“Pepper v. Whitehead,” a case in three acts.
Based on a decision handed down July 31 by the
United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth
The cast, in order of appearance:
Sterling Gary Pepper, who is known as Gary.
Sterling Gary Pepper Sr., Gary’s father.
Nell G. Pepper, Gary’s mother, Sterling’s wife.
Nancy Pease Whitehead, a nurse from Cedar Rapids.
Carl Nichols, a member of Presley’s inner circle.
Helen, Nancy’s mother.
Dennis, Nancy’s brother.
John Tate, Nell’s nephew and Gary’s cousin.
Rebecca Tate, John’s mother and Nell’s sister.
Jenny Jorgensen, Nancy’s sister.
Rebecca Bishop, a niece of John Tate.
Norma Deeble, Rebecca Bishop’s mother and John’s
Act I. Scene I.
Place: Memphis, Tennessee. Time: 1960s.
Gary Pepper, who suffers from cerebral palsy
and is unable to walk or use his hands or speak
clearly, lives with his mother and father in
Memphis and becomes a huge fan of Elvis Presley,
who takes him into his inner circle and puts
him on the payroll. Gary sits at the head table
at the wedding reception of Elvis and Priscilla
Presley, poses for photos with them after the
birth of their daughter, gets front-row seats
for many of their concerts. He amasses a cache
of Elvis memorabilia. He helps found and develop
“The Tankers,” a fan club with membership of
more than 5,000. It is named in honor of Elvis’
service from 1958 to 1960 with the Third Armored
Division in Germany, where he was assigned after
he was drafted and where he met his future wife.
Act I. Scene II.
Place: Memphis. Time: Early 1970s.
Gary’s father, Sterling Gary Pepper Sr., a
security guard at Graceland, drops dead while
on duty in 1971. Nell Pepper goes into severe
depression and has periodic manic states and
is unable to care for Gary. She bangs on doors,
runs away from home, defecates on the floor,
and “allows the house to fall into a state of
squalor.” (Heartbreak Hotel, 1956)
Act II. Scene I.
Place: Memphis. Time: mid-1970s.
Nancy Pease Whitehead, who loves the music
of Elvis, moves to Memphis from Cedar Rapids
“to absorb the local culture of her idol’s hometown.”
She frequently spends her days “hoping to catch
a glimpse of Elvis at the gates of Graceland.”
One day she is approached by Carl Nichols, who
tells her about Gary and Nell and about how
they need care and help.
Nancy moves in to help care for them “at their
modest two-bedroom bungalow on Eva Street.”
She provides care that is “by all accounts...steadfast,
loyal and true.” (I Feel That I’ve Known You
Forever, 1965) To help her, Nancy asks her mother,
Helen, and brother, Dennis, to move from Cedar
Rapids to Memphis. They do, and then Gary, Nell,
Nancy, Helen and Dennis move to a larger house
next door to Vernon Presley, Elvis’ father,
“fulfilling Gary’s wish to be nearer to Graceland.”
It is unclear who actually purchases the house.
“I was thinking about you, and I was thinking
about war and I was thinking about ‘tests.’
You know what I have wondered whether I will
ever be faced with some kind of test of character
that lets me really know what I’m made of.”
— Nancy Sebring]
Act III. Scene I.
Place: Memphis and Cedar Rapids. Time: late
On Aug. 16, 1977, Elvis dies. Two months later,
the estate takes Gary off the payroll, meaning
the household must live on the Social Security
checks of Gary, Nell and Helen.
Nancy determines she must move back to Cedar
Rapids. (I’m Leavin’, 1971) She invites Helen,
Dennis, Gary and Nell to come with her, saying
they can live free in a house she has access
to. They all move to Cedar Rapids in 1978. Gary
takes with him “his vast collection of Elvis
memorabilia.” (Pieces of My Life, 1975)
Before they move, they are visited in Memphis
by John Tate, a cousin of Gary’s from California.
He suggests that perhaps Gary and Nell should
move to California. But all go to Cedar Rapids.
A few months later, Gary and Nell move into
a nursing home with the idea they will indeed
move to California. Gary takes some of his memorabilia
to the nursing home, leaves the rest with Nancy.
Nancy says Gary asked her to keep it for him
but did not believe he meant to give it to her.
(Return to Sender, 1962) John and his mother,
Rebecca Tate, arrive in Cedar Rapids and take
Gary and Nell to California late in 1978 without
notifying Nancy. Gary takes with him the memorabilia
he has in the nursing home, including gold rings,
a gold bracelet and a Rolex watch, all given
to him by Elvis. The rest remains with Nancy.
(Kissin’ Cousins, 1964)
Act III. Scene II.
Place: Cedar Rapids and Long Beach, Calif.
Gary dies in California on March 29, 1980,
and Nell dies Dec. 29, 1982. Nancy sees a copy
of an obituary, but there is no contact between
her and the Tates.
Act III. Scene III.
Place: Des Moines. Time: 1980s.
Nancy gives the Presley memorabilia to her
sister, Janet “Jenny” Jorgensen of Des Moines.
Jenny believes that it is a gift and that she
owns it. (Playing for Keeps, 1956)
Act III. Scene IV.
Place: Des Moines. Time: 2009 to present.
Jenny decides to sell the collection in 2009
and transfers it to a family partnership, the
Pease Family Partnership. It then is sent to
an auction house in Chicago, where the proposed
sale is widely noted. One person who notes it
is Rebecca Bishop, a niece of John Tate. (Suspicious
Minds, 1969) Tate and his sister, Norma Deeble
(Rebecca’s mother), seek to stop the auction
and recover the collection for Gary’s heirs.
The federal court in Illinois lets it continue
but orders the auction house to keep all proceeds
in escrow. In all, 181 items are sold, bringing
in $250,465. (When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold
Again, 1956) That includes $5,000 for “a large
quantity of Elvis’ hair that was cut for his
Army tour of duty” and $600 for a “set of Elvis’s
concert-used handkerchiefs” as well as $1,400
for “two dried white roses from Elvis’ funeral.”
(One Broken Heart for Sale, 1963)
The case is then transferred to federal district
court for the southern district of Iowa, in
Des Moines, and assigned to senior district
judge Ron Longstaff. The court grants summary
judgment in favor of Nancy Whitehead and the
Pease Family Partnership, saying the statute
of limitations has run out. (There Goes My Everything,
The estates of Gary and Nell then appeal to
the 8th Circuit Court in St. Louis. A three-judge
panel, including Steve Colloton of Des Moines,
overturns that decision, saying the case has
“genuine issues of fact” and should be determined
by a jury. It sends the case back to district
(There’ll be Peace in the Valley, 1957) …
Iowa lost 2,100 jobs in the latest month, compared
with a month before. Nonfarm employment stood
at 1,508,700 in June, compared with 1,510,800
a month before. When Terry Branstad took office
in January of 2011, the number was 1,488,100,
according to the nonpartisan Legislative Services
Agency. He promised to create 200,000 jobs in
five years. The total has gone up 22,700 in
a year and a half. He has 187,300 to go.
The state is awash in money. Net receipts in
July, the first month of the new fiscal year,
totaled $378.3 million, up nearly 24 percent
from a year earlier. Part of the increase is
due to timing, but better times also accounted
for some. The take from personal income taxes
rose 5.9 percent, from sales taxes rose 9.6
percent and from corporate taxes rose 101 percent.
The Senate last week went home for a few weeks
without acting on some judicial nominations,
including that of Stephanie Rose to be a federal
district judge in Des Moines. But her name is
expected to be the first taken up when the Senate
returns Sept. 10. She is expected to be confirmed
with little difficulty. ...
Life’s little ironies: As Skinny has reported,
the state will be moving into the building Wellmark
vacated at Sixth and Locust streets. The building
is owned by the Ruans, whose Carrier Insurance
Co. was the largest insurance insolvency in
Iowa history. Among the new tenants: the state
insurance division. CV