BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Charles Gaines saw him from across the room.
Gaines, a writer who has written over 20 books in his career and recent inductee into the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame, was eating dinner at Chez Fonfon last February after completing an interview for a documentary on Arnold Schwarzenegger, whom he had first chronicled in his “Pumping Iron,” his 1974 book on bodybuilding, in addition to playing a part in the film adaptation of his novel, “Stay Hungry.” Seated with members of the film crew, Gaines saw his childhood friend, Elton B. Stephens Jr., waving to him.
“I’ve known Elton for decades,” Gaines said of Stephens, whose father, Elton B. Stephens Sr., had founded EBSCO Industries in Birmingham. “We grew up around Mountain Brook.”
After a few minutes of catching up, Stephens said he had a story to tell: the story of how he had been kidnapped from his home in Birmingham, driven to a trailer in Remlap, forced to wire hundreds of thousands of dollars to his captors and then driven back.
Gaines was hooked.
“The whole thing was so wildly bizarre and unlikely, and at the same time, scary and funny, that I thought it would make a very good article and good book,” he said.
A couple of months later, Gaines met with Stephens and his lawyer, Tommy Spina, to talk about what had happened the night of September 11, 2020. It was here where Stephens gave Gaines something no one else had: audio of the moment Stephens met his captors.
In his article, which was published in Garden & Gun magazine Friday, Gaines provided several minutes of audio that detailed the first interaction Stephens had with Matthew Burke, the man who broke into Stephens’ home and, along with girlfriend, Tabatha Hodges, charged with kidnapping him.
Below is the first moments of the recording, taken from when Burke broke in:
Burke: Sir, hello. Why are you in my house, sir?
Stephens: Nahnah… What?
Burke: What are you doing here?
Stephens: You scared me.
Burke: What are you doing here, sir? What are you doing here?
Stephens: Excuse me, what do you mean?
Burke: Are you supposed to be here?
Stephens: Yes, I live here. I rent this house.
Burke: No sir, I just bought this house off the market. I bought this house and everything in it two months ago.
Stephens: Uhh… no you didn’t.
Burke: Yes sir, I did. I have my whole family here today. I have my whole family here right now. Who are you?
Stephens: I am Elton Stephens, and I am renting this house.
The audio had been recorded from SnoreLab, an app on Stephens’ phone he had been using to track his snoring caused by sleep apnea. Gaines said that that app recorded over 2.5 hours of audio, from the moment Burke and Hodges encountered Stephens to the moment they took him out of the house.
“I don’t think he (Stephens) realized that it was recording,” Gaines said. “I would almost bet he was not conscious of everything that was being recorded.”
Nonetheless, the audio became an invaluable resource for Gaines while he was writing his piece.
“I don’t know if I would’ve done the story if I hadn’t had it,” he said. “It gave me the whole structure for the story.”
Originally, Gaines was going to pitch the story to Vanity Fair, but that all changed during a conversation he had with David DiBenedetto, editor-in-chief of Garden & Gun.
“He asked, ‘What are you working on now?’ and I said, ‘It’s a long piece’ and told him the short version,” he said. “He said ‘You’re not going anywhere but here for that story.'”
Gaines then began working on the piece, combing through dozens of pages of transcripts from the SnoreLab audio and interviews he did with Stephens. He turned in the story to the magazine last summer.
Going back through the story, Gaines is amazed at how Burke and Hodges tried to pull off the kidnapping. However, through listening to the recordings and hearing Stephens’ recollection of the night, he couldn’t help but feel sorry for them.
“It was impossible to listen to those tapes and not have sympathy for them,” he said. “They were dead-end people, but they had moments of brightness and awareness that humanized them.”
In fact, Gaines said he’s interested in hearing their side of the story. Both Burke and Hodges were sentenced to 17 years and 12 years respectively in federal prison for the case. For Gaines, the couple represent something more than a simple kidnapping-gone-wrong.
“It touches on what to me is the most kind of crucial and dangerous schism in the country now: The schism between people who feel marginalized by life and people like Elton, who was born with 12 silver spoons in his mouth,” he said. “It’s a cultural, sociological division that is in danger of opening up and swallowing the country.”
For the time being, Gaines has not made up his mind on whether or not he would want to do a book on the Stephens kidnapping. Still, he recognizes the story there.
“It’s the kind of story that, as a journalist, you get maybe three or four in a career where the material is so rich,” he said.