5 shrimp, 5 scallops, 1 unhappy diner
Feeling shorted, Ralph Paul didn't pay his tab. Not even when police said he should. On Wednesday, he had his day in court.
By CHRIS TISCH
Published October 5, 2006
LARGO - This is a story about a guy who didn't see enough food in his seafood. He found the jumbo shrimp and bay scallops in his pasta dish to be a little, um, shrimpy.
Ralph Paul ate the seafood off the top of the pasta, then sent the dish back and asked the server to take it off his bill. When the restaurant didn't do that, he left without paying the $46 tab, which included an entree of mussels eaten by his girlfriend, coffee and dessert.
A worker at Angellino's Italian Restaurant in Palm Harbor got the tag number off his silver BMW convertible and called police.
Sheriff's deputies called Paul, a 54-year-old retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel from New Port Richey, and told him he had committed a crime by not paying his bill. He could be arrested. All Paul had to do was pay the 46 bucks.
Most people would have done that.
He said he couldn't look himself in the mirror if he paid full price for such substandard fare.
"I've been all over the world, and if you're not happy with a meal, you don't have to pay for it," he told deputies. "I'll take my chances in court."
He was charged with defrauding the restaurant of its bill, a second-degree misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail.
Paul hired a big shot New York lawyer who charges $500 an hour. He refused to plead no contest and pay a fine. He went to trial.
Which brings us to Wednesday.
Inside a Pinellas criminal courtroom, six jurors, an alternate juror, two bailiffs, two court clerks and one judge watched for nearly seven hours as two prosecutors and a defense lawyer argued over the size of shrimp and how many bites of seafood make an entree.
"He had eaten all the seafood off the dish," Prosecutor Chris Ballard told the jury. "He had eaten some of the pasta and some of the vegetables in that dish."
The entree Paul ordered is called "Shrimp and Scallop Verdura."
"Verdura in Italian," defense lawyer John Lauro told the jury in all seriousness, "means true."
Actually, it mean "vegetables." Verita means truth.
* * *
It all started like this:
On March 31, Paul picked up his girlfriend from the airport. They decided to head to dinner and picked Angellino's, where they had dined before and liked it.
They ordered iced teas. She got mussels. He got the Verdura, offered at $15.99.
The dish arrived. There was a lot of pasta, Paul thought, but not enough seafood. It hadn't been listed as a pasta dish on the menu.
He counted five scallops and five shrimp, ate them all and looked for more. He also recalls having two bites of pasta and two bites of vegetables.
"I had only taken a total of 14 bites out of the whole meal," Paul later said.
Paul asked the waitress if he should have gotten more shrimp and scallops. The chef said he got exactly what went into every Verdura, a popular item at the restaurant.
Paul sent the dish back and asked that it be removed from his bill. He ordered dessert and coffee.
When the bill arrived, the Verdura was still on there.
Soon, Paul was in an argument with the restaurant's manager and owner. They wanted him to pay for the entire entree. Paul said he would pay to cover only the seafood he ate, not the vegetables and pasta.
The restaurant refused, so he left. Later, Paul asked the Better Business Bureau to mediate. But the restaurant, which has received no other complaints with the BBB in the past three years, would not do that.
* * *
Paul says he lives by a code that he learned in the Air Force. He won't be intimidated by anyone. His code served him well in his 26 years in the military, where he flew fighter planes, he says.
"It's easy to think, 'Well, it's $46, why go through all the trouble?' But Mr. Paul lives in a different world," Lauro told the jury. "He lives with a code. A code of honor. There are people who are willing to compromise, who are willing to settle. That's not Ralph Paul."
Traci English, the waitress who served Paul that night, wondered about that.
"So he lives on a code," she said, outside the courtroom. "So anyone could say they have a code and leave without paying?"
Neither Paul nor Lauro would say how much he spent on his defense.
"Let me put it this way," Lauro said. "We're expensive. He spent a lot of money."
Jurors, who smirked during arguments early in the day, began to act perturbed after 5 p.m. - especially as lawyers fired objections and called for bench conferences with the judge. They finally got the case about 6:45 p.m.
The jury took less than a half-hour to find Paul not guilty.
Jury foreman Stacie Dull said jurors didn't think Paul meant to defraud anyone when he got to the restaurant. They also were impressed that he tried to pay for a portion of the bill.
"It showed he made an effort," she said. "If he had done nothing, it probably would have been different."
Paul was pleased to have won. But he would have been happy even with a loss, he said, because he stood up for what he believed in.
"It would have been worth it either way for me," he said. "This institution is what I fought for 26 years. It's what separates us from the rest of the world. I got to have my day in court."
Times staff writer Nicole Johnson contributed to this report. Chris Tisch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2359.