San Diego 'Never Mind the Dog, Beware of the Owner," reads the sign posted in a window near the front door of Nelson Buhler's home on Beagle Street in Kearny Mesa. The four-bedroom house is blue and white and unexceptional and the sign might not seem so darkly comic but for the fact Nelson Buhler was arrested on December 26 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on suspicion of traveling abroad to have sex with children.
Buhler's Beagle Street home is not far from Ross Elementary. In the early afternoon when school lets out, the neighborhood's sidewalks are filled with noisy kids. From Buhler's front porch you can hear them squealing and hollering as they race home. But Buhler's house is quiet; the lawns, front and back, are mowed. Pine needles have pooled on the front porch. If you peer through the mail slot in the garage door, you see a lot of cardboard boxes. It's hard to tell the last time Buhler was home.
He has another home, a "beach-front condo," in Fort Lauderdale. According to an elderly neighbor on Beagle Street, Buhler is a "financial consultant" who travels a great deal to "Florida, Paris, Taiwan, Thailand -- places like that." The neighbor says he's never seen any children come or go from the home, but he has seen Buhler's mother there. And a "Mr. Ryan who lives down on Third." Mr. Ryan, the neighbor remembers, used to pick up Buhler's mail and look after the house.
Mr. Ryan says he didn't know that Nelson Buhler had been arrested in Fort Lauderdale on suspicion of traveling abroad to have sex with children. He doesn't sound especially surprised by the news. He sounds like a man in his sixties and has either seen enough of the world to not be surprised by much, or he's very cautious. He says he rented a room in the Beagle Street house between 1986 and 1989. He says he hasn't spoken to Buhler in about a year. He also says he doesn't want to say any more until he's had a chance to speak with Buhler.
Many people aren't eager to talk about Buhler. The U.S. Attorney's, Customs, and FBI offices in Miami decline to comment or don't return calls. Sheldon Golding, a Fort Lauderdale attorney, represents Buhler. Golding's brassy, throaty-voiced secretary says, "I seriously doubt Mr. Golding will have anything at all to say about this matter until after the trial. Mr. Golding is very cautious. He is a very careful man because the newspapers here in Florida print many, many inaccuracies."
I repeat that I work for a Southern California newspaper.
There's a pause.
"The San Diego Reader, huh?" she asks with loud, exaggerated disbelief. "Why on earth would people in San Diego be interested in this case?"
"Because your client owns a home here that's near an elementary school."
Accurate or not, Florida newspapers have shown an active interest in Buhler's case, likely because 47-year-old Buhler is the "wealthy scion of the late New York philanthropist Nelson Buhler." Nelson Sr., who served on General MacArthur's legal team during the U.S. occupation of Japan, was a big-deal New York attorney who helped Bernard Baruch establish the Baruch Foundation, which concerns itself with environmental issues. Nelson Jr. has no visible means of support and is sometimes described as "independently wealthy." The Beagle Street house, however, is worth only about $180,000, and you don't think "wealthy scion" when you see it. But Buhler does manage to travel a lot and maintain a broad, if surprising, acquaintance, one of whom is allegedly business professor named Marvin Hersh. Hersh, 58, is another reason Florida newspapers have shown an active interest in Buhler's case.
Sometime early last year Hersh's ex-wife tipped off authorities that Hersh had "purchased a boy from an impoverished Honduran family" and had smuggled him into Florida "for sexual purposes." FBI affidavits say that Hersh had been having sex with the boy since the boy was 11 years old. Hersh apparently paid the family $78 per month for use of their son and later, using a forged passport, brought him to Boca Raton, Florida, where Hersh enrolled him in elementary school. Hersh and his attorneys have maintained that his relationship with the boy was platonic, but evidence seized by police and FBI investigators in Hersh's home would suggest Hersh's interest in very young Third World boys was other than selfless. Like the kiddy porn allegedly found on the hard drive of Hersh's computer. Like the documents with advice on how to deal with police if arrested in Thailand. Like the e-mail that indicated Hersh had plans to adopt an entire family in Brazil. Like the hand-drawn maps of neighborhoods in Nepal that detailed schools, playgrounds, and that noted the Nepalese words for "Hello" and the male genitalia. ("Kids sit here after school," said one map. "Boys, some even have been taken to Bangkok!" Another map said, "School is over by 10 a.m. lots of boys waiting to be your 'guide' need very little persuasion.") Like the love letter written to Nelson Buhler by a Honduran boy that "mixed declarations of love with requests for computer software and batteries."
It was the evidence in Hersh's home that led authorities to Buhler's "beach-front condo" on December 26. Along the way investigators discovered that between November 1994 and December 1995 Hersh and Buhler allegedly traveled six times from Florida to Honduras and that Hersh translated Buhler's sexual demands to young boys. One such cultural exchange is alleged to have occurred in December 1995, when Hersh, Buhler, and two unnamed individuals entertained three young brothers at the Hotel El Ejecutivo in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. One of Hersh and Buhler's young sexual contacts later said of the duo, "They noticed the poverty we were living in and live in. That is why they took advantage of my family."
Hersh, once on the Florida Atlantic University faculty, has been charged with four counts involving child pornography and five counts in connection with smuggling a minor into the country for sex. He's being held without bail at the Federal Detention Facility in Miami. Charged with foreign travel to have sex with a minor, a felony under federal law, Buhler was released on January 6 after posting $500,000 in personal and corporate bonds. Buhler is required to get a job or obtain charitable work that doesn't put him in contact with anyone under the age of 18. His travel is restricted to South Florida, and because of his Beagle Street home, to Southern California. He will be arraigned on February 6.
There would seem to be some legitimate questions about why a "wealthy scion" would choose to live in a nondescript inland house half an hour from the Mexican border, about all those cardboard boxes stacked in the garage, about whatever unusual maps or photographs the house might contain. Whether or not the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami, which is prosecuting Buhler, intends to extend its investigation to Beagle Street is unknown. As of this writing, the office had not returned calls.