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June 2nd, 2004 Carlton Smith | News Stories
 

Vanishing Act

The strange case of Raymond Billings, the missing owner of one of the West Coast's last big-screen porn theaters.

     
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Where is Raymond Billings? Or perhaps even more pertinently, who is Raymond Billings?

According to his attorney and his closest associates, Ray Billings--owner of the X-rated Jefferson Theater--was last seen sometime in the early morning hours of Jan. 13, 2003, when he told his boyfriend he was going to Canada. Billings signed papers giving Jessada Jatturong Tharinee his Chrysler PT Cruiser and personal property in the couple's apartment at 4710 SE Stark St., and then signed another paper, giving control over his adult-theater business to...blank.

Blank? That's right, as in fill-in-the-name: "I Raymond H. Billings give/authorize ______________ to operate the MPM Corp. Jefferson Theater."

That was it--the sole direction of what to do with a business that netted Billings a before-tax profit of about $180,000 a year, if papers filed in Multnomah County Probate Court are accurate.

And with that, Raymond Huntley Billings simply vanished.

Why would a 59-year-old man, by all accounts as conservative in his demeanor as he was successful in business, simply disappear?

Nearly nine months after Billings' mysterious fadeout, lawyers associated with the adult-entertainment industry took control of his business affairs as judicially approved conservators.

"It's a nice little business," says Bradley J. Woodworth, a lawyer whose firm has been appointed by the probate court to run the theater. Woodworth has billed the theater $20,000 in conservatorship fees, while putting $10,000 a month into a bank account for Billings should he ever resurface.

At the rate the money is piling up, the total set aside for the still-missing Billings could reach as high as $1 million by the time anyone can decide, at least in legal terms, that Billings is definitely history. If Billings is proven dead, or eventually declared legally dead, the estate will be probated; if no one steps forward with a rightful claim to the money, what's left after any tax liens are paid will go to the state of Oregon. As far as Woodworth knows, Billings left no will.

The fact that no one has heard from Billings for more than 16 months and that he appears to have made no attempt to access the cash accruing in his accounts is unusual, to say the least. This could be an indication either that Billings is hiding out or that he's dead--whether by his own hand or someone else's.

"I still expect to get a call and hear that it's Ray Billings on the line," Woodworth says.

The profits pulled from porn by Billings' business, while high--even eye-catching--are by no means unusual. Porn is thriving in Portland, industry observers agree, although hard numbers are, well, somewhat flaccid.

Woodworth, who with his associate Lake Perriguey represents a number of interests in the industry, says that most adult-oriented businesses are privately held, so their profitability is known only to the owners and the tax man. But Woodworth says there are somewhere between 30 and 40 such businesses in the Portland area alone.

The Jefferson Theater is reputed to be one of the last remaining X-rated theaters on the West Coast. Since pornography moved to the small screen via the Internet, videotape and DVDs some years ago, such widescreen displays of pulchritude have become rare.

The theater at 1232 SW 12th Ave. also served as the venue for some live-action sex shows, including "Nasty Karaoke Night," in which men--and a few women--gave their all in the altogether (see "One Night in Bang Cock," WW, Jan. 2, 2002), as well as an outlet for sales and rentals of X-rated videotapes and DVDs. It is, by all accounts, a cash cow, which makes Billings' decision to beat it all the more puzzling.

At the time of his disappearance, Billings was 59 years old--hardly an age to chuck it all and start over. However, he was involved in one legal imbroglio, involving the Portland restaurant chain called Typhoon!.

He and his Thai boyfriend, Tharinee, were hoping to start a Thai restaurant in Astoria. Shortly before he disappeared, Billings met with lawyer Beth Creighton to discuss his support for a Thai couple he wanted to employ as chefs.

Creighton was representing the two chefs in a lawsuit against their former employer Typhoon!. The couple faced immigration difficulties and opposition from Typhoon!. Creighton says Billings, who was helping the chefs with their problems, seemed focused, behaving normally and certainly not suicidal.

"He saved my clients from Typhoon!," Creighton says. "He was their benefactor. I thought he was a great guy."

Four days later, Billings vanished.

A tall, distinguished-looking man, about 190 to 200 pounds, with gray hair and wire-rimmed glasses, Billings was, acquaintances say, an intensely private man not given to soul-baring confessions or even explications of his past. "Ray led a pretty private life," Woodworth observes. While he had a number of friends--and boyfriends--he didn't have a highly public profile. Some who knew him casually, including most of the people in Astoria, never even knew that he was gay.

Bruce Jensen, a Portland interior designer who has known Billings for a number of years, says the first anyone other than Tharinee heard of Billings' disappearance was about Jan. 20, 2003. That's when Tharinee came to see him in a somewhat emotional state. Jensen says Tharinee told him that Billings had awakened him on the morning of Jan. 13, 2003, told him he was going to Canada and asked if he wanted to come, too. Tharinee said no, turned over and went back to sleep. Billings then disappeared.

"I thought about filing a missing-persons report," Jensen says, "and then I thought, 'No, he's probably just enjoying himself someplace, and he'll come back when he's ready.'"

Then the weeks turned into months, and the months into a year, with no word of or from Billings. But it turns out that this wasn't the first time Billings had pulled a disappearing act.

Before his latest incarnation as one of Portland's porn kings, Billings had worked as a nursing-home administrator. Based on information obtained by WW, it appears that Billings was employed for some years as a hospital executive in the South, perhaps in Texas and possibly Oklahoma, after apparently growing up in Portland, where his father, Wilton, operated an auto-painting business near Lloyd Center.

Jensen says Billings told him that while living in the South he had been married and divorced, and that he had fathered at least one and possibly two children. But Jensen says Billings told him he had infrequent contact with his offspring, although Jensen formed the impression that the children might now be living somewhere in California. Woodworth says he was unaware of any children sired by Billings. (Should Billings be dead, of course, any children he may have fathered would stand to inherit the money now piling up in the conservatorship.)

In the late 1980s, Billings arrived in Centralia, Wash., a town of around 70,000 about an hour and a half north of Portland. Washington records show that he was licensed in that state as a nursing-home administrator in November 1986. He took a job as the administrator of Liberty Country Place, an extended-care facility that was one of several nursing homes owned by Alfred C. Avery, a Salem man who also operated a similar facility in McMinnville. Liberty staffers say Billings was an excellent administrator, at least until he vanished.

This took place sometime in the summer of 1994, according to the current staff at Liberty Country Place. "He said he was going out to lunch and just never came back," recalls one staffer, who asked that her name not be disclosed. "He just walked away. In fact, he left his new Jaguar in the parking lot."

Avery, reached by WW in Rancho Mirage, Calif., says he remembers Billings very well. Billings' prior employment as a hospital administrator, possibly in the Seattle area, made him well-qualified to run Avery's Centralia operation, and Avery says he had no complaints about Billings' professional expertise, a sentiment echoed by the Liberty staff who knew him.

Besides his luxury car, according to public records in Chehalis County, when Billings vanished he left behind his trailer, all its furnishings, about $10,000 in unpaid bank loans, a bad check to Lincoln Creek Lumber in the amount of $247, three IRS income-tax liens totaling $19,729.32 and, according to legend, a large wad of cash in his abandoned trailer northeast of Centralia.

Before Billings beat it, he made a rather startling announcement. "He said, 'I'm going into the witness-protection program,'" one of the Liberty staff remembers. Avery, too, recalls that Billings had made some reference to witness protection prior to his departure. To this day, Avery said in a recent interview, he has no idea what Billings meant by "witness protection" or why he walked away from his job as well as apparently everything he owned.

Two years prior to Billings' departure, Avery was indicted for Medicaid fraud. In July 1993, he pleaded guilty to one count of making a false statement and was assessed $280,000 and sentenced to serve one year and one day in prison. Both Avery and officials who were involved in investigating Avery's fraud case say Billings was never a witness against Avery. So he certainly didn't need protection from his former boss.

After walking away from his Jaguar and his trailer and another live-in lover in Centralia in the summer of 1994, it appears that Billings traveled to Colorado, according to one Liberty staffer, who said he was told by Billings' former boyfriend that that's where Billings went.

Then, in 1996, "Ray H. Blackwell" appeared in Portland, and, according to a statement on file with the Oregon Secretary of State's Office, purchased all the assets of MPM Corp., doing business as the Jefferson Street Theater, from one Sidney E. Huffman of Portland. The following year, Ray H. Billings took over from Ray H. Blackwell as MPM president, according to documents on file with the secretary of state.

In July 2001, the Portland Development Commission purchased the block containing the theater for $2.6 million, primarily to preserve the low-cost, downtown housing on the floors above the establishment, according to PDC Executive Director Don Mazziotti. The following year, the PDC renewed MPM's lease on the theater property for $1,859 a month.

"As far as I know," Mazziotti says, "the business [MPM] has a business license and is a legal business use in the city of Portland. We do not discriminate among the businesses we lease to, based on the type of business they are, as long as they have all the proper permits." Thus, the PDC is legally the landlord of one of Portland's only remaining widescreen porno palaces. The lease runs until April 2007.

Sometime in 2001 or possibly early 2002, Billings encountered Tharinee, a Thai national in his mid-20s enrolled as a business student at Portland State University. Based on some reports, it appears that they met when Billings advertised for a roommate for his Stark Street apartment and Tharinee answered the ad. Subsequently, Tharinee introduced Billings to Thai food, and in the summer of 2002 the pair, by then a couple, decided to open a Thai restaurant of their own, "Jessada's," in Astoria's revitalizing downtown core.

At first, according to Astoria restaurateur Pete Roscoe, Astorians were overjoyed to hear that a Thai restaurant would be locating in the block near the old Elliott Hotel. Roscoe, who had experience operating restaurants, offered his advice to Billings and Tharinee. Roscoe says Billings told him he and Tharinee had decided to hire two cooks from the Portland-based Typhoon! Thai restaurant chain.

Throughout the summer of 2002, Billings and Tharinee made numerous trips to Astoria to oversee the refurbishment of an old saloon that was to become the new restaurant. The property's owner, Rick Bauman, recalled that Billings usually carried "a big wad of cash" around with him. He gave people the impression that he was showing the ropes of doing business, American-style, to Portland State student Tharinee, almost as if it were some sort of school project, or he were Tharinee's professional mentor.

Few guessed the nature of the relationship between Billings and Tharinee, according to Bauman; in fact, according to some reports, Billings even hired a female escort from Portland to accompany him to an important business dinner party in Astoria. Nor did most Astorians know that Billings' bucks came from the Portland pornography business, Bauman says.

By the late fall of 2002, however, Billings began falling behind in his payments to various Astoria-area contractors in connection with the restaurant remodeling; according to Bauman and prime contractor Bob Ross, the total owed by Billings for Jessada's was around $35,000 or $40,000 by December 2002. In addition, he began selling "gift certificates" to the as-yet-unopened restaurant to various downtown Astoria merchants, apparently pocketing the cash.

Meanwhile, the two chefs who worked at Typhoon!, Chookeat Khumyam and Uraiwan Wirunchiwa, had given notice to the restaurant's owners, Steve and Bo Kline, in November. The two had been cooking at the established Portland Thai restaurant since 1998 and 1999. Both told Billings and Tharinee that they were unhappy there. The chefs complained to Billings and Tharinee that the Klines had subjected them to unfair working conditions, including making the cooks sign over their federal income-tax refunds to Typhoon! and making them perform the Klines' household chores and errands.

Once the two cooks quit Typhoon!, Steve Kline says, he notified U.S. immigration authorities that the two chefs were no longer in compliance with the terms of their employment visas--called "E-2" visas--granted by the INS. Kline says the law required him to report when the holder of an E-2 leaves his employer. (Creighton disputes Kline's legal interpretation of compliance.)

Two weeks after quitting Typhoon!, the two chefs were arrested by the U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service at Portland International Airport, where they had taken their baby in order to send him back to Thailand to Uraiwan's mother and sister. The two chefs were held in the INS lockup from Dec. 12 to 16, when Billings helped bail them out.

That was when Billings learned he would have to list his own Social Security number as the guarantor of the two cooks' availability for future INS hearings. This seemed to make Billings nervous for some reason, the two chefs said later. Nevertheless, Billings accompanied the two cooks to Creighton's law office on Dec. 19, 2002, and plans were made for the two cooks to sue Typhoon!.

Meanwhile, the Klines had hired a private investigator to peek into the relationship between the cooks and Billings, as well as to investigate Billings' background. Steve Kline says the private eye shadowed Billings and Tharinee for several weeks in an effort to learn the whereabouts of the two cooks. He says the surveillance ended on Jan. 6, 2003. Others say it lasted until Jan. 13--the day Billings vanished.

After Billings' departure, things soon began going sour at the Jefferson Theater. Some employees weren't being paid in a timely fashion, cash was going unaccounted for, the plumbing was breaking down, vendors were getting impatient about being paid, and someone--apparently Tharinee, according to Woodworth and Perriguey--wrote two unauthorized checks on the MPM Corp. bank account. As the spring of 2003 unfolded, Perriguey told the probate court, he'd tried to cooperate with Tharinee in running the theater, but it wasn't working.

The cooks, meanwhile, had sued the Klines and Typhoon! in federal court on Jan. 21, 2003, contending, first, that their contract with Typhoon! was invalid, and, second, that the conditions of their employment at Typhoon! violated the Fair Labor Standards Act.

In March 2003, the Klines struck back by suing Billings and Tharinee as third-party defendants in the cooks' lawsuit, claiming that Billings and Tharinee had suborned the cooks with offers of illegal employment. Typhoon! obtained a default judgment against Billings and Tharinee, but Woodworth and Perriguey had the default judgment against Billings thrown out, on the grounds that the missing Billings had never been properly served with the complaint.

It's not clear where Tharinee is. He did not answer the door at his last known address, nor did he return messages left at a telephone number associated with that address. Woodworth and Perriguey last saw him in the spring or summer of 2003.

In the meantime, Woodworth and Perriguey never bothered to file a missing-persons report on Billings with the Portland police, because, as far as they could determine, Billings had voluntarily disappeared. "There's no indication of foul play," Woodworth says.

Still, with dollars piling up in Billings' savings account and with taxes apparently owed by MPM going back seven years, having someone trying to find Billings seemed like a good idea. So WW filed its own missing-persons report on Billings with the Portland Police Bureau. Detective Mike Weinstein says the department intends to look into the matter.

One possible witness for Weinstein might be Tracy Blakeslee. Blakeslee runs the company that operates the chain of Fantasy Adult Video stores throughout Portland and says he had a casual acquaintanceship with Billings. He says he was recently in Thailand and, when he checked into a hotel he often frequents, was told by the clerk that a man who had claimed to be a friend of Blakeslee's had just left. The description of the mystery guest--tall, gray hair, wearing glasses--sounded a lot like Billings, Blakeslee thought.

Woodworth, meanwhile, by now aware of his client's peripatetic past, says he's now no longer so sure that he will hear from Billings after all. His guess: Billings assembled a suitcase full of money and is now living the good life somewhere warm, where there is no IRS, no Typhoon!, and, possibly, no tax-extradition treaty.


In 2003, the Portland Police Bureau received 370 reports of missing people.

At the end of the year, 48 such reports were still officially unresolved, although some of that number includes reports about people who have been located in other jurisdictions but not formally removed from the Portland record system.

A person who is judged to be "missing" voluntarily is usually one of the lowest priorities for investigators.

The Jefferson Theater began operations in 1971, when MPM Corp. was formed by three Portland men: Jack Matlack, Leo Pallay and John McKee. The incorporating lawyer was Morris Galen.

Attorneys for Billings' conservatorship say they can't find any records of MPM tax returns since Billings took over in 1996.

There are approximately 2,000 Thai nationals now residing in Multnomah County.

According to the telephone directory, there are 33 restaurants specializing in Thai food in Portland alone. Astoria still has none.

In addition to the Jefferson Theater, MPM Corp. operates the Postal Corner, a mailbox service around the corner on Jefferson Street.

 
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