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Grandmother acquitted in french fry case

Jean Merola reacts to a not-guilty verdict at the Pinellas County criminal courthouse on 49th Street. She was charged with violating a city ordinance by obstructing a public place Jan. 17 while waiting in a McDonald’s drive-through for french fries.

ATOYIA DEANS | Times

Jean Merola reacts to a not-guilty verdict at the Pinellas County criminal courthouse on 49th Street. She was charged with violating a city ordinance by obstructing a public place Jan. 17 while waiting in a McDonald’s drive-through for french fries.

The judge said Jean Merola was loud, ill mannered and abusive.

But not guilty.

"If rudeness and inconsideration of others were a crime, this would be a felony," county Judge Patrick Caddell told the grandmother of eight Thursday.

But they aren't, and after a one-day trial, Caddell found Merola, 76, of Clearwater not guilty in a controversial case that started with an order of french fries.

Merola had faced an $88 fine on a charge of violating a Clearwater city ordinance in January when she parked her car in the drive-through lane of McDonald's, blocking police Officer Matthew Parco's cruiser.

It took a moment for the verdict to sink in for Merola.

"Did you say I'm not guilty?" she asked.

"You're guilty of a lot of things," Caddell said. "Just not this."

McDonald's employees had asked Merola to pull her car forward to wait for a special order of unsalted fries on Jan. 17.

Parco, who was behind her getting an iced coffee, asked her to move her car farther because he couldn't get by. Parco said Merola cursed at him and called him names. Merola said the officer blasted his horn and harassed her.

Merola was arrested, initially on a count of disorderly conduct, handcuffed and booked into the Pinellas County Jail. Later the charge was changed to violating a city ordinance by obstructing a public place.

Assistant State Attorney Robin Allweiss said that although the fine was small and the violator elderly, the state had to prosecute when Merola refused to pay.

"We don't selectively prosecute," she said. "We're just doing our job."

During the trial, six state witnesses testified that Merola was visibly agitated and verbally abusive to Parco.

Parco told the court Merola said she hoped he was Christian because he was "pure evil and going to hell."

Merola did not testify, and the defense did not present any witnesses.

Sue Cushell, whose daughter videotaped the arrest, said Parco was very calm throughout the ordeal.

Merola, on the other hand, "wagged her finger in his face and gave him a piece of her mind," Cushell said.

McDonald's shift manager Sarah Curtis said she had to deliver food for nearly an hour to stuck patrons. And it took her two tries to get Merola to take her unsalted fries.

Police Cpl. Carl Conyers said he advised Parco to arrest Merola, despite his repeated attempts to defuse the situation.

"He did not want to take her to jail," Conyers said.

Parco was later cleared by police supervisors of any policy violation in the way he handled Merola's arrest.

But in May, Parco resigned from the Police Department during an internal affairs investigation of allegations that he behaved inappropriately March 29 when responding to a child-custody call.

Witnesses told investigators that he offered a 15-year-old girl chewing tobacco, fired his Taser into his cruiser windshield to demonstrate how it worked and showed the teen a computer video of a cow being Tasered. He denied doing those things, but electronic usage logs on the computer and Taser indicated otherwise.

Defense attorney Steven Andrews said he and Merola learned a lot throughout the trial and felt sorry for Parco in the end.

"There's no winners here," Andrews said. After the verdict, Merola said little herself and was cut off by her attorney several times when she began to speak.

Grandmother acquitted in french fry case 07/10/08 [Last modified: Thursday, July 17, 2008 8:05am]
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