ST. PETERSBURG - Since 1987, a man has been picketing, calling and writing letters to Melvin Sembler, the U.S. ambassador to Italy. A man obsessed, as the Sembler family's lawyer puts it, but harmless.
Until now. The man picked through the garbage outside the Sembler home on Treasure Island, found a medical device Sembler was prescribed after surgery for prostate cancer and offered it for sale in a classified ad:
"PUMP, Used, one of a kind. White in color, formerly owned by US Ambassador to Italy . . ."
Sembler's attorneys demanded that the man stop. His reply, they say: Pay me $700,000.
When the Semblers wouldn't pay, he put the pump for sale on eBay, asking $300,000.
Last week, Mel and Betty Sembler's attorney, Leonard S. Englander, persuaded a judge to issue a temporary injunction. It orders the man to stay away from the Semblers and to return their property. Ask Englander about the man's motive and his answer is direct:
"I'm not going to go down that road. I don't care what his motivation is. This issue is, has this guy exceeded all sensibilities here? "What conceivable justification could there be?"
The man's lawyer has an answer: attention.
His client craves it. He says he was sexually abused at Straight, the defunct drug treatment program that Mel and Betty Sembler founded. In the early 1980s, he says, he was beaten, starved and sleep-deprived, the perpetrators never held accountable.
This many years later, rooting through the Semblers' trash and offering a cancer victim's personal medical device on eBay is how he has chosen to fight back. His name is Richard Bradbury.
Back in 1988, Bradbury and a friend burglarized Straight's office on Gandy Boulevard. They were after records they wanted to turn over to state regulators. A newspaper account of Bradbury's prosecution began:
"Richard Bradbury once led rap sessions for hundreds of teenagers at Straight Inc., the controversial drug treatment program in Pinellas Park. He joined them in singing, "I'm here at Straight feeling great.'
"But Bradbury also says he beat the teens, cursed at them and denied them food. At the time, he said, he thought he was helping them get over their drug and alcohol problems. Now, he calls it "brainwashing.' "
Bradbury, who lives in Tampa, got probation and was ordered to stay away from the Semblers.
In July 1993, his complaints about Straight prompted a state audit that found "a propensity for abuse or excessive force to be used" at the drug treatment program.
Straight supporters included the first President Bush, Nancy Reagan and Princess Diana. Thousands of youngsters reportedly kicked drug addictions at Straight facilities around the country.
Others filed lawsuits, alleging they were abused or held against their will. Enrollment dwindled. Straight went out of business in 1993.
Sembler, who served as U.S. ambassador to Australia under the first President Bush, was finance chairman for the Republican National Committee from 1997 to 2000. In November 2001, the second President Bush appointed him ambassador to Italy.
His U.S. Embassy biography says that in 17 years Straight graduated more than 12,000 young people, calling it a "remarkable program."
Bradbury, now 37, would disagree.
On May 3, 2003, the St. Petersburg Times published Bradbury's classified ad in the "Antiques and Collectibles" section.
(Times classified advertising manager Mark Mateer said the representative who accepted the ad mistakenly thought it was for an antique water pump.)
"Semblers' attorneys wrote to Bradbury, demanding that he cease this outrageous conduct," Englander said in the Semblers' complaint. "Bradbury's reply was to demand payment of $700,000!"
When the Semblers didn't pay, Englander wrote, Bradbury turned to eBay.
"Bradbury offered the pump for sale at a price of $300,000 and used the demand letter as a means of verifying its authenticity."
Here's how Bradbury described the item on eBay:
"Pump, one of a kind formerly owned by current United States Ambassador to Italy, who also happens to be the founder of Straight Inc. I am a victim of child exploitation, abuse and fraud by the Ambassador's organization, Straight."
He wrote that he was selling the device to help cover medical expenses that he blamed on Straight and said he would donate 25 percent of the sale price "to three nonprofit organizations which provide services to the thousands of victims of Straight."
Circuit Judge Walt Logan issued a temporary injunction Aug. 26. That afternoon, the pump was taken off the eBay auction block. Nobody had bid.
The state attorney and sheriff's offices in Pinellas are looking into whether Bradbury committed a crime.
Bradbury, on the advice of attorney Thomas H. McGowan, declined comment.
McGowan acknowledged that "Dumpster-diving" and putting something so personal up for public auction is offensive.
"He (Sembler) is saying in his complaint that this is harassing him for no good purpose," McGowan said. "But it is for a purpose. It's to call attention to a cause."
He compared what Bradbury did to Monica Lewinsky saving her semen-stained dress. "That was seamy, but it got Clinton impeached. . . . It served a purpose."
The temporary injunction gave Bradbury 24 hours to return any items he took from the Semblers' garbage, including the pump.
Bradbury responded: "The items subject to this injunction are not in my personal possession."
McGowan said Bradbury told him "a guy in Michigan" has the pump.
- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.