Not Normel

Eric Goertz did a lot of damage with his spray cans. But he's not the big tagger fish cops sought.

Eric Goertz is in big trouble.

A few cans of spray paint and some felt-tip markers did him in.

The term criminal mischief — among the felonies levied against the 22-year-old from Palm Beach Gardens — may sound lighthearted. In truth, as far as the courts are concerned, the charges came with the lowest-level felony penalties allowed by law.

Colby Katz

But because of his habit of anointing any and all available surfaces with his distinctive markings, Goertz had racked up nine such charges. With that many, the penalties can add up alarmingly. Goertz's artistic endeavors, instead of ushering patrons past a gallery's red ropes, had earned him the opportunity to spend more than 45 years in prison. For the crime of defacing property with graffiti, Goertz was looking at forfeiting his freedom for twice as long as he'd been alive.

"In another county, with another judge and another prosecutor, he could have easily gotten 20 years in prison," intones Alan Johnson of the Florida State Attorney's Office. He led prosecution efforts against Goertz in a court case that ended in April. "Things could have been much, much worse for Mr. Goertz."

At his sentencing on April 6, Goertz was shocked when the judge announced the terms: 1,000 hours of community service, spent on weekends, removing graffiti; $19,000 in restitution; and he's on probation for five years.

Johnson actually sounds palpably relieved that Goertz was spared the maximum penalty. In his voice, there's more than a vestige of concern about the young man.

"He's still a kid," he says sympathetically. "I'm not advocating that we lock up a 22-year-old and throw away the key."

For now, Goertz can't so much as look at a can of spray paint. If he screws up, he's looking at serious time behind bars. Even showing up tardy to a meeting with his probation officer could spell doom.

"One minute late and I'm an escapee." He could be undone, he says, by "a flat tire or an accident on the Turnpike. I'm petrified."

"He should be," Johnson says. "He's under a microscope."

Even speaking to New Times puts stress on him; his lawyer, Scott Richardson, explicitly advised him not to.

"I don't want to get myself in any more trouble," Goertz says.

But resisting the chance to defend himself is too difficult. One of the things that's eating away at Eric Goertz is the fact that lots of people think he's Normel.

Not normal. Normel. As in the still-at-large tagger whose bubble-lettered shoutouts to himself covered South Florida in garish hues. As in the graffiti bomber who drove cops and highway officials nuts with his incessant targeting of sound walls and boxcars up and down the I-95 corridor. The target of a massive undercover investigation that cost thousands of dollars in surveillance man-hours and cleanup costs. Normel's bombs were just that: huge blobs that infected and altered the visual landscape of Palm Beach County.

"Tourists come down wanting to see beautiful Palm Beach, and people like them are making it an eyesore," PBSO Detective Tristram Moore says.

While Normel was on an impossible-to-ignore property-defacing rampage that made the newspapers and the public apoplectic, Goertz had the misfortune of wandering into a trap baited for much bigger game. The damage caused by Normel is estimated at more than $150,000; Goertz's total tab came in under $20,000.

Very bad timing for Goertz to get in trouble with the law. When he was arrested, Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw immediately labeled him "the primary subject using the tag 'Normel. '" Well after his arrest, cops all over South Florida had heard Normel had finally been caught, and he was a college kid.

The furtive, frustrated artist with soft brown eyes and a childlike gentleness is overwhelmed by the hot water surrounding him. This is no psychopath spitting in the face of authority, prosecutors and police now acknowledge. In court, his girlfriend's mom, Wendy Plasko, told the judge that Goertz was "unusually polite and respectful, far beyond what the average 22-year-old would display." A letter from 19-year-old Marissa Plasko described her long-distance relationship with Goertz (she lives in Chicago) and related how "he holds doors open for people, drives in the slow lane, respects his parents and my parents, feeds the ducks, and doesn't hang up on wrong numbers."

But the media, eager to finally report the apprehension of public enemy number one, gloated over the capture of a suspect PBSO Sgt. Kevin Marks called nothing more than "a dirtbag vandal."

The Palm Beach Post quickly connected Goertz to the Normel crimes. "Things won't be Normel around here anymore," quipped Staff Writer Scott McCabe a few days after the bust.

To be fair, the Post just repeated what police had said — though the paper provided itself an easy out in case of error. "At least until a copycat criminal surfaces, everyone can celebrate" his arrest, read a August 8, 2005, editorial.

The day before, columnist Frank Cerabino cheered along, praising the "massive manhunt..., good intelligence-gathering, coordinated effort between various agencies and countless hours of surveillance" that enabled police to apprehend Goertz.

"His work, in a way, was like these Al-Qaeda videos from bin Laden and al-Zawahiri," Cerabino mused.

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