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.
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 PBSOSgt. Kevin Marks called nothing more than "a dirtbag vandal."
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.
Terrorist or not, Normel had, like Osama, outwitted his adversaries.
Every day, thousands of drivers on Interstate 95 viewed Normel's handiwork, and as soon as crews could remove it, the paint inevitably returned. Finally, last June, the PBSO gang unit began staking out what it called a "tagging crew." Within days, undercover detectives noticed Goertz in his black pickup, defacing property in downtown West Palm Beach.
After more than a month of daily surveillance using night-vision goggles police had enough evidence to charge Goertz and two accomplices with a host of felonies and misdemeanors, including criminal mischief, burglary, and trespass.
On July 30, 2005, Eric Goertz was arrested at the home he shares with his parents near Jupiter.
The next day, he conferred with his attorney.
Among his questions: "What are they gonna do when they find out I'm not Normel?"
Eric Goertz is many things, but Normel isn't one of them.
Today, more than a month after his sentencing, Goertz complains, "People still think I'm Normel. They ask why Normel is still painted on walls and everything."
The Post finally reported this February Johnson's admission that the tag "Normel" wasn't attributable to Goertz. In court, Johnson told Judge Krista Marx that the accused wasn't Normel, and today he says definitively that "there's no reason to believe he's Normel, because some of his tagging would have had that."
In fact, his friends and family are bothered even now at the misinformation spread by the local media, such as when the Palm Beach Post reported that police found that Goertz's bedroom walls were adorned with "gang-related art."
The only thing they could have possibly referred to, longtime friend Mike Guido laughs, was a painting Goertz did of King Kong holding a spray can.
"There are no 'gang posters' adorning my room," Goertz seethes. "What's a gang poster? Where can I buy one?"
In fact, the type of graffiti Goertz indulged in was far from gang-oriented. "I think Mr. Goertz wanted his 15 minutes of fame," Johnson opines. "This is 'look at me. '"
Despite the precarious position Goertz finds himself in, he brims with anger about the injustice of it all. He worries that gang unit officers with sore spots for graffiti artists will catch wind of his rantings and give him a hard time. Maybe arrest him. Make him late. Make trouble for him.
"Sheer conjecture," Johnson insists. "I would hope that would never happen."
Goertz believes he was made a scapegoat, his harsh sentence meted out because cops had been denied their true quarry. To him, the cops and prosecutors and guards in jail are just new versions of the bullies who picked on him in middle school. Everything that happened to him, he insists, "is a giant, huge, pulsating lie."
All he was trying to do, Goertz says again and again, was spread gratis his art around a little bit. "Some people work with paintbrushes. I work in spray paint," he says loftily. "I do some amazing work."
Now, he says, he's been rendered practically impotent. "Spray paint is my medium, but I have a ban on the possession of spray paint. It's killing me!"
Unquestionably prolific, Goertz's art saddles him with problems. Instead of 22, he looks, sounds, and acts more like a hyperactive 16-year-old. Slight and fidgety, he seems unable to accept that what he did was more than an innocent summertime prank. Family friends, sticking up for him in court, admitted that Goertz could be "childish and naive," even calling him "immature, irresponsible, but mostly a dreamer."
Goertz, asked about the artistic merit of writing EGO or FOSL on a bathroom mirror, offers only lame explanations.
One frequent mantra of the dreamer/tagger is the observation that in his mind, it's still July 29, 2005, and none of this has ever happened.
"I've never bothered anybody," he insists. "I'm the kid who got picked on his whole life. Then I finally get my life together, I have my own friends and my own art, and before I know it, people keep picking on me again."
Eric Goertz was born July 11, 1983, and grew up next door to Jupiter. His mother, Claudia, is a native of Colombia, and his father, Guenther, was born in Germany. In second grade, his mom took him down to the local community center and asked him if he wanted to enroll in art or theater classes. "I looked in one room and saw a kid in a Peter Pan outfit, [so] I was like, maybe not. Then I looked in the art room and thought, 'Hey, I could do that!'"
Goertz remembers that Howell L. Walkins Middle School in Palm Beach Gardens was "the raw shit." Fresh from fifth grade, he describes himself as "a sweet kid, a fat kid, with glasses and slick hair." Stuck with cigarette-smoking 11-year-olds and wannabe gang members, Goertz says, "everyone was so fuckin' mean. I put my nose in my drawing book. I've been an artist my entire life."
High school was better. The Alexander W. Dreyfoos Jr. School of the Arts in West Palm Beach offered inwardly focused Goertz the chance to connect with like-minded kids.
"When I first met him, he was quiet and didn't have many friends," says Mike Guido, recalling freshman year at Dreyfoos. "He actually struck up a conversation with me." The two graduated together in 2001.
Initially interested in comic-book art, Guido gradually lost his passion for drawing, while Goertz gravitated toward break-dancing and graffiti/manga graphics. "My art in high school was... premature," Goertz says today. "I was more into my friends and having a good time."
By the time Goertz was out of high school, he was into tagging and "bombing" throwing up elaborate murals with spray paint around West Palm Beach. "I can't defend him," Guido says, "but in his heart, he was expressing himself. He was following his belief as an artist."
Goertz' first tangle with trouble came in the summer of 2003, when he was arrested for misdemeanor property damage. Cops caught him painting a mural on an abandoned building in Jupiter. Goertz was given the textbook example of a hand slap: He paid court costs, and that was it.
Goertz's first bust didn't surprise Guido. "I knew it was gonna come sooner or later," he says. "He just had such a passion and a drive for doing it.
"He's a talented kid with pieces that could sell for big money, had it been on a canvas somewhere," Guido adds. He told Goertz he should make his work legit and get paid for it.
"Nah," Goertz replied. "Forget it. This is free art."
Maurice Costigan is pretty sure he's met Eric Goertz. The Clematis Street tavern he owns, O'Shea's, was tagged relentlessly. "Every week for 18 months, I was painting over graffiti here," he says bitterly. "I still have some on a few bathroom mirrors. They're difficult to replace."
Goertz wasn't aware that the PBSO gang unit was tailing him the night of June 11, 2005, watching as he entered the john at O'Shea's. When he came out, cops entered and discovered, in white magic marker, FOSL, one of his favorite tags, scrawled on a black toilet seat.
"He used a variety of methods," explains detective Justin Wallace, one of the PBSO officers who worked to nab Goertz. "If it was a dark surface, he'd use a white pen; a light surface, he'd use a black pen. And he had a tool that could etch glass. You name it he wrote on it."
Goertz's favorite monikers FOSL and EGO were esoteric references to his world view. FOSL, explains Marissa Plasko, "means a remnant of the past. He looks at himself as all that's left of a dying art form." EGO, she says, once an acronym for an obscure art collective, now includes "just him."
At O'Shea's, Costigan remembers a string of Monday mornings when the staff would come in and paint the bathroom walls. "He did it everywhere," Costigan says.
After Goertz was arrested, Costigan recognized his photograph. "Used to come in with his mother for lunch," he says in his whiskey-cured Irish brogue. "When I found out who it was, I was shocked."
The notion that Goertz is a tragic figure a misunderstood, misdirected artist doesn't sit well with him.
"It does look like crap," Costigan says of Goertz's tagging of his pub. "But even if it was nice, he doesn't have the right to make that decision for the rest of us. You know what? If you're so great, ask me if I want to look at your art. Ask me if you can come in and write on my walls with a Sharpie. But give me the option."
Costigan says he gave the prosecutor a figure $3,000 "that I kept on the low end, because I knew I wouldn't be able to prove anything more than that."
In the meantime, Goertz was advised not to darken O'Shea's doorstep again.
"Then this same idiot comes here about a month ago, and I wasn't here," Costigan adds. "But the manager was." According to the manager, Goertz said, "'That's all over with,' and he couldn't understand why we wouldn't let him in."
Costigan huffs. "How arrogant is that?"
In the wee hours of July 4, two members of the PBSO unit surveilling Goertz watched as he discovered a row of new portable toilets just dropped off at E.R. Bradley Park in downtown West Palm Beach. Waiting for the "Flagler on the Fourth" festival, the virgin Porta-Potties must have looked irresistible to Goertz and his marker.
The pair videotaped Goertz entering, one by one, each potty. He spent about ten seconds in each toilet, popping in and out of a total of 28 johns on Clematis and Datura streets. After he left, the agents entered each stall, video camera in tow.
Inside each one, a black, magic-markered FOSL greeted them. The fresh smell of the ink lingered, and the letters were still wet to the touch.
The company that owned the toilets, Anderson Rental, decided to press charges, saying it would cost $50 to fix each unit.
"We don't have many complaints in West Palm Beach," notes Anderson employee Lisa Bird, adding that the more serious portable toilet crimes are seen in Volusia County, where torching them is evidently a popular pastime. Still, Goertz's tagging is "a shame, because it cost a lot of work." The $1,400 fee assigned to Goertz for cleanup is fair, she says, adding that the graffiti didn't exactly bring the company to its knees.
"I wouldn't say it was critical," she says. "I would say it was annoying. He did more damage to other people."
Other victims included a Clematis Street pizza parlor, various signs, a PVC drain pipe, a trash compactor, a bulldozer, the window of a wine shop, a Pollo Tropical bathroom, a USA Parking ticket booth, and an Albertson's handicapped stall. Goertz apparently took a particular liking to Bob's Barricades, the ubiquitous orange Cyclopean workhorses of downtown West Palm Beach. "He was really drilling those pretty good," Detective Moore says.
In fact, on his MySpace page a sort of self-aggrandizing altar to his martyrdom Goertz names the firm specifically (along with Florida Lottery signs, corrugated storage boxes, and parking meters) as among his favorite things.
Goertz now owes Bob's more than $3,600, a figure that makes Goertz stutter with fury. The magic marker damage didn't affect the barricades' operation and was easy to remove, he says.
Nobody at the company, including Don D'Ericole who worked with prosecutors, would to talk to New Times, despite repeated requests.
Maybe Goertz's weirdest target was his own school, Palm Beach Community College's Gardens campus on July 6. Undercover officers watched him leave his last class at 9:30 p.m., wait for classmates to clear, and target a nearby garbage can. FOSL and EGO tags ended up in three buildings. That spree netted another $923 in cleanup costs for Goertz to pay back.
Wallace and Moore, at the time with PBSO's gang unit, along with other officers spent as much as 17 hours a day staking out their suspect, though his most active time was between 2 a.m. and dawn. All told, more than 450 man-hours were expended, the cops say.
"We took our time, yeah," chuckles Wallace, who admits it was apparent from the get-go that Goertz was not Normel. "We don't think he was," Wallace says. "We never saw him doing that."
Moore remembers following Goertz at a reasonable distance. It's his belief that their target never knew he was being tailed. (Goertz admits as much.) "We were as discreet as possible," Moore says. "We didn't want anybody to know what we were doing."
Officers would watch Goertz leave his house in the middle of the night, drive downtown, and walk around on foot, sometimes with a lookout, sometimes alone.
After a month of surveillance, catching Goertz in the act, often on videotape, the Sheriff's Office had more than two dozen reasons to bust him. Only FOSL and EGO tags that they actually witnessed being made were prosecutable; simply stumbling upon the markings without seeing Goertz doing it wasn't enough.
In the early-morning hours of July 30, as Goertz left his house, the tools of his trade in his truck, police moved in. "He was a little shocked," Moore recalls. "Wanted to know what he was being arrested for. He was totally, totally not ready for it all."
Detective Wallace spent almost five hours questioning Goertz. "He's an interesting cat, that's for sure," he laughs. While he was detained, PBSO served a search warrant on the family residence. His parents "were completely blown out of the water that this was going on," Moore says, describing the couple as "extremely nice, apologetic, and cooperative."
They nabbed Goertz's computer and found hundreds of photos, Moore says, of his graffiti art. "He was really big on that."
In December 2005, Goertz's attorney filed a motion to determine competency, writing that he had "reason to believe defendant may have been incompetent at the time of the offense and incompetent to stand trial."
That didn't fly with Judge Marx, though a psychologist, Thomas Waddell, called Goertz "an odd fellow." He told the court that Goertz suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder and engaged in tagging so he would "no longer [feel] so completely inadequate."
Waddell argued for not sending Goertz to jail. "My lawyer said in court that incarceration would be negative to my development," Goertz says, "terrible for my kind of personality and ego structure."
In a lengthy letter to Marx, Claudia Goertz wrote, "Eric tends to be compulsive about certain things, like washing his hands fifty times a day, or when he decided to watch wrestling day and night. Eric took up break dancing and again it became a priority in his life. Then it was painting with cans."
His dad also wrote a letter. "Eric was always a sensitive child," he told Marx. "My son's outcome is in Yours and God's hands."
His mom's sister, Maria M. Gross of Delray Beach, begged Marx for leniency. "Eric will have to replace his computer, screen, software," she wrote, "all that was confiscated, and, I understand, will never be returned. These were items we all worked hard to get him for Christmases and birthdays."
Her letter succinctly summed up her nephew: "Eric is not a gang member, drug dealer, or university drunkard."
The list of supporters was impressive. It included the community field ops director for the PBSO, Col. Michael Gauger, who praised Goertz's anti-graffiti efforts. In an innovative preemptive strike, Goertz was already working weekends with the graffiti removal squad. Mike Guido wrote a heartfelt letter, mentioning Goertz's role as a groomsman in his wedding early this year.
Only a few letters called for Goertz's head, and most were from individuals unrelated to the case but nonetheless outraged by it. Nina Blakeman of downtown West Palm Beach says she awoke many a morning to find a "bad surprise" on her mailbox, but she admits, "I'm not sure he did this." She wrote to the judge, she says, because she wanted perpetrators to know graffiti isn't a victimless crime. But she concedes now, "It's bad to make an example out of one person, to let him have it for all the others [they] didn't catch."
Goertz received a five-year suspended sentence, but Marx made sure he received enough of a taste of jail to make it a true deterrent: She gave him 156 days in the Palm Beach County Jail the first ten days served as straight time, the remaining 146 days as "short weekends," where he checks in on Saturday morning and out on Sunday night.
His computer was forfeited; he is forbidden to travel within 500 feet of Clematis Street, Flagler Boulevard, or CityPlace; and he's forbidden to possess cans of spray paint.
"She didn't care," Goertz says ruefully. "She gave me the death sentence, pretty much. Threw me to the dogs. She ignored everything the psychologist was saying."
Goertz even entertained grand ideas that he could continue to paint, sell his artwork, and pay restitution that way. "I could do murals!" he yelps. "The same way I got in trouble with art, I could pay it off with art. It was gonna fix everything. But she didn't care."
At the bang of Judge Marx's gavel, it was over. Claudia Goertz sobbed as her son took off his tie, hands trembling in fear. He was fingerprinted, handcuffed, and taken to jail still wearing his suit.
"I saw my life flash before my eyes," he says, voice quivering. "I understand that I was pretty much sacrificed to the media. I'm an exceptional painter, more than Normel, more than any of these idiots. I'm a conceptual artist stuck between people who are totally unprofessional. I didn't go painting sound walls every night, so I don't see why I should have to pay for his bullshit just for a couple of marker tags downtown."
Those first ten days, Goertz says, were miserable. They'd taken his shoes and socks away. "I didn't have my glasses," he adds, "so I had a splitting headache."
In jail, Goertz found that his reputation as "the graffiti kid" didn't carry much clout among murderers and rapists. "I had to sleep and eat with people who aren't going to heaven," he says.
At O'Shea's, Maurice Costigan is pleased with the outcome. "Since they picked him up, the amount of graffiti and vandalism has dropped off, I'm gonna say, 98 percent."
The efforts of the anti-graffiti squad is having a salutary effect as well. Just a few days after Goertz was sentenced, a poster on the bombingscience.com graffiti forum complained, "It seems useless to go bombing. Bombs are only lasting 5 fucking days [because of] the stupid buff truck. Feel sorry for fosl 'cause they're making him buff all that shit."
In the meantime, however, big bombs abound: Anyone driving along the interstate lately is aware GRABR wants you to know he's around.
And as recently as Mother's Day weekend, Normel tags fat, balloon-shaped letters still screamed hello to drivers on I-95.
Despite the seriousness with which Goertz talks about his art career, he found few supporters at the schools he attended. At PBCC, art instructor Alessandra Grant didn't know him but offered to see if anyone did; visual arts professor Vernon Grant didn't return calls. "Unfortunately, I don't remember any students or teachers," Goertz says. "Most people who go there fall through the cracks."
At Dreyfoos, the dean of the art department, Jane Grandusky, declined to write a letter on his behalf. "Mmm-hmm," she says clearing her throat. "That's right."
Asked why not, she pauses. "I told him I thought he was a talented break dancer."
Though Goertz's focus was visual arts, Grandusky says, "He practiced dance a lot, but you have to practice visual arts too. His work was always pretty representational, and if you go for representational work, you have to practice a lot to make something look real. So a student practicing dancing instead of drawing is going to be better at dancing." She inhales sharply, adding, "I don't know what to say." She wouldn't write the letter, she admits, "because I don't feel comfortable talking about the visual side of him."
The strongest supporters of Goertz's art, oddly enough, come from the people who busted him.
"Some of the stuff he does on paper could be considered artistic in nature," Detective Wallace concedes. "He's a talented artist; there's no doubt about that. What he paints on buildings... is not ugly."
Detective Moore is slightly more generous: The art he saw in Goertz's room and on his computer, he says, was of "amazing quality. But he's channeling it in the wrong direction."
State Attorney Johnson sounds like he knows what he's talking about. "When you look at this stuff," he says, "most of it is really garbage. You go to New York and you can see the bombing on some of the buildings and it's illegal and it shouldn't be done but some of that is awe-inspiring."
As for the lightning tags that Goertz and Normel spread around? "This is just bubble letters. I don't want to dis anybody's art, because art is really in the eye of the beholder. But stack him up against some Bronx Bomber?" Johnson scoffs dismissively.
Actually finding large murals or paintings by Eric Goertz is harder than one would imagine. If he did really bust some seriously fresh graffiti art, it's lost now, somewhere on his hard drive in a cinder-block closet at the Sheriff's Office.
MySpace gives Goertz quite a platform, and postings from FOSL and EGO have shown up on Internet sites like Fr8rider, Deepinsidethemind, and Bombing Science. Wikipedia temporarily gave him a more legitimate outlet. In April, someone uploaded an entry on Eric Goertz, calling him "an artist... convicted of art crimes."
The Wiki entry took feeble shots at inaccuracies published in the daily papers.
Within days, however, the page was gone, after users called for its deletion. "A quite non-notable criminal," Sarg wrote. "Vanity," RGTraynor typed. "The article and its fallout represent the creator's sole contribution to Wikipedia. Possibly the judge wouldn't be amused by the degree to which this article implies his lack of genuine remorse."
Was Eric Goertz under the spell of a genuine compulsion? Johnson mentions "an addiction, but not like a substance abuse addiction."
Of course, as far as authorities are concerned, Goertz had already demonstrated an inability to learn from past mistakes. "That's one of the things the judge commented on," Johnson says, "that he was caught a year earlier and didn't learn his lesson. I can't remember the last time there was a repeat tagging recidivist."
For someone like Eric Goertz, going to prison could well be a death sentence, friends say.
"He's so innocent and nonviolent," Guido says. "I have a concealed weapons permit, and I can't even bring myself to tell him because he's so against guns. I box, and I've had him over to the house to spar, and this kid could not defend himself.
"He's a real decent kid," he concludes. "And a very talented kid."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss New Times Broward-Palm Beach's biggest stories.