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OFFICER CLEARED IN FRENCH FRY FLAP

An internal affairs report cites witnesses who say woman, 75, was rude and profane.

Clearwater police have cleared a police officer of accusations he acted inappropriately last month when he arrested a 75-year-old grandmother at a McDonald's drive-through.

The 30-page internal affairs report released Monday quotes a dozen witnesses, the overwhelming majority of whom said Officer Matthew Parco acted professionally while Jean Merola was rude and profane.

Merola was taken to the Pinellas County Jail in handcuffs on a charge of disorderly conduct, but the State Attorney's Office has yet to charge her formally.

Monday's report was the latest chapter in this fast-food saga, which started Jan. 17 when Merola ordered coffee and fries without salt at the drive-through window of a McDonald's on Hercules Avenue. Because the fries were a special order, the staff at the restaurant asked her to pull her Lincoln Town Car forward to an area of striped asphalt where customers wait for orders that take extra time.

Parco was behind Merola in his patrol car, having just picked up an iced coffee. He said he couldn't get past Merola and asked her to move up.

Parco claims Merola cursed at him, called him a "brat" and an "evil man," and even suggested that if he has children, they must hate him.

Merola told a different story. She said Parco honked at her, harassed her and refused to tell her what she had done wrong.

Almost all the witnesses interviewed sided with Parco, though one witness said the officer showed some "abrupt or rude" body language.

"She was being rude, saying, you know, she's prominent," said Sarah Curtiss, a McDonald's manager. "She knows people. And saying that ... the officer should be ashamed of himself."

Another witness, Terri Burkett, said she saw Merola upbraiding the officer. "She was very upset, and she was pointing - had her fingers up in his face and was really giving him a good scolding," said Burkett, who was in the drive-through line.

According to the report, Parco asked for Merola's driver's license in part to search police records for any history of mental illness. He told his supervisor that Merola appeared to have symptoms of dementia, which made Merola even angrier.

Parco and his supervisor, Cpl. Carl Conyers, considered giving Merola a notice to appear in court rather than arresting her, but they felt they couldn't safely release Merola unless there was a family member who could pick her up. Merola refused to give the names of any family members, the report said.

They also considered holding her under the state's Baker Act, but decided Merola did not meet the requirements, according to the report.

Merola's attorney, Steven Andrews, blamed Parco for violating "the code most people live by" when he honked in the drive-through line.

Andrews said Merola deserves an apology regardless of what the internal affairs report said.

"He may not have done anything wrong from an (internal affairs) standpoint, but we think the record is clear that there was no probable cause to arrest her," Andrews said.

He's also upset Clearwater police included information about Merola's time as a crossing guard in the report. It contains a brief note regarding Merola's resignation as a crossing guard in 1987 because she did not get transferred to the location she wanted. The paperwork said she should not be rehired.

"The fact that they had to go back to justify Parco's actions and pull her file when she was a school crossing guard is pathetic," Andrews said. "That says it all."

Last week, Andrews said, police Chief Sid Klein told him Merola's grandson was the subject of a criminal investigation for making threats against Parco. The grandson, 24-year-old Philip Merola, lives in Colorado. When he saw his grandmother's arrest on CNN, he called Parco's voice mail and left an angry message with his name and his phone number, Andrews said.

Klein and police spokeswoman Elizabeth Daly-Watts did not respond to requests for comment.

Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4157.

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