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Nocturnal 'Pizza Man' gets a taste of closure

Snared by a liquor rule, even though he never sold spirits, the Ybor City vendor wraps up a frustrating court case.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 13, 2002

He won't have a big stain on his permanent record.

But after a four-month battle with bureaucracy and courts, Ybor City pizza vendor Asres "Oscar" Gesses is still shaking his head.

Since August, "Pizza Man," as many know him, has been arrested twice, handcuffed in front of customers and forced to spend half a night in jail.

The ordeal ended in county court last week when Gesses, 39, pleaded no contest to one count of violating a city liquor law even though he sells pizza, not booze.

Confused? Not as confused as Gesses was.

The Ethiopian native has been selling late-night pizza for five years. After failed ventures selling coffee and hot dogs, he thought he had finally gotten a taste of the American dream.

Then the dream dissolved into a surreal nightmare.

"Nothing is fair what happened," Gesses said last week.

The saga begins with a law that was never intended to snare him.

Passed during a city crackdown on raves several years ago, it prohibits businesses that sell alcohol from selling anything after 3 a.m.

Gesses rents a 200-square-foot space from the Italian Club on Seventh Avenue. The hardest drink he sells is Sprite. But because the Italian Club is zoned for alcohol, the law applies to him.

Police didn't enforce the law until last summer. And why they targeted Gesses remains a mystery. But they warned him repeatedly.

Gesses ignored them. A big chunk of his profits come after 3 a.m.

Plus, he thought, I'm just selling pizza.

Police arrested Gesses Aug. 17 and Aug. 24, cuffing him the first time for "verbal resistance."

The paperwork they gave him was unreadable. By the time Gesses found out when he was supposed to be in court, he had missed his appearance, prompting the judge to issue a warrant for his arrest.

Gesses turned himself in on Sept. 13.

In the courtroom Sept. 30, things almost got worse.

Gesses showed up in a new suit. He planned to ask for a jury trial.

But his court files somehow got mixed up, making it appear as if he had one charge against him, not two. When Gesses, who doesn't speak English well, tried to explain to County Judge James Dominguez that there was a second charge, the judge cut him off.

"Well, you better go turn yourself in," Dominguez said.

The hearing was over in seconds. Gesses left befuddled.

At the urging of friends, he returned a few hours later, just before the second charge came up. Had he not returned, another arrest warrant may have been issued.

"I plea not guilty, your honor," he told the judge. "That wasn't a violation."

"Whoa, whoa," Dominguez said. "When we have the trial, then I'll hear all of the facts, okay?"

After that experience, Gesses, who faced up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, decided he had better hire a lawyer.

"It's frustrating," he said. "But what are you going to do?"

Last week, attorney Steve Royal convinced Gesses to plead no contest to one charge of violating city code. Assistant city attorney David Shobe Jr. agreed to drop the second charge.

Dominguez was lenient. He ordered Gesses to pay about $100 in court costs. He withheld a conviction.

"Good middle ground," is how Shobe described it.

"I'm glad it's over," Gesses said.

The Italian Club is trying to amend its wet zoning so the space it rents to Gesses will be exempt. Assuming the City Council okays the change, Gesses will be back in business after 3 a.m.

Meanwhile, he said he's confused but not upset.

After being shot twice during political demonstrations in his native country, he said he learned to take more typical troubles in stride.

"You just have to live by it," he said.

-- Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or .

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