“People wanted to hug me, they wanted to kiss me,” Wesley says. “It was an honor and a privilege to save a man’s life.”
He did Letterman, then flew with the girls to L.A. for the Ellen taping. The show put him up at the Sheraton Universal under an assumed name—Clark Kent. There was Disneyland and the Universal Studios tour for the girls, and babysitting so Wesley could go out on the town. On the show, he got the Jeep, the Nets tickets, and the hello from Beyoncé. The girls got free iMacs. “These are usually the people I see on TV when I’m sitting in the living room,” he says. “These awards, and the gifts me and my kids were getting? It was all good.”
At the State of the Union, Wesley hung out with the president in the greenroom. “We took pictures and laughed,” he says. Wesley’s a Democrat, but “didn’t get into the political thing. I’m an honorably discharged veteran. He’s the president of this country.”
Soon enough, though, there were problems. The five-minute walk from his apartment to the subway took twenty minutes now. People stopped him for pictures, hugs, and solicitations for donations—“I need, give me, I want,” Wesley says.
On January 9, when Wesley came home from the Ellen taping in California, he wanted to go back to work (he’d taken what he had intended to be a brief leave of absence). But there was too much to do. The American Stock Exchange wanted him to ring the opening bell on January 11. Spitzer wanted him on the 16th. The union local was honoring him on the 17th. His niece Quiana grabbed him by the arm. “Uncle Wesley,” she said, “I think you might have to realize that the construction worker—he died on the 2nd. There’s a new you. The public wants this new you.”
Wesley’s new life started to feel like a job, and one he wasn’t well prepared for. “It’s scary. I’m not used to this constant fame. I have people pushing me straight in front of a podium with a thousand eyes on me. Everybody’s looking at you and wondering, What is he gonna say?”
Wesley became exhausted. He told Linda he lacked time to savor even a little of his good fortune. His new life was cutting into his weekends with the girls. “They don’t like that,” he says. “I don’t either. I try to explain, ‘Daddy’s got kind of a new job, and I’m trying to make things happen and maybe get a house and a better way of life.’ But they don’t understand.”
He started to worry about money. You can’t pay the rent with a Jeep. And given the value of some of the gifts, the IRS would be watching. A friend at the union told him people could sue him now. His custody and support arrangement with the girls’ mother could be called into question. He might have to think about setting up tax shelters, and trusts for the kids. “Some people think I’m a millionaire,” he says. “So I’m a little worried about my own life and even worried about my kids, you know—someone might try to kidnap them.”
Women were running up to him in bars, plopping into his lap—but fame complicates that, too. On Valentine’s Day, he got a call from a woman who dumped him fifteen years ago. Without skipping a beat, he asked where she’d been the last fourteen Valentine’s Days. “So it’s like that?” she asked. The conversation trailed off.
At the end of February, Wesley heard from Robert Autrey Sr. for the first time in three decades. His father had been living in Pensacola, in sporadic touch with Wesley’s mother but never with him.
“He had a mild heart attack,” Wesley says. “He ended up in the hospital, and his sister called my mom’s house, and I picked up the phone.”
Wesley called his father at the hospital. “I don’t hold no grudges.”
What did his father say?
“That he was happy for me doing what I’d done, you know?” Wesley pauses. “Then him, like everybody else, ‘I need, I want, give me.'"
“Never once did he say, ‘Are you all right? Are the little girls okay?’ He just said, ‘There’s a family reunion coming, and if you’re coming, bring me some of that money you got.’ That’s how that went.”
The day after the State of the Union, Wesley attended some meetings in Washington. He had decided he needed some professional help to manage his affairs, and his older brother, Robert, an accountant for FEMA, had found him a lawyer, James McCollum, and an accountant, Robert Davis, who in turn had recommended a PR consultant named Doris McMillon. McMillon told him she saw Wesley becoming a motivational speaker. She also had endorsement ideas. “I contacted the president of Subway to talk about maybe using him as a spokesperson,” she says. “You know—‘The next time you stop at Subway, pick up a hero.’”
Making money off his heroism had never been a priority for Wesley. But the president had just saluted him on national television, and he started to wonder if failing to capitalize on what happened wasn’t noble but foolish. It had been almost four weeks since Wesley had taken home a paycheck. He’d paid some bills but hadn’t even bought a new suit for the White House. What kind of a son and father would he be if he didn’t make the most of this? “I wanted to surprise my mom with a house,” he says. “There’s a lot of things I wanted to do. There was a possibility of that happening if a book or movie thing jumps off. And I’m dying to just get a house for me and my family.” He laughs. “And my dream car is the Bentley coupe. I can’t park it on the street. So I need the house first.”
McMillon accompanied Wesley to appearances on CNN and Fox News Channel, but when he came home from the Super Bowl on February 5, he decided he needed a new management team. “Somebody from New York,” he says. “Somebody that I could touch base with like that.”
The night after the Super Bowl, Wesley met his new team—and started his trip down the rabbit hole.
At different times in his life, Mark Anthony Esposito says, he has worked as a celebrity photographer, an Internet mini-mogul, a trial consultant, a Formula 1 race-car driver, a documentary filmmaker, a licensed investment banker, a rock and blues musician and music producer, an unproduced screenwriter, and an unpublished novelist. He also says he has a Ph.D. in divinity. He is in his fifties and solidly built, with aquamarine eyes and a tightly wound, slightly unhinged affect—Joe Pesci with a mod haircut.
On February 5, the day after the Super Bowl, Wesley was a special guest at the Citizens Committee for New York’s annual gala at the Waldorf-Astoria. Ray Kelly, Pete Hamill, Wynton Marsalis, and David Dinkins were there. So was Mark Esposito. He says he was there as a journalist, shooting a video documentary about another honoree. But he knew who Wesley was. He’d been following his story with something of a proprietary interest. Ever since the London Tube attacks, Esposito says, he had been fiddling with a screenplay about terror on the subway. He’d spent some time in Hollywood years earlier, taking a two-day filmmaking course. Now he had the idea to use Wesley’s true-life story as a jumping-off point to make his project more marketable. He introduced himself briefly to Wesley, but his partner, Diane Kleiman, did most of the talking that night.
In her mid-forties, with a striking head of long red hair, Kleiman is a former Queens criminal prosecutor turned Customs agent who is best known for declaring herself a whistle-blower against corruption and lax security in the U.S. Customs Department. Fired in 1999, she spent several years speaking out about her allegations (she was the subject of a 2003 profile in this magazine). Last year, Kleiman met Esposito through a mutual friend, and the pair began working together. Kleiman is a member of the New York bar, and Esposito is not; he has experience in the entertainment business that she lacks. In the past year, Esposito and Kleiman say they’ve worked on behalf of a Korean singer named Jung Min Kim, a Manhattan church that was in a lease battle with its landlord, and a doctor who was accused of sexual harassment. That night, after making her way past a throng of well-wishers, Kleiman introduced herself to Wesley.
Kleiman’s credentials seemed impressive enough to warrant a meeting, so Wesley agreed to host one. On Friday night, February 9, Esposito and Kleiman went to Quiana’s apartment in the Bronx to make their pitch. Over the course of the five-hour visit, Esposito presented himself as a show-business veteran who’d worked with Bruce Willis once and made deals in Hollywood as a matter of course. He was energetic and aggressive: Wesley wasn’t just a news story, he said—he was a commercial and intellectual property that could and should generate revenue. Wesley had to make the transition from hero to brand, and Esposito said he and Kleiman were the ones who would take him there. Wesley liked them, and decided to work with them. “They seemed real,” Wesley says. “They said they can make stuff happen.”
Esposito and Kleiman both say that they brought with them a four-page contract for Wesley to review. Wesley now disputes this, saying he never saw a contract that night. That following Monday, Wesley and the girls were expected at the White House again, for the Black History Month celebration. They agreed that Mark and Diane would join him there. Wesley was reaching what could be the height of his public profile. The time to strike was now.