Tired and dusty the cowboy rides his noble horse across the desert. From the arid plains of Arizona, through the deserts of the southwest and into the Rocky Mountains. Miles of wide open range greet the solitary traveler in Big Sky country. And all for a good cause... helping feed children who might otherwise go hungry. A noble cause indeed.... if only the cowboy had been so noble.
The tale of Richard Fipps' con goes back several years. In the late 1980's Fipps was convicted of armed burglary, a conviction he appealed on the basis that Fipps didn't carry the rifle with him while committing the burglary. Florida's appeals court found the facts fit the crime of armed burglary and that the minimum sentence would stand.
While in prison Fipps changed his name to Richard Handy, a moniker he'd keep for several years before changing it back to Fipps several years later. In the meantime Fipps didn't stay out of trouble with the law. Another conviction came in 1993, this time for stealing horses.
In the spring and summer of 2002 Fipps turned from these one-day crimes and set out on an epic fraud. The trip was to be a horseback trip from Alabama to Utah. Along the way Fipps said he'd raise donations for worthwhile charities and canned food for local missions. The trip fell apart. Fipps trailered his horse to various spots to "ride" along the way and started spinning tales. The smooth-talker took in many people along the way using them and leaving them with the bill for their trouble. In the years following the "trip" Fipps spun even greater stories.
The second trip
With one hoax complete Fipps started raising funds and getting donations worth thousands of dollars for his second charitable ride. Using the Mexico-Canada story everybody from well-meaning internet companies to clothing stores and horse-trailer retailers were duped into believing. All was well Fipps called in from the "trail" and reports were posted to the online journal of the trip.
There was just one problem. Fipps was in Las Vegas when he claimed to be on the trail. KNPR's Ky Plaskon got the tip and started digging. Calling Fipps on his cell phone Plaskon asked Fipps what he could see from where he was. The description, the same non-descript void of detail banalities that belie the tales in the journal are evident in the response. The final proof comes when Fipps while claiming to be riding across Montana is instead in court on domestic violence charges.
When Fipps began preparing for the second trip he was no-doubt helped by the likes of The Cullman Times from Cullman County Alabama. In the summer of 2003 the Times published an article telling the story of the heroic cowboy traveler. This article and others helped the con man work his magic a second time. With the small-town papers along the way vouching for him Fipps story seemed all the more real. After all a journalist would check the facts - right?
In the fanciful tale Fipps spun for the times are several passages of interest:
Once the group reached the Arkansas state line in the middle of the bridge, they received an escort from Arkansas law enforcement. The state mounted police also escorted the group through Little Rock where Fipps wanted to see the state capital.
"I rode my horse us to the steps and took pictures and everything," he said. "Then the governor came out. He said when he sent out the mounted police to escort us, he didn't mean for us to come up to the capital."
Fipps asked to camp on the capital lawn, and the governor reluctantly allowed it.
"He just said, 'Whatever you do, don't leave anything behind,' meaning manure," Fipps said.
Certainly exciting stuff. A few calls and the tale quickly unravels. Arkansas state police don't have a mounted unit. Interested in camping on the capital grounds in Little Rock? Don't ask the Governor. He isn't the one who can give permission. It's the Secretary of State who looks after the capital grounds. One other thing, if you're going to invent history it's best to find a time when there aren't two state historians working over the summer - it's easier to claim one forgot than two.
Granted these calls would have taken a reporter in Cullman county a whole of half an hour to make and verify the story.
Even easier to verify is Fipps' claim of being a guest on Larry King Live and David Letterman. All it takes is a thirty-second trip to the CNN transcripts section to find out that this portion of the story is also a complete fabrication.
In the end two facts, Fipps arrived by truck and used to be from Centre Alabama are the only facts in the whole of the story that hold up. The balance, right down to Fipps' claimed sponsor who dissociated itself from his "trip" early on aren't true. The Cullman Times, contacted by email and phone did not respond to inquires about the article. As the article remains on their website and no retraction appears on the site it seems they stand by this piece of flimsy journalism.
In the end it is the work of these very publications that assist Fipps in commencing his scam a second time.
At the other end of the spectrum The Long Rider's Guild has done an outstanding job of documenting this knave. Together we'll work to keep the record alive so that another set of victims aren't taken in.