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News of the Weird
by Chuck Shepherd

You already know all the important issues of 1997: weapons of mass destruction, campaign finance reform, Asian market vulnerability, Marv Albert in lingerie.

Here's the year's really alarming (though underreported) news, demonstrating the planet's gradual but unmistakable drift to mediocrity.


Already They Can Survive Nuclear War. Now, We Give Them Computer Enhancements

In January, Japanese researchers began testing microprocessors and microcameras surgically implanted into American cockroaches for a variety of missions including espionage surveillance. The equipment, weighing a 10th of an ounce, uses remote-control signals to command the cockroach's movements.


Overlooked Progress in the Peace Process

One aspect of Israeli-Palestinian relations is running smoothly, according to a May Boston Globe story. Israel has the highest per capita car theft in the world, and police say several cooperative Israeli-Palestinian car-theft rings operate almost effortlessly, fencing cars and parts to dealers on both sides of the border.


The Boob Tube (I)

According to research commissioned by The Weather Channel, disclosed in April, one in five viewers watches for at least three hours at a sitting. The company calls these people "weather-involved."


The Boob Tube (II)

A March New York Times story described what it called really bad Japanese TV shows, among them one in which bikini-clad young women crush aluminum cans by squeezing them between their breasts, and another in which a young child was brought on stage and told that his mother had just been shot to death - for the purpose of seeing how many seconds would elapse before he started crying.


The Unarhymers

Brothers Geoffrey and Aaron Kuffner were arrested in New Orleans in June and charged with terrorism as the ones who had recently mailed or hand-delivered suspicious packages to local government and news media offices. The packages were harmless (but nonetheless frightening enough that two offices had to be evacuated), and each contained a four-page manifesto, "Violent Acts of Consciousness Have Only Begun." According to police, the men's goal was to call attention to public ignorance of poetry and that among their demands was that all state inaugural speeches be written in iambic pentameter.

Bottom of the Gene Pool

In December 1996, Phillip Johnson, then 32, was hospitalized in Prestonburg, Ky., after shooting himself in the left shoulder with his .22-caliber rifle "to see how it felt," he told ambulance personnel. The sheriff described him as "screaming about the pain, over and over." On Oct. 2, 1997, an ambulance crew was again called to Johnson's home, where he was bleeding from another left-shoulder gunshot. According to the Inez Mountain Citizen newspaper, Johnson said the earlier shooting "felt so good," he had to do it again.


The Most Amazing of Giuliani's New York City Turnarounds

In January, Jack Petelui, 43, climbed the ornate facade of the Ansonia Hotel in New York City and was poised for suicide for more than an hour. According to several newspaper reports, dozens of New Yorkers on the street below were actually yelling "DON'T jump!" (He did anyway, but landed on a police department rescue airbag.)


This One Ought to be a Slam Dunk for Barry Scheck

Lavelle Davis, 23, was convicted of murder in Geneva, Ill., in February. Prosecutors showed how Davis and an accomplice rehearsed the murder, including how the accomplice placed duct tape over Davis' mouth just as they would later do to the victim. At trial, Davis was linked to the crime scene by what prosecutors said were his lip prints on the practice tape.


The Last Hurrah of Microregulation

In February, the Palm Springs (Calif.) Regional Airport Commission issued hygiene rules for cab drivers serving the airport, including requirements that drivers shower daily with soap, brush with toothpaste and eat breath mints.


Egg Frenzy

In March the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that a local woman, 66, and her husband were searching for a surrogate mother for their deceased son's sperm so that they could fulfill their longing to be grandparents. And three days earlier, a Milan, Italy, newspaper reported that a 35-year-old woman was three months pregnant with the fetuses of two couples, whose children she agreed to bear simultaneously because of a shortage of surrogate mothers. (She said blood tests after birth would determine which baby was which.)


There They Go with Self-Parody Again

The Times of London reported in March that when an employee of the James Beauchamp law firm in Edgbaston, England, recently killed himself, the firm billed his mother about $20,000 for the expense of settling his office work. Included was a bill for about $2,300 to go to his home to find out why he didn't show up at work (thus finding his body), plus about $250 to go to his mother's home, knock on her door, and tell her that her son was dead. (After unfavorable publicity, the firm withdrew the bill.)


Next, Strychnine Injections to Calm that Troublesome Temper

The New York Observer reported in May that some New York City dermatologists who have been eliminating patients' facial wrinkles by deadening the skin with tiny injections of the bacteria that causes botulism are touting a new use for the $800 procedure: that it so deadens the forehead that it prevents scowling, which some patients say is a benefit to keeping a "poker face" during business negotiations.


And They Look Great in Jeans Ads

In April, researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine announced they had created a strain of mice twice the usual size, with broad shoulders and massive hips. The researchers said they believe they can do the same thing for chickens and cattle.


Most Clueless American in 1997

Courtney Mann, the head of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of White People, who works as a tax preparer and is a single mother, was rebuffed in an attempt to join a Ku Klux Klan-sponsored march in Pittsburgh in April. Though she has been in the NAAWP for at least four years, the Klan turned her down - because she is black. Said the Grand Dragon, "She wanted to stay at my house (during rally weekend). She's all confused, man. I don't think she knows she's a black."


You'd Think the Bar Would Give Her Professional Courtesy

Marsha Watt, a 1990 graduate of Northwestern University School of Law and formerly an associate at the prestigious Winston & Strawn law firm in Chicago, had charges filed against her in February by the Illinois Bar over her most recent conviction for prostitution (i.e., the kind involving sex, for which her published rate, according to a personals ad, was roughly three times what the law firm billed for her).


People Who Need Spin Doctors

When Maria DiGiulio was booked in July for robbing the Everett (Mass.) Co-op Bank, she answered police Lt. Robert Bontempo forthrightly. "Occupation?" he asked. "Bank robber," she said. And Mohamed Sead, 47, who was convicted of fraud in July, answered similarly at his original booking in Toronto, Ontario. Occupation? "Con artist," he said. (Sead's scheme was to deceive girlfriends that he was the then-living Dodi Fayed.)


Doing Just Fine as Their Own Spinners

John H. Bergantini, a candidate for tax assessor in Exeter, R.I., commenting in March on the government's suing him for $2,678 in back property taxes: "My ability to write a check for a certain amount of money has nothing to do with (my ability to judge) how much a piece of property is worth."

New York Assemblywoman Susan John of Rochester, who is the chair of the Assembly's Alcohol and Drug Abuse committee, upon her guilty plea in March for driving while alcohol-impaired: "This will give me additional insights into the problem of drinking and driving, and I believe, will allow me to do my job even more effectively."


And Here's a Really Deep Pile of Spin

According to an October communiqué from the North Korean Communist Party, "dear leader" Kim Jong II, 55, was promoted to "great leader," which, said the government, was cause for "jubilation" even in the midst of national famine. The government added that fantastic natural phenomena were occurring to mark the occasion, including the landing of a four-inch-long white sea cucumber by one angler and the spontaneous, prolific blossoming of numerous pear trees and apricot trees.


Well, Sure

Minneapolis firefighter Gerald Brown, 55, who was fired in 1995 for abuse of sick leave but who won a grievance hearing and was reinstated with 18 months' back pay, was scheduled to return to work on June 2. He called in sick.


Undoubtedly, It's Those New Lead-Alloy Implants

Bennie Casson filed a $100,000 lawsuit in Belleville, Ill., in July against PT's Show Club for its negligence in allowing a stripper to "slam" her breasts into his "neck and head region" as he watched her, a little too close to the stage. Dancer Susan Sykes (aka "Busty Heart") claims show business's biggest chest (88 inches), which Casson said gave him a "bruised, contused, lacerated" neck.


Middle Names

Continuing the annual roundup in this space: In Alabama, murderer Billy Wayne Waldrop was executed in January, and the next month, murderer Dudley Wayne Kyzer was turned down for parole. Two weeks after that, murderer Coleman Wayne Gray was executed in Virginia. In May, murderer Larry Wayne White was executed in Texas. In July, Maryland inmate Richard Wayne Willoughby was sentenced to life in prison for murdering another inmate.


Least Competent Criminal

Steven Richard King, 22, was arrested in April for trying to hold up a Bank of America branch in Modesto, Calif., without a weapon. He used his thumb and finger to simulate a gun, but unlike most robbers who use this tactic, he did not have his hand in his pocket.


Proof that the System Works

In this space last year appeared hard-luck Oklahoma rapist Darron Bennalford Anderson, who in 1994 had received a 2,200-year sentence but had appealed and won a new trial, only to be convicted again and resentenced to more than 90 additional centuries behind bars, including 4,000 years each for rape and sodomy, 1,750 years for kidnapping, 1,000 years for burglary and robbery, and 500 years for grand larceny. But Anderson was not to be denied; 1997 was his year. In July, the state Court of Criminal Appeals held that the grand larceny charge was double jeopardy on the robbery conviction and thus dismissed it. Just like that, the court cut Anderson's sentence by 500 years, speeding up his release date to the year A.D. 12,744.


Worst Judgment of the Year by Adults

In July, in Doncaster, England, police put suspect Martin Kamara, 43, a black man, in a lineup for identification, but because of recent racial incidents, they couldn't find any black men willing to stand alongside him, so police hired a makeup artist to put black faces on seven white men for the lineup. A judge released Kamara because of the foolishness. (In addition to the inherent problem, the artist neglected to make up the men's hands.)


Unclear on the Concept

In May, Scripps Howard News Service profiled former lawyer James Kelley of Washington, D.C., one of a small group at his local church who are enthusiastic Episcopalians but who do not believe in God. Said Kelley, "We all love the incense, the stained glass windows, the organ music, the vestments, and all of that. It's drama. It's aesthetics. It's the ritual. That's neat stuff. I don't want to give all that up, just because I don't believe in God."


Why They Kill

Letter carrier Martha Cherry, 49, was fired by the Postal Service in White Plains, N.Y., in August after 18 years of apparently walking her rounds too slowly. Wrote a supervisor, of the 5-foot-4 Cherry: "At each step, the heel of your leading foot did not pass the toe of the trailing foot by more than one inch. As a result, you required 13 minutes longer than your demonstrated ability to deliver mail to this section of your route."


Weirdo-American Community

In October in Milwaukee, Gary Arthur Medrow, 53, was charged with 24 counts of impersonating a police officer in connection with his unique obsession. What Medrow does, according to the police (who have arrested him various times over the last 30 years for the same thing), is telephone a woman and try to convince her to lift another woman in the room and carry her a short distance, sometimes telling the woman that he's a police officer and that it's an official request.


Interactive Municipal Government

At the Eugene, Ore., city council meeting on Aug. 6, an unidentified man who had been sitting in the audience walked up to the controversial Mayor Jim Torrey, leaned over, and vomited on his shoulder. He left but was not pursued by the stunned attendees.


But Would it Be Hard Money or Soft Money?

A California pro-prostitution organization, the National Sexual Rights Council, made a fund-raising appeal in April for its benevolent campaign to get teen-age hookers off the streets. For a $250 donation, the Council's Pretty Woman Committee of adult prostitutes would give the donor a T-shirt and a membership card, but for $150,000 - the price of a Lincoln Bedroom sleep-over - one Pretty Woman would supply a real sleep-over, in Nevada.


Family Values

In 1993 India Scott of Detroit dated both Darryl Fletcher and Brandon Ventimeglia and in 1994 gave birth to a boy. Neither man knew about the other, and she told each he was the father. For two years, Scott managed to juggle the men's visitation rights, but in March 1997 when she announced she was marrying another man and leaving the area, both Fletcher and Ventimeglia separately filed for custody of "his" son. Only then did the men find out about each other. In May, they took blood tests to settle the paternity once and for all. Result: Neither is the father.


Weird Grab Bag

Chuck Shepherd's News of the Weird runs weekly in over 200 papers. To discover the news, the attorney and former George Washington University professor reads five dailies plus scads of magazines and electronic data bases. Fans contribute many clips. This is his annual collection of the year's weirdest news.

Illustrations by Betsy Kehne.


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VolumeVI Number 1
January 8-14, 1998
New Bay Times

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