Fake It to the Limit

For 10 years, Lewis Peter Morgan impersonated Randy Meisner, an obscure former bass guitar player for the Eagles rock group. Morgan smooth-talked his way into a borrowed lifestyle of guitars, girls, and casinos. He could have checked out of the deception

You know I've always been a dreamer
(spend my life runnin' round)
And it's so hard to change
(can't seem to settle down)
But the dreams I've seen lately
Keep on turnin' out and burnin' out and turnin' out the same
So put me on a highway and show me a sign
And take it to the limit one more time
-- The Eagles' "Take It to the Limit," sung by Randy Meisner, 1975

Lewis Peter "Buddy" Morgan waits impatiently on a flight of stairs. He leans against the railing, watching for the door to open, wondering who in the hell would come to visit him here.

Maybe Morgan is irritated because of his predicament. He has, after all, just been convicted of fraud. He is in San Francisco County Jail No. 8, and his next stop is San Quentin, where he has been scheduled for a 16-month visit. That kind of future is something to be ticked off about, in and of itself. But Morgan is probably also irritated for another reason.

For the last decade, Morgan traveled between California and Nevada, pretending to be Randy Meisner, a founding member of the 1970s rock group the Eagles. As Meisner, Morgan coasted on the generosity of gullible instrument manufacturers, friendly casino owners, and starry-eyed women with money to burn. He grew fond of the process of fast-talking people out of a custom guitar, or if they happened to be female, out of their pants.

For a long time, Morgan had been living the life of a rock star. And now that's over.

Depending on whom you ask, the case seems tragic or ludicrous. Some victims still smart so much from the emotional and financial loss, they can't talk much, if at all, about their experiences. Others who have been stung burst out laughing at the first mention of Meisner's name.

Randy Meisner! The Eagles! I haven't thought about them for years -- and I still fell for it!

San Francisco police arrested Morgan in February at a card room in Emeryville. Now, he's just another con man in an orange jumpsuit, flip-flops, and white sweat socks, sitting at a table in a communal jailroom full of 100 hollering inmates. The last thing on his mind today was to talk with some damn journalist.

Morgan's victims remember him as chatty, good-humored, energetic, sometimes even to the point of obnoxiousness. Now, though, he's terse and defensive.

"Hearsay," he says, eyes cold and intense, when asked about the specifics of his crimes. "These are fabrications. The numbers are inflated."

Besides, why would anyone want to write a story about him? And why should he participate?

"You're gonna write what you want anyway. It's not interesting. It'd be a bad novel: The Pro and the Con."

SFPD Inspector Curtis Cashen headed a desultory four-year manhunt for Morgan that stretched up and down the states of California and Nevada. Stocky and in his 50s, sporting a prominent graying mustache, Cashen has clocked in many years in the fraud and homicide details. He says the Meisner scam traces back to 1988 in Las Vegas. There, Morgan was arrested on charges of impersonating Eagles member Don Henley.

Henley was in the midst of a successful solo career, and thus was very recognizable; continuing to impersonate him would have been a risky undertaking. But pretending to be an Eagle apparently suited Morgan's taste. After jumping bail on the Henley-related fraud charge, Morgan downsized, adopting the role of the much-lesser-known Eagles bass player, Randy Meisner, to whom Morgan even bore a vague physical resemblance.

"If he had continued with Don Henley, I think people would have caught onto him a lot faster," Cashen says. "To go to Meisner was an excellent choice."

The Eagles, in fact, are both famous and obscure enough to make almost perfect targets for impersonation. Eagles songs are permanently imprinted in the brain of any American within earshot of a radio in the 1970s. The band's first greatest hits collection has sold over 20 million copies. Yet, its members are not particularly well known as individuals, because the Eagles avoided press coverage, preferring to stay in the background and let the music speak for itself. The group's concerts defined the word "unspectacular": a bunch of long-haired guys in beards and bluejeans, singing into microphones and playing guitars.

And if you were to pick the shyest, most obscure guy in this laid-back band of faceless voices, you'd have no better choice than bassist Randy Meisner.

A quiet country boy who grew up on a ranch outside Scottsbluff, Neb., Meisner began playing in rock bands during his teen-age years, then played his way through Colorado and eventually wound up in Los Angeles. There, he gained a reputation as a tremendous harmonizing vocalist who could nail all the high notes, and was briefly a member of the country-rock group Poco. Hanging around the Troubadour club, he eventually got to know two guys -- Glenn Frey and Don Henley -- who were then playing in Linda Ronstadt's backup band, and he joined them for some gigs. Guitarist Bernie Leadon met these three, legend has it, after stumbling onstage drunk and sitting in with the Ronstadt band at a performance in Disneyland.

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