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 firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8232. On Twitter: @ckruegertimes.