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A Handy Dandy

Jeff Wright brings out the best in people. The 51-year-old Lake Worth resident calls himself "the most wanted handyman in Palm Beach County." Cops and building inspectors term him a pain in the ass. Back in 1996, the Sun-Sentinel took seriously his claim that he was a Montana Freeman. And county court judge Robert Parker implied a "double Wild Turkey and soda" was needed to understand Wright's legal pleadings.

Wright faces trial soon for at least the fourth time in the past ten years for, well, being a handyman and advertising himself as such. Despite the omnipresence of gypsy South Floridians pounding nails, plumbing, and patching roofs, the practice is illegal, punishable by a $500 fine, says Kurt Eismann, Palm Beach County's contractor certification director. Last year, the county ticketed more than 316 unlicensed workers for the offense and recovered $112,000 for homeowners who said they had been ripped off.

Eismann describes Wright as "unique" and "interesting in terms of his views that he doesn't need a license." Though Eismann acknowledges that, to date, Wright has wriggled out of virtually every charge against him, the director points out there have been complaints about the Wisconsin native's work.

Wright takes no umbrage. He enjoys recalling his numerous busts as well as his two brief stints in jail. ("Great fun," he says. "They refrigerate it.") The first ticket came in 1992, when a Palm Springs lady saw his advertisement, contracted him to paint her house, and then turned him in after learning he was unlicensed. Other similar charges came in 1994, 1995, and 2000. They related to advertising in the Palm Beach Post and a local shopper, as well as doing handiwork without a license.

Then there was the courtroom scene with Judge Parker, part of a dispute over eight traffic tickets, reported in the Sun-Sentinel October 5, 1996. Wright said the citations were issued by ""alien enemy agents' whom he does not recognize as having powers over him," according to the newspaper. Parker asserted Wright's pleadings, which include weird Latin phrases as well as references to the King of England, were similar to those of Palm Beach County Freeman J.D. Self, which required alcohol to understand. Parker sentenced Wright to jail and psychological testing. He was found sane.

Wright blames some of the problems on his customers, ("There are three kinds: those who don't want to pay, those who don't want to pay, and those who don't want to pay") overzealous officers, and bad prosecutors ("They are subjecting me to multiple prosecutions for the same offense, which is indeed double jeopardy"). The traffic stops? No big deal.

This time, Wright says, he may just get a license for contracting work. "I'm tired of it," he says. "I'm not a criminal. I do the work; I get paid. I haven't stolen any money. Otherwise, I'd be in jail."

It seems the wheels of justice have finally ground down Kathleen Ulsrud. Since December 1998, when Broward prosecutors charged her with 47 counts of exploitation, grand theft, and perjury, this former guardian of the elderly has maintained her innocence. No more: In early December, Ulsrud pleaded guilty to all charges.

Perhaps the strangest aspect of Ulsrud's journey from trusted watcher over an aging flock to wolf in the fold, is this: After she had been arrested and charged with lying about her qualifications, taking more than $200,000 from her charges, and other misdeeds, she was allowed to continue dealing with the elderly. As New Times pointed out on October 12, 2000, the fact that she was working as a private-sector, geriatric-care manager rather than as a court-appointed guardian did little to blunt the situation's irony. On October 19 of that year, Margate police arrested Ulsrud for mishandling a client's checkbook. Ulsrud eventually ended up wearing an electronic monitoring bracelet.

In the current case, sentencing is scheduled for January 4.

She never fell asleep, was only occasionally bored, and likely knows more about Broward's top dogs than any living person. After attending some 6800 county commission meetings in 35 years, clerk Dorothy O'Grady leaves her job this week for retirement.

O'Grady recalls when the commission made 28 futile votes on one annexation measure, then reversed itself on the 29th one. She fondly remembers Anne Kolb, the first female commissioner, who was elected in the 1970s and "fought the developers." And she admires the first black comm: Sylvia Poitier, "a good commissioner who unfortunately got caught up in the convention-center stuff." (Poitier was defeated in 1998 after unsubstantiated rumors circulated that she was romantically involved with one of the convention-center hotel's backers.)

Unfortunately for us, O'Grady doesn't have dirt to dish on anyone. "All our commissioners are fair," she says. "Women commissioners are especially fair."

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Chuck Strouse is the former editor in chief of Miami New Times. He has shared two Pulitzer Prizes and won dozens of other awards. He is an honors graduate of Brown University and has worked at newspapers including the Miami Herald and Los Angeles Times.
Contact: Chuck Strouse

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