Interviewing Uncle Fester

Living in Missouri in the 1990s, the local news regularly featured raids of illicit methamphetamine labs. Raids, mind you, not the exploding meth trailers which were far less prevalent than the mass media led you to believe. The news loved to show the filthy conditions post-raid, including frequent mentions or displays of the meth cook's bible: Secrets of Methamphetamine Manufacture by "Uncle Fester."

I searched the web for a way to contact Uncle Fester, surely he was a curious fellow. There were very few leads even in the newsgroups--then primarily message boards for like-minded people to talk shop. Now this venue is considered part of the "dark web," a back alley of the Internet, a wild, unregulated place not safe for law-abiding citizens. Months later, I got a hit: a post allegedly from Uncle Fester. I responded, asked if it really was the infamous chemist/author. The contact info was actually for one of Fester's neighbors, who informed me that Fester was no longer online, but he'd pass my interview request along to him. The neighbor subsequently explained that Fester was open to doing an interview with me but since he didn't trust phone lines and was not online it would have to proceed via snail mail. Yes, an interview in the form of something akin to a pen pal exchange. I dispatched a first batch of questions and a few weeks later, I received a large manilla envelope with several pages of typewriter-printed responses from Steve Preisler.

Blended with actual answers to my questions, I was inundated with the latest details of his child-custody case, novel new clandestine drug manufacturing methods, his travails in dealing with a journalist from George magazine (JFK Jr.'s acclaimed but short-lived pub) who he believed to be working for the Feds (Steve set up traps to test the journalist and claims he fell for them in the course of his spying) and so much more. The typewriter origin added a degree of personal touch that I had not anticipated. Once, he sent his latest book with a note that if the Feds weren't already tracking our correspondence, they would be now that he sent a package. This was weird, outstanding and would make a great story. I pitched a heavily edited form of the interview to my publisher friend James Kent but he wouldn't touch it--even for his psychedelic culture magazine, the subject of methamphetamine (even if only a bit player in the story) was crossing the line.

In December 1999, George published its expose of Steve Preisler (Uncle Fester), titled “The Most Dangerous Man in America.” Barely a year later, George ceased publication.

I missed the issue when it hit newsstands, but found a copy at Half Price Books a few years later. Reading through my correspondence with Steve, which was taking place before, during and after the journalist for George interviewed him, allows one to remove yet another filter from the presented reality. Through the George piece, I learned what the journalist thought about Steve; through Steve’s letters, I learned what he thought about the journalist.

Steve Preisler is much more visible now--everyone knows that he’s Uncle Fester and about his place in the history of clandestine chemistry. He’s since appeared on mainstream television news networks and has been interviewed countless times in print and online. The story of my mail-order interview with him is arguably more interesting than the interview itself. One day, I may publish the full story--the letters and the full context in which it manifested. The immediacy of trying to get it published in 1999 is no longer there. This story doesn’t have an expiration date and I know it will age well.