Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The Time I Got Arrested for Christmas

I wasn't a bad teenager, followed the rules mostly. The height of my illegal activities was lighting fireworks off-season, occasionally being out after curfew (our town would run the tornado warning sirens at ten o'clock to signal it was time for all kids to go home), and having disc gun wars in the high school at night. The sneakiest guy in our gang was ironically the most trusted by the teachers, and he'd managed to get a complete set of keys to the school because when they lent them to him to get supplies for a school activity, he'd have the key duped while on the errand. Crap like that would never have even occurred to me, I think to my credit. Note to those who might follow in our juvenile tracks, though I don't recommend it: Most schools have these metal gates they pull across the middle of the hallways, for who knows what reason; one of the guys encountered one at a dead run; the sound of his impact was phenomenal.

By the time I got old enough to get into real legal trouble for such things, I'd had the presence of mind to stop doing borderline things - with one big exception.

TLD: Well, there is another exception I don't blame myself for, as it was really a sting operation. Y'see, when Ronnie became the pres, he forced the whole country to raise the drinking age (which I disagree with to this day) and to crack down on drunk driving (ostensively a good thing). The local police used this new opening to do things I think pushed the envelope of what's legal. They would go around to all the bars (many of which were restaurants, too) and mark all the cars in the parking lot with reflector tape, then as they cruised around, they would pull over anyone with reflector tape on their car. I think literally everyone in the whole town got dragged down to the station for prints and pictures that year. (Our family joked that we were gonna get our mug shots and use them for our Christmas cards.) The upshot of that tactic was people started parking at adjacent buildings and walking to the bar. The only cars in the parking lot would be out-of-towners who didn't know the score.

Since that particular brush with the law doesn't count in my book, the one big exception to my law-abiding adulthood began inauspiciously on Christmas Eve. I threw a party to get everyone together since nearly everyone was back home for the holidays. It was a grand success. Heck, a few of the parental units even cruised through, as most of us had good relationships with our 'rents. A detail that would prove to be ironic later (in the Alanis Morissette sense) was my mom's date for the night was the State Sheriff. (When I asked later how she could bring a cop to MY party where there might be underage drinking, she said that he was OK with that, but would have busted us big time had anyone whipped out a joint. [Heavy sigh.])

So, the party had wound down, and it was just me, a buddy of mine, and his younger brother. (One of the cool things about our group is that our younger siblings who were all roughly four years younger had all befriended one another, so we usually had this two-generation thing going at our parties. 'Twas fun. And we could keep an eye on 'em.) We were still ready to rock (I think we all had nightshift jobs, and so this was our daytime, really), and so started tossing off ideas about what to do next. My apartment was in the center of old downtown and one of the bros said we should find the tunnels everyone had heard about underneath the historical buildings. In the early part of the 1900s, the whole town flooded and ruined every building, so they just condemned all of them and built on top of them, leaving a maze of catacombs beneath all the buildings.

A block away, one of the hotels that had been built in the 1800s was slated to be demolished, so we figured we could get into the tunnels there. We walked right in because none of the doors were locked, and started looking for a passage to the tunnels. The whole time we chattered about what a shame it was that the hotel was going to be torn down, as it was still in great shape from what we could see, and we thought they should restore it instead (this is called foreshadowing).

About twenty minutes into our search, three cop cars came to a screeching halt outside, their strobing lights converting the interior of the dark hotel into a discotheque. As kids, we had evaded these guys all the time, and so immediately without discussion headed upstairs to hide in a room, thinking they would never find us considering all the rooms they would have to search. We hadn't counted on their following our footprints in the dust on the ancient carpets.

They put us in a police car and let us sit. Because of an incident with one of our crew a couple years hence, we knew they were recording us to see if we'd incriminate ourselves, so we purposely talked about cartoons, girls (just making up names in hopes we would happen across one of the cop's daughter's names), and other silly stuff because we knew someone at the cop shop would have to listen to the whole tape for evidence. Since we were gonna be put through the works, as evidenced by their not letting us go (which initially puzzled us), we thought we'd give them as much unconfrontational grief as possible.

After about a half hour of recording us, they took us to the jail to book us. We stood behind the line on the floor with our hands behind our backs (which they said we'd have to do or they'd cuff us) and answered their questions. We were completely honest and said we were looking for the tunnels and had assumed since the hotel was to be demolished and the doors were open, we'd done nothing wrong. We were informed that entering any building without permission was a crime. "Oh," we said.

We knew enough to be respectful and polite during all face-to-face interactions. Yet, my buddy was seething and having a tough time keeping cool. To his credit he managed to crack only once. We had a little metal "AA" flashlight (kinda like this one) and the cop at the desk unscrewed it slowly with great care, then turned it over on the desk. When the battery clattered out and rolled away, my seething friend said, "I'm glad we didn't hide the cocaine in there, huh guys?!"

Even though we were pretty much sober by that time, we smelled of booze, so they put us in our jail jimmies (bright orange jumpsuits and terrycloth blue slippers) and threw us in the drunk tank.

This drunk tank was essentially a poured concrete cube, with a funnel-sloped floor into a drain. Benches had been formed out of the concrete walls on 3 sides, so we each settled on one and waited for whatever came next. Examination of the room made it obvious that we were being taped again, this time on video. If we talked at all, we made sure it was inconsequential or annoying, so eventually they turned the lights out on us. As it was a windowless cube, it was pitch black sans artificial illumination. My buddy's little bro had already been having trouble with claustrophobia, but when the lights went out he freaked. After calming him a bit, we decided that a hearty round of Christmas carols sung very loud and out of tune was in order, just to be annoying but also to keep freakin' bro distracted. Our third selection was "The Twelve Days of Christmas." When we got to "fiiiiiiive golden riiiiiiings!" on round eight, the lights came back on, and a pair of cop lips w/ requisite mustache poked through the dinner tray slot and shouted, "Shut the fuck up!"

So we did.

I would guess it was about three o'clock in the morning Christmas day when they came and got us one by one for pictures and prints. The policewoman who took the pictures was too short to get a good shot at her angle - I'm 6 feet tall and the shortest of the three - so she had to stand on a chair and squat down to get a proper mug shot. The sight of a tiny police woman squatting sideways on a folding chair, squinting into the viewfinder was just a little more than comical, so I kept grinning through the effort of trying not to laugh out loud. Twice she lowered the camera and warned me that I can't be smiling in a mug shot. I promised to attempt to confine my demeanor to the requisite gravity appropriate for the situation, but requested that she not take so long to try and snap a shot.

At about five they came and got my buddy who'd made the cocaine remark for additional questioning. We found out after we were out that one of the police had the excess inventory from his pawn shop stored in one of the rooms of the hotel, and was under the impression we were out to steal it, and that my buddy was our ringleader. Apparently they've got a good five minutes of said buddy laughing his ass off on the "confession" tape.

In the morning they released us to go spend Christmas with our families, our court date set a couple months later.

We went to court, and though we were to be tried separately, we offered to be tried at the same time and plead guilty to the charge of "illegal entry." That sound you hear is any lawyers reading this collectively sucking in their breath at the stupidity of what we thought was a grand gesture. Since we agreed to help the court move along and cop to the charges fair and square, we thought they would go easy on us. Ho ho! Besides the fact that even a good judge would've bent us over anyway for not having a lawyer (as a lawyer later informed us), little did we know that we were in front of one of the most crooked judges ever to sit on the bench in our little burg. Before it became a national obsession with the current Republicans, our little 95% Republican Midwestern town gave opportunity and favors to any Republican when it came to any and all appointed government offices. (It was an open secret that if you wanted to work in the capitol or any of the county or city offices, you'd have to register Republican because all the employment offices called over to the voter registration office to see how you were registered. If you were anything but Republican, you never got an offer for a government job, period.) This judge had gotten the bench because he was the only Republican available when the slot needed filling. He was later removed from the bench when it came to light he was trading light sentences in exchange for sexual favors with the pretty girls who found themselves in court. Oh, and this guy was a 300 lb, 5 foot 2 bald troll with bad teeth, coke bottle glasses, a chewing tobacco habit, and a tendency toward voluminous flatulence. If I recall, he rattled off two or three multi-octave honkers during our hearing alone.

This gassy little cretin threw the book at us. We each got $400 fines, 10 days suspended jail sentences and a year on probation, plus a criminal record to boot. (Though actually, it did me more help than good. When I was required to tell potential employers about the incident, it usually broke the ice as they got a good laugh out of it. One guy who was giving me a lie detector test (for a store that sold pocket-sized electronic gadgets) had to stop the polygraph tape so he could compose himself enough to continue the test. His favorite part was the suspected cocaine-filled flashlight.

The hotel itself was restored and stands to this day. It's awful pretty, too. One of the complicating factors to our story is that someone had just bought it for restoration when we wandered through it. He had called the police and the judge and asked them to go hard on us, even though we hadn't broken or taken anything, nor had we intended to. I told him this myself when he demanded we go talk to him, which I alone stupidly did, and basically got yelled at for a half hour for my efforts. The only thing we did, besides enter what we assumed was a doomed building without permission, was leave some footprints in the dust, as you might recall. I have never been a patron of that hotel or its restaurant, since I don't enjoy the thought of lining the pockets of the owner who went out of his way to mess with our planets.

The moral of the story is NEVER go to court without a lawyer. Ever. For any reason. Even if you're going to fuck the judge to get a lesser sentence. Have that shark in a suit with you at all times. Look what it did for O.J. and Robert Blake. Keep your eye on the sparrow, my ass. Keep your remora lips firmly attached to the sharks, I say.

Oh, and don't get busted walking around an abandoned hotel in the dead of night. Apparently it's illegal.

I never did see the catacombs, btw.

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