Saturday, February 24, 2018
News Roundup

Bumper stickers prompt criminal charges against critic of Pinellas judge

ST. PETERSBURG — Joe Mazzara, a 67-year-old Largo business owner, can hardly believe he is facing 12 criminal charges for posting bumper stickers around town.

To bring the charges, St. Petersburg detectives followed him and set up surveillance cameras to investigate him. They dusted bumper stickers for his fingerprints and tracked him through the city's red-light violations database to try to place him at the locations where the bumper stickers were clustered.

Mazzara believes police and prosecutors did all that not because of the bumper stickers themselves, which were illegally placed on light poles and traffic signs, but because of their message: "GET JACK HELINGER OFF THE BENCH.COM."

"The point is, don't mess with the judge," said Mazzara, summing up why he thinks he is facing 12 misdemeanor counts of criminal mischief. "Are we saying in this county we're no longer going to have freedom of speech?"

Police and prosecutors said the case has nothing to do with Mazzara's free speech rights or his commentary on Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Jack Helinger. They say it's all about a man who wouldn't stop plastering stickers on St. Petersburg traffic signs, forcing city workers to spend time and money to remove them.

"There's free speech and then there's vandalism," St. Petersburg police spokesman Mike Puetz said. "They're different."

Either way, this does appear to be one of the better-investigated bumper sticker crimes in recent St. Petersburg history.

Mazzara said Helinger was the third and final judge in his divorce case, which was resolved in 2010. Mazzara felt Helinger sided with his then-wife too often. "He's not a fair and impartial judge," Mazzara asserted.

Helinger declined to comment, a court spokesman said.

Mazzara said he met a couple of other people who felt the same way about Helinger, and he helped set up a blog about the judge. He printed some bumper stickers and placed some yard signs to get the website's name out there.

So how and why did police get involved?

The answer seems rooted in a call the judge made to police in 2012.

Investigative records, which Mazzara shared with the Tampa Bay Times, indicate Helinger called police then to report a suspicious man on a bicycle near his house. The man did not appear to be exercising. Helinger thought the man resembled someone who had appeared before him in court named "Mazaro," according to a police report. But the judge acknowledged he could not be sure it was him because it was dark and the man was wearing a baseball cap.

Mazzara said it wasn't him.

Assistant State Attorney Frank Piazza said there also was an instance in which someone placed anti-Helinger yard signs near the judge's house. Mazzara said it was not him. "That'd get you in a lot of trouble," he said.

Puetz, the police spokesman, said it's not uncommon for someone to report behavior they find suspicious or threatening. "That doesn't mean that it necessarily rises to the level of being a threat. We didn't see it in this particular case."

Mazzara has not been charged with making any kind of threat.

But after consulting with city traffic workers, it became clear the stickers on the traffic signs were costing the city. In October, for example, a city official reported that 36 stickers were removed from city property, costing $402.80. It's unclear how this figure was calculated.

Mazzara said he is more outraged by the amount spent on the subsequent investigation.

"It's unbelievable the amount of money that they've spent to catch me putting up stickers," he said, but noted he didn't know how much that was.

St. Petersburg police also did not have that information.

Piazza said the stickers damaged the reflective material on some of the traffic signs. That would have been a problem even if the bumper stickers had a different message, such as promoting a concert, he said. On the other hand, if Mazzara had expressed the same anti-Helinger message on a billboard or a banner towed by an airplane, no one would have cared, he said.

In a recent interview, Mazzara acknowledged he has placed bumper stickers on light poles and traffic signs. "I admit that is what I did."

He said he realizes in retrospect, placing stickers onto traffic signs wasn't such a good idea. If everyone did that, it would be a serious problem.

Still, he asked, "Should somebody be going to jail for this?"

It's not a hypothetical question.

Each of the 12 counts against him carries a possible sentence of 60 days in jail. Mazzara, who was charged in January, is awaiting trial. He has no other criminal record in Florida.

A key point, Puetz said, is that officers asked Mazzara more than once to stop. They even offered advice on where he could put stickers, but he ignored their warnings, Puetz said.

In November 2013, detectives went to Mazzara's Largo business, an insurance restoration contractor, to discuss the matter with him. They didn't get far.

"Mazzara immediately erupted into a First Amendment diatribe," the officer wrote.

Curtis Krueger can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8232. On Twitter: @ckruegertimes.

 
Comments
Police: Man, 60, arrested for fleeing from fatal Largo pedestrian crash

Police: Man, 60, arrested for fleeing from fatal Largo pedestrian crash

LARGO — A 60-year-old man who police said was the driver in a fatal pedestrian hit-and-run on East Bay Drive from three days prior was arrested by Largo Police on Saturday, the department said.Victor Bonavita was arrested on three charges in relation...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Sheriff: Roads reopen after Tampa crash results in natural gas leak near Citrus Park Mall

Sheriff: Roads reopen after Tampa crash results in natural gas leak near Citrus Park Mall

TAMPA — Officials reopened roads near Citrus Park Mall Saturday evening that had been closed in the afternoon for a natural gas leak caused by a car crash, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office said. The Sheriff’s Office and Hillsborough County Fi...
Updated: 3 hours ago

boca ratonState lawmakerencourages Scott to remove sheriffA lawmaker is calling on Florida Gov. Rick Scott to remove Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel from office after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In a letter sent to ...
Updated: 4 hours ago

Two airlinescut ties withNRA aftershootings

The National Rifle Association lashed out at corporations rushing to abandon it on Saturday, as companies from United Airlines to Best Western have cut ties with the gun lobby organization.Without context, twin announcements from Delta and United air...
Updated: 4 hours ago

‘Up to States’ to armteachers, Trump tweets

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump appeared Saturday to begin refining his proposals for combatting school violence, tweeting that arming teachers as a deterrent against such often deadly violence — an idea he championed in recent days — is "Up to S...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Security Council demands30-day cease-fire in Syria

Security Council demands30-day cease-fire in Syria

UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a resolution Saturday demanding a 30-day cease-fire across Syria "without delay" to deliver humanitarian aid to millions and evacuate the critically ill and wounded. U.N. humanitarian ch...
Updated: 4 hours ago

Updated: 5 hours ago
Call her more than just a survivor

Call her more than just a survivor

TAMPA — On the quiet morning of Oct. 8, 2011, a 30-ton freight truck ran a stop sign in the small town of Clinton, Conn.It ran over Colleen Kelly Alexander, who was riding a bicycle.The truck's front wheels crushed her, then spit her to the bac...
Updated: 6 hours ago
Police: Male motorcyclist crashed, then the driver was run over by two cars

Police: Male motorcyclist crashed, then the driver was run over by two cars

TAMPA — A male motorcyclist died early Saturday morning on the Courtney Campbell Causeway, the Tampa Police Department said.About 1:35 a.m., the victim rode his motorcycle west on the Courtney Campbell at high speeds, police said. The motorcycle stru...
Updated: 7 hours ago
Northeast High alumnus Jon Mott wins 3rd Gasparilla 15K crown

Northeast High alumnus Jon Mott wins 3rd Gasparilla 15K crown

TAMPA — Roughly 20 minutes into Saturday morning's Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic 15K, reigning champ A.J. Richmond glanced over his left shoulder to former college teammate Jon Mott and flashed a quick hand signal."He was telling me that t...
Updated: 9 hours ago