations that he had misspent hundreds of thousands of dollars as head of a small but well-off city housing agency. Some of the leads investigators were pursuing had come to them via Sawyers, who kept copies of all his e-mails and online chats with Harding, as well as the packing slips from gifts Harding sent him, like the $360 DVD player that Harding had paid for with a credit card from the New York City Housing Development Corporation.
That purchase became one of the charges against Harding, the son of Liberal Party leader and Rudy Giuliani adviser Raymond Harding, when he was indicted last month on four counts of fraud against his former agency and two counts of receiving and possessing child pornography. Outside the courthouse, Harding, wearing a trace of a smile, stepped in front of the cameras as his attorney, Gerald Shargel, insisted on his client’s innocence. In his apartment 750 miles away in Indianapolis, Sawyers let his answering machine pick up messages from reporters in New York calling to ask his thoughts about the indictment.
Harding at arraignment last month.
(photo: Keith Bedford)
He hadn’t always been so ambivalent. In February 2002, vowing that no one else should be hurt as he had, Sawyers contacted a reporter Harding had once complained about. He told the reporter, who was already seeking Harding’s expense records, what he knew about the official’s wrongdoing. After the stories were published, law enforcement agents quickly contacted Sawyers.
In an e-mail the day after the indictment, Sawyers said he felt bad that Harding had spent money intended to help “people who don’t have much” obtain better homes. It also hurt, he said, that in all of Harding’s city-paid travels, he’d never bothered to look up his Indianapolis friend. “Other people were good enough to travel and do things with him, yet I wasn’t good enough to even meet,” Sawyers said.
He had come to believe that what Harding wanted most from him, Sawyers said, was help in finding young boys for sex, a subject Harding raised often in their chats, despite Sawyers’s repeated refusals and requests that Harding not discuss it.
Still, he felt pangs of regret. “I can’t help but feel in my heart that some of the things he did towards me were true acts of kindness,” Sawyers said.
Fred Sawyers met Russell Harding in a chat room about old movies in late 1998, a few months after Giuliani appointed Harding to head the housing agency. They quickly became friends, albeit via cyberspace. The kindnesses came in e-mails and online chats, in which Harding often expressed affection for Sawyers and concern about his health. He also sent expensive gifts: the DVD player, a TV, and, on one occasion, $500 in cash—with Harding ordering Sawyers to destroy the envelope after he received it. Other times, Harding was distinctly manipulative. “No one will ever care about you the way I do Fred . . . no one!!” Harding wrote in one chat. “Always know that I’m the only one who cares about you.”
Sawyers wanted to believe him. Deeply estranged from his own Southern Baptist family in Virginia, Sawyers said he felt he had found a real friend—and hoped for more possibly down the road. But there was a palpable difference in their interactions. Russell’s gifts consisted mainly of Internet mail order items, arranged with a few computer keystrokes and paid for with his agency’s credit card. Fred’s were elaborate, thoughtful presents bought with his own money. For Christmas in 1999, Sawyers sent his friend a framed original ad for Sunset Boulevard—a Harding favorite—signed by director Billy Wilder, along with autographs of Gloria Swanson, William Holden, and Erich Von Stroheim. The items came from Sawyers’s memorabilia collection, which he marketed on a Web site.
Movies were their touchstone. In 1999, Harding bought a puppy, naming it Seabe.
“Seabe? Just like Charles Laughton’s character’s name in Advise and Consent?” asked Sawyers.
“Wow,” responded Harding. “The only other person to get that connection was my dad . . . you do know your movies Fred.”
Sawyers glowed. Soon after, he located a $200 copy of the 1959 bestselling novel on which the movie was based, inscribed by author Allen Drury to Laughton, who plays a crusty South Carolina senator named Seabright B. “Seabe” Cooley in the film. He sent that to Harding as well.
Several times, Harding suggested that Sawyers visit New York. On New Year’s Eve of 2000, Harding told him, “If you were here, I’d go out with you. I’d be more than proud to show you off.” A few months later, Harding said they might meet in Chicago. “You gonna wanna spend some time with me alone?” asked Harding. “Your total devotion to me is very important,” he added. “I’m hoping once we meet you will really feel it in your bones.” At the last minute, however, Harding canceled, saying he was busy.
In July 2001, when Sawyers raised the prospect of his coming to New York, Harding’s tune had changed dramatically. “I have to tell you Fred, I am a very busy person and it may just not be a wise idea for you to come to NYC . . . I just doubt that you would enjoy being around the people I know. They are very important in their fields and you would feel out of place I think.” Sawyers was stung, but typed, “OK Russ, that is fair and I understand.”
A month later, however, on his birthday, Sawyer’s cancer support group took him out to dinner and surprised him with a $591 weekend trip to the city, the place he had told the group he most wanted to visit. He hesitated to tell Harding about it, but when his friend asked about the dinner, he told him about the gift. “Please don’t be mad at me, I honestly didn’t know they were going to do that,” Sawyers wrote. Harding, however, exploded, accusing Sawyers of trying to “stalk” him and vowed never to write or speak to him again. He never did, except for an e-mail threatening Sawyers with police and lawsuits after he learned the Indianapolis man was talking to the Voice.
About a week after the indictment, Sawyers got good news and bad news. For the first time, tests showed his bone marrow to be clear of cancer cells, a sign that he is beating the disease. Then, a couple of days later, Sawyers’s employer announced it was going to lay off many employees. “I’m not sure what I’m going to do now,” Sawyers said by phone last week from his apartment. “Maybe this is finally the time to try to move to New York, find a job there.”