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Case against pickets dropped

Prosecutors see too many problems with a trespassing case against three arrested at a presidential rally in Tampa.

By DAVID KARP

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 28, 2001


Prosecutors see too many problems with a trespassing case against three arrested at a presidential rally in Tampa.

TAMPA -- In the crowd waiting to see President Bush at Legends Fields last month was a man in a blue shirt who spoke into a walkie-talkie and waved his hand to call attention to several protesters.

Police and officials with the New York Yankees, who were hosting the president, thought the man worked for the Secret Service.

He didn't.

He was a Republican activist and lobbyist for the Florida Baptist Convention, who was part of a group called the "Rally Response" team.

For that reason and others, State Attorney Mark Ober decided Friday to drop trespassing charges against three protesters arrested during the president's visit in June. Republican volunteers had singled them out for arrest.

"After interviewing many witnesses, conducting an extensive investigation and after looking at the totality of the circumstances, we concluded that there was no likelihood of success at trial," said prosecutor Pam Bondi, Ober's spokeswoman.

There were several problems with the case. The GOP volunteers weren't legally authorized to call for the protesters' removal.

And police officers told the protesters they could stay if they put down anti-Bush signs. That raised the question of whether police were removing them for their behavior or because of the message on their signs.

Although prosecutors dropped the charges, Bondi said police acted appropriately.

"They were there to peacefully defuse the situation, and they did that with great restraint and professionalism," Bondi said. "It's defused, it's over, and everyone needs to move on."

But the protesters don't see it that way. Police should have protected them from an angry crowd instead of arresting them, said protester Janis M. Lentz, 55, of New Port Richey.

According to police reports, the pro-Bush audience kicked dirt at the protesters, yelled at them and grabbed their signs. The three protesters yelled back.

Even so, lawyers praised the state attorney for dropping the charges.

"I'm a huge Mark Ober fan because he showed a lot of character," said attorney W.F. "Casey" Ebsary Jr., who represents one of the protesters. "A lot of (prosecutors) will file a questionable case and let the judge throw it out. But Ober did the right thing."

Police reports and memos written by Yankees security officials describe a confusing scene. Several officials reported that Secret Service agents called for the protesters' removal.

But the special agent in charge of the Tampa office of the Secret Service told the Times last month that didn't happen.

In another memo, a Yankees official wrote that a White House staff member named Brett Doster asked him to remove protesters. But a White House spokeswoman said Friday that no one by that name works at the White House.

Yankees officials could not be reached for comment.

"They are all telling a different story," said Lentz.

Ober's investigation found that the person who requested the arrest was the party activist.

The protesters -- Lentz, Sonja Haught, 59, of Clearwater and Mauricio Rosas, 37, of Tampa -- might file a lawsuit.

They said the event sponsors and the police should not have prevented them from peacefully expressing a viewpoint at a public event on public property.

Built with more than $30-million in tax dollars, Legends Fields is owned by the public. The Yankees operate it under a lease agreement with a government agency.

"This should have never happened to begin with," said Rosas. "The police should have protected us. The police were used as pawns by the politicians in charge."

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