Dirty South

"You go out in the prison yard and not only are inmates stabbing one another but people with psychological problems are stabbing themselves," he says. "On a full moon, people think they're possessed by demons and stuff."

Baker took a plea last week and walked out rather than continuing to insist — with video evidence seemingly supporting him — that his assault on the Hollywood cops came after they brutalized him.

The debacle started on a street corner in Hollywood on April 18, 2003. Baker was talking with a couple of homeless guys who happened to be wielding open beers when the cops showed up. Baker, who has a way of finding trouble, got pulled in because there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest for failure to pay a $25 fine on an open-container violation.

Then, at the Hollywood Detention Center, where the arrestees were being processed by the cops, an argument broke out between Baker's two buddies. When the cops stepped in to break it up, Baker allegedly interceded, yelling "Fuck off, asshole!" at Officer Francis Hoeflinger and punching him in the back. Hoeflinger and Officer John Graham then "subdued" Baker, a fragile-looking chain smoker of Kool cigarettes. The officers dragged a bloodied Baker to a holding cell and filed a charge against him of battery on a police officer.

The grainy, soundless, black-and-white surveillance videos that recorded the incident tell a different story. They appear to show Graham throwing a punch at one of the homeless men. Then, after Baker appears to say something, Hoeflinger punches him twice, and Baker hits the ground. Hoeflinger puts his finger in Baker's face, and Baker grabs it, then pushes Hoeflinger to the ground. Then comes Graham, fists clenched, at Baker. That's when the tape "leprechauns," as Baker describes it. Suddenly, Graham disappears and reappears five steps away.

Baker insists the tape was edited by the Hollywood Police Department to implicate him. A video expert, inexplicably not called to testify by Baker's former lawyer, Madeline Torres, agreed. Gates sentenced Baker to five years.

In his hearing last week, Torres was again called to the stand, this time as a witness. The case seemed to turn on whether Torres knowingly and incompetently chose not to call the video expert. Melissa Donoho, Baker's current lawyer, says Torres claimed in a deposition that she would admit on the stand that her counsel was ineffective. But when Torres got up there, she denied wrongdoing. To put that information before the judge, Donoho would have had to step down as Baker's lawyer and become a witness to the perjury.

There were other problems. The prosecution's newly appointed video expert, former BSO employee Marla Carroll, said that the video, even with missing frames, gave an accurate enough account of the incident. When evidence videos are transferred from analog to digital for use in court, it's not unusual for frames to be dropped, she asserted — a claim that left Donoho agape with disbelief.

With postponements inevitable and the outcome uncertain, prosecutor Scott Raft offered time served as long as Baker dropped his appeal. It was a bargain with the devil. Baker couldn't turn it down.

"My primary concern was to come home and get back to work and acclimate myself back into society," says Baker, who is living with family now and employed as an electrician.

But walking out on the criminal case won't affect the civil case he intends to file against the Hollywood cops, the State Attorney's Office, and maybe even BSO, he says. "I want everybody's ass."

Signing Statements

First time Tailpipe saw the Sign Boat, he was driving down A1A in Fort Lauderdale, and he almost had an accident. There was a 40-foot trawler churning through the water about a hundred yards from the beach. On its deck was a huge electronic sign, flashing messages about a sports bar. The converted shrimp boat was just low-tech enough as it lumbered through the waves to suggest momentarily that it might be the vanguard of a military invasion by boat people.

But no, this was about floating ads.

The idea came to Joe Thompson, a marine contractor from Cocoa, two years ago. Some folks marvel at waves and Technicolor sunsets. Thompson kept seeing a blank canvas ripe for advertising. He was watching Good Morning America when he saw flashing LED signs in Times Square. "I thought to myself, 'Why couldn't someone do that on the water?' In this part of the country, so many people gather near the water. But at night, the ocean disappears — it's just a big, black nothing."

He called the Coast Guard, whose brass said they hadn't heard of anything like it but they weren't opposed as long as the boat was operated safely and didn't harm swimmers. "They told me it sounded a lot safer than the speedboats and parasailers out there," he says.

Thompson bought a $50,000 boat named Gulf Dreamer near Panama City and sailed it to Port Canaveral, where he refurbished it, adding a hydraulic base to the deck. Then he bought a 160-square-foot, 2,000-pound electronic sign from a casino in Branson, Missouri. "We had to make sure the boat could hold a sign that heavy and hold it up straight," Thompson says. The sign, which is operated from a remote laptop, can spin 360 degrees, making it visible from the coastline no matter which direction the ship is going.

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