Monday, Sept. 8, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
Dana MacKay was a successful Elvis impersonator looking to leave the business. His girlfriend was a pageant queen, a divorced Mrs. Nevada, living with the King in a fixer-upper Vegas mansion they called “Mini-Graceland.”
When police arrived at the house, they found the couple dead on the floor, shot after coming home with groceries — laundry detergent, T-bone steaks, bananas and a box of Junior Mints.
The steaks had gone bad. MacKay and his girlfriend, Mary Huffman, had been dead for a day or two.
Police concluded the couple had walked in on a burglary and had died for it. Fifteen years later, a different cop disagrees.
“I don’t believe it,” homicide Detective George Sherwood said. “Somebody was lying in wait for them.”
And only one important item, as far as anybody can tell, was missing.
Dana MacKay looked an awful lot like Elvis. When he sang, he sounded like Elvis. He had a backup band, and he didn’t lip-sync. When his slaying was splashed across the tabloids, they called him “America’s first Elvis impersonator.”
He was the kind of celebrity impersonator who bristled at the title. In his mind, he was a tribute artist. He played the Dunes before it was dusted. He was the first to play Elvis in “Legends in Concert” at the Imperial Palace. He played a 35-year-old King in the movie “This Is Elvis,” considered one of the better documentaries on the subject. It was rereleased last year in a special two-disc collectors’ edition. But sweating and grinding in rhinestones isn’t the easiest way to make ends meet. MacKay had been working as an impersonator for years, and though he was good at it, he wasn’t happy enough to spend the rest of his life onstage, squeezed into a white jumpsuit. He had other plans — palm trees.
MacKay had a landscaping business on the side — not driving around in a pickup truck with a lawn mower, but designing and planting large tracts for high-end homes and hotels, friend Danny Koker remembers. MacKay had an in with a guy in California who raised quality palm trees and sold them at a discount to the Elvis impersonator. This is clear when you look at aerial crime scene photos of Mini-Graceland, his Spring Valley stucco home: The place is covered in palm trees, a foolish number of them — a sort of Vegas desert answer to Greek columns.
The house needed work, though. MacKay, known for being clever with his hands, was in the middle of remodeling the place, which had a recording studio on the top floor with picture windows that overlooked the Strip. And someone looking down on Las Vegas Boulevard at that time, the early ’90s, might have noticed something: no palm trees.
MacKay thought this was his chance. Las Vegas and Clark County officials were looking, his friends and family remember, for someone to line the Strip’s median with palm trees. It was a big contract, and one MacKay thought he could win. He had the trees, but he didn’t really have the financing. So he brought in a friend — Tim Stone-
street, of the now-defunct auto dealer Stonestreet Motor Cars.
With Stonestreet providing the financial backing, the friends formed Paradise Palms Co. in December 1992. They bought expensive toys, about $100,000 worth of landscaping equipment — a backhoe, a 40-foot storage trailer, crane equipment, the works. Together, friends recall, the two were determined to get the Strip contract.
The partnership was dissolved five months later. The ex-partners quickly ended up in court, fighting over the company’s equipment. MacKay represented himself. Stone-
street hired an attorney from Goodman and Chesnoff, the firm co-owned by the man who would go on to become Las Vegas’ mayor.
Things were bitter. In one of MacKay’s court filings, he wrote: “In retrospect it appeared that all Tim was trying to do was obtain my contacts for trees, learn my expertise and establish his own palm tree company.”
MacKay didn’t want to part with the equipment, even after Metro Police were dispatched to his house to remove it. They were unsuccessful, and MacKay was optimistic. He told his pal Koker he had information that would help him win the case. But before he could go to court with whatever that information was, MacKay was dead. The tabloids described it as a “gangland-style execution.”
Roughly two weeks later, Stonestreet was awarded the dissolved company’s assets.
Robbers don’t leave guns behind. This is common knowledge to police, homicide Detective Sherwood said. They don’t typically leave behind jewelry, either. And when the person you’re robbing has cash and a wallet openly on his person, as MacKay did when he died, failing to snatch it up is just another sign that you’re a lousy robber, or not a robber at all.
The couple died near the front door of their house — shot several times at close range. Rumors floated that MacKay was involved with drugs, was hanging with a rough crowd, but the coroner’s report reveals there wasn’t a single illicit substance in his body.
“His friends said he didn’t even drink very often,” Sherwood said.
The detective has been working Metro’s cold cases for the past two years. He has been in homicide for going on eight. He’s planning to leave the section in a few weeks, but he’s so certain he can solve the Mac-
Kay killing, he’s taking the case with him.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said.
His new boss will read this. Hopefully he won’t mind. Sherwood is the kind of guy who lets a thing eat at him. He has been chewing on the MacKay case for months, has conducted a dozen interviews, traveled out of state several times. He has visited a few jails, had a few behind-bars conversations with a few persons of interest. Next he’s going to the police DNA lab to see what they can squeeze from the available evidence. That’s about all he’s going to tell you, too.
Well, besides this: “This case is solvable.”
The only item of interest that was taken from the Mac-
Kay house was a manila folder the Elvis impersonator carried with him everywhere. Koker, who had plans to get into the palm tree business with MacKay when Stonestreet was out of the picture, remembers him dragging it out every time they talked business, which was often, and flipping through the pages. He kept everything too. He was a meticulous Elvis.
Sherwood is a meticulous detective. He drags out the cold case file, which consists of two hulking black three-ring binders, and flips through the pages.
“Dana always kept a file with him that outlined all his business, whether it was his musical endeavors, the palm tree business, his home and personal information, his life finances. And that was the only notable thing that was missing,” he said. “Somebody wanted that folder, and somebody wanted Dana.”
Several hundred black binders line Metro’s cold case shelves. Sherwood opened this one because MacKay has a daughter, a girl who saw her father during the summer and remembers the last time she saw him: at a family funeral, with a Marilyn Monroe impersonator for a date. Then he was killed. On a whim a few months ago, his daughter, Misty Vargas, searched for her father’s name online, found a blurb about his case, discovered it was being called a burglary gone bad and flipped out. She called Metro, and from there, they started poking around. At the time of the killing, Koker came out hard against Stonestreet. He brought America’s Most Wanted right to the front door of his house, knocked on the front door, and let the cameras roll while Stonestreet said he had no comment.
Stonestreet said the same thing, through his attorney, John Spilotro, to the Sun last week. He refused to meet with Sherwood as well. At the time of the slaying, it’s widely known, Stonestreet was out of town. Police cleared him of any wrongdoing when the case was first investigated.
Sherwood says he’s following up on about three angles, working just as hard to eliminate bad information as to confirm the good. He’s not a divulger of details. MacKay’s remaining family, Misty’s grandparents, have come forward with a reward, $25,000, for anybody who knows anything useful about the killing of the King and his beauty queen at Mini-Graceland.
His palm trees are still there. Someone else’s are up and down the Strip.