WASHINGTON — "Little Billy" was in a jam: His parents blamed him for dismembering his sister's doll, but the dog did it. How could he clear his name?
He scribbled a note to Robert Shapiro, the high-priced O.J. Simpson attorney, who counseled him to gather forensic evidence, examine the doll's body for tooth marks or dog saliva, or find an alibi witness who would get him off the hook. No charge for the advice.
Advice from such a high place was not unusual for Billy. Over the years diplomats, politicians, celebrities – even notorious criminals – offered guidance in response to the grade-schooler's handwritten inquiries.
It was all a big setup. Little Billy was actually grown-up Bill Geerhart, punking the famous and infamous by writing letters to them asking questions out of the mouths of babes. Their correspondence back – humorous, head-scratching, poignant – is compiled in a book, "Little Billy's Letters," out this week.
Geerhart, latest in a line of hoax letter-writers to fool public figures over the years, collected the letters starting in the mid-1990s while he was killing time as an unemployed writer in Los Angeles.
Most of the letters in the book go back to a time before e-mails took over written communication. But some are recent. In 2008, Sarah Palin's dad, Chuck Heath – handling the deluge of mail for his daughter, the Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential candidate – declined to take Billy hunting wolves by air. "No wolf hunting from helicopters here," scribbles Heath.
For career advice, Billy – who was leaning toward convenience store clerk because he would have access to video games on the job – polls those in other fields, including assisted-suicide figure Dr. Jack Kevorkian. From his prison cell, Kevorkian responds, "sometimes I wish I was a 7-Eleven clerk!"
As Billy mounts a campaign for third-grade class president, he gets good-luck wishes from former President Gerald Ford and former Vice President Dan Quayle.
Less civic-mindedly, Billy writes to brewer Anheuser-Busch asking "if there is a beer for kids" and asks Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt if there's a version of his publication for the pint-sized. No dice.
"Hang in there – you'll be 18 before you know it," Flynt writes. "Until then, you should read the Sears & Roebuck catalog." An Anheuser-Busch executive rats on him, sending his parents a brochure on how to talk to kids about drinking.
Shapiro, part of the legal "dream team" that won O.J. Simpson's acquittal in the 1994 slayings of his ex-wife and her friend, was full of ideas when Billy wrote about wrongly taking the rap for the destroyed doll.
"Is there any forensic evidence that will support your theory that the dog killed the doll?" Shapiro replied. "Were any scraps of doll clothing found near his dog house, perhaps? How about tooth marks on the doll's remains (assuming there were remains)? If so, a good forensic dentist should be able to match them to the dog." A witness could prove Billy's innocence or a DNA test could confirm the presence of dog saliva on the corpse, Shapiro wrote.
When Billy ponders whether to drop out of school, David Berkowitz – the Son of Sam slayer who killed six women in a late-1970s rampage in New York City – tells him "don't do self-destructive things" and opens up about his own grief and guilt. Murderous cult leader Charles Manson merely beefs that he's not getting his Los Angeles Times in prison.
Seeking the wise counsel of retired diplomats for how to stop incursions by his sister "Connie" into his treehouse, Billy gets former secretaries of state James Baker and Henry Kissinger to bless a handwritten, one-year "treaty" that would keep Connie out – though Baker thought the pact should last two years.
The ever-curious Billy also asks Supreme Court justices what food they like at McDonald's, learning that then-Justice Sandra Day O'Connor favors the Big Mac; colleague Clarence Thomas replies, "I like almost everything there." Then-Justice Harry Blackmun advises: "Almost anything they put out is acceptable. I like to go to Roy Rogers, too, for a beef sandwich. But I hope most of all that you eat something more than what these fast-food places put out."
Little Billy's exploits once caught up with Geerhart, who now is a Los Angeles record producer and curator of a Cold War pop culture Web site.
As Billy contemplated which religion to join, he asked officials at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to verify that "you get to wear cool underwear and have extra wives." The inquiry earned Geerhart a visit from a pair of Mormon missionaries wanting to meet the youngster. Geerhart concocted an excuse for Billy's absence and dutifully snapped a picture of the tie-clad missionaries in his disheveled apartment.
Naturally, he includes the photo in the book.
EDITOR'S NOTE – "Little Billy's Letters" is published by William Morrow. It runs 240 pages and sells for $19.99.