Weekly Planet (Tampa)

Mandatory Madness

"You know when you have a toothache and the pain is so severe that you absolutely have to be seen immediately by a dentist?" says the man in the wheelchair. "Imagine if you had to grin and bear it for an undetermined period of time. You can't see straight. You think you'll pass out, and sometimes you do. And sometimes you pray you will."

Richard Paey, chronic pain patient, is describing how bad his body can hurt. He suffers from what is often called "failed back syndrome," an inoperable condition that has sentenced him to a life of pain that most of us hopefully will never have to comprehend. This is not his only sentence. On March 5, he was convicted of 15 counts of drug trafficking, obtaining a controlled substance by fraud and possession of a controlled substance, which earned him a mandatory minimum of 25 years in state prison and a $500,000 fine.

This is what Richard Paey did -- or, more accurately, this is what a jury found Richard Paey (pronounced "Pay") guilty of: fraudulently obtaining prescriptions of Percocet (which contains the opiate oxycodone) and Lortab (which contains another opiate, hydrocodone), each of which exceeded 28 grams.

That's the magic number, 28 grams. Illegally possessing this amount gets you 25 years. It's the same mandatory minimum as 28 grams of heroin.

Richard Paey is the latest poster boy for advocates of chronic pain patients, who say that this legion of silent sufferers -- from nine to 17 percent of adult Americans, according to studies -- face an ongoing culture clash with the War on Drugs.

It's a war that pain patients are losing. The system is topsy-turvy, pain activists say, giving medically uneducated law enforcement the power to decide how much medicine someone is allowed to possess. Further, they maintain that many doctors who prescribe opiates remain anxious about that knock on the door from the law, and can thus become extremely conservative when treating chronic pain.

The drug war has turned cops into docs and docs into cops. Physicians constantly screen for "drug seekers" by looking for certain behaviors. They have taken to urine-testing and interrogating folks who are desperately trying to alleviate their pain. Pain patients often get under-prescribed or turned away, leaving many of them in unnecessary agony. "There's so much suffering," Paey says. "They need a war on pain."

Richard Paey knows agony. One afternoon last month, his muffled words echoed through the dank visitors room at the Pasco County jail. He spoke to me through thick glass. His once-athletic body, ravaged by nearly two decades of intractable pain and five years of multiple sclerosis, sat hunched into a crude wheelchair. Oval, wire-rim glasses framed his piercing brown eyes. His black hair, medium-length, was unkempt, and his moustache could have used a trim. His skin had that particular kind of pale hue that comes with extended periods of indoor confinement.

Paey's discourse ranged from pensive musings to indignant rants. His hands shook. While awaiting assignment to a prison, he said, he spent 23 hours a day in a bed in a small room with only jail-approved reading material. He didn't know this during the interview, but the next day he'd be transferred to a transitional facility in Orlando where the Florida Department of Corrections would figure out what to do with this most unusual inmate.

Paey is not doing time for just the opiates. Each of his Percocet pills contained 5 mg of oxycodone and 325 mg of acetaminophen (Tylenol). For sentencing purposes, though, the latter substance was weighed in as well. Eighty-five of his pills weighed 28 grams. If Paey were sentenced for just the oxycodone, he would've needed 5,600 Percocet tabs to earn a quarter-century behind bars. From January to March of '97, he bought 1,200 from area pharmacies.

This inflated numbers game is just one perplexing fact in the strange and scary case of Richard Paey, 45, husband and father of three, convict. Consider also that Pasco sheriff's deputies surveilled him for weeks and never found any evidence that he sold a single pill. Yet the state attorney's office charged him with trafficking -- because it could. In Florida, you can be charged with trafficking certain drugs, oxycodone and hydrocodone included, without actually peddling them. You merely need to possess them illegally.

For its part, the State Attorney's Office in Pasco offered Paey several plea deals -- including, early on, house arrest and probation, then shorter prison terms. For various reasons, each deal went south. Some onlookers have characterized Paey as stubborn, saying that he put one foot in a prison cell by not jumping at the state's plea offers. Paey came close to cutting a deal several times, mostly at the urging of his wife, Linda, and his lawyer, but his heart wasn't in it. Paey has maintained all along that he did nothing criminal, that he was only medicating his own severe pain, which required large doses, and that his scripts -- written, faxed and phoned in by a doctor in New Jersey -- were legitimate.

After one mistrial and another guilty verdict vacated by a judge who said Paey had not been competent to stand trial, he was convicted during a third proceeding. The jury was not permitted to know that Paey was facing a stiff mandatory minimum. One juror held out for acquittal but was eventually swayed toward a guilty vote when the jury foreman convinced him that the defendant would get only probation. The judge had no choice but to issue 25 years.

The Paeys have hired high-powered appellate attorney Eli Stutsman of Oregon, while still retaining their regular local counsel, Robert Attridge. They figure that, even if an appeal is successful, Richard Paey will stay locked up for at least a year and a half. The Paey camp also holds out hope for clemency or a pardon from governor Jeb Bush, whose own daughter has experienced drug problems.

"I don't think the [Florida] Legislature had Richard Paey in mind when they set up these minimum mandatory sentences," says Attridge, "The punishment in this particular case in cruel and unusual."

On Feb. 11, 1985, Richard Paey was driving on Philadelphia's pocked and frantic Schuylkill Expressway, on his way to class at the University of Pennsylvania law school, when he got into a wreck that sandwiched his car between two others. He went to the ER the next day. Directly after the accident, Paey began taking sizeable doses of opiate pain relievers. A few months later, he underwent his first back surgery, but that only offered about a year's worth of limited relief.In 1987, he signed on for another operation. Unbeknownst to him, he received a fusion procedure that included an experimental "pedicle screw" implant that had been turned down for approval by the FDA. The implants became the focus of a high-profile class action lawsuit that was covered by the TV show 20/20 . Linda Paey said her husband never received a settlement because he got involved after a statute of limitations passed.

His back went from bad to worse. He'd get spasms that would hamper his breathing. The pain was always present, often excruciating. But that didn't prevent Paey from carrying on with life. He finished law school, then did a short stint as a law clerk, but had to quit because, among other limitations, he couldn't lift the hefty law books. He never took the bar exam.

Paey learned that further surgery was not an option, that to remove the screws in his back could cause paralysis. He tried to stay game, but eventually reality sunk in. "You had a young, virile guy thinking that all you need to do is have the will and you can make it happen," Linda Paey says. "The pain, you could control that. He was convinced he could mentally muscle his way through this problem and continue to work. Ultimately, he had to face facts that he just wouldn't be able to do it. Those years were hell."

Paey went on Social Security disability in 1989, his career dreams dashed. The Paeys moved to Columbus, a town in central New Jersey. There he found a doctor, a general practitioner named Stephen Nurkiewicz, who prescribed him ample doses of medication, including opiates such as Percocet and Vicodin.

The two became friendly, and Paey did some small-claims legal work for Nurkiewicz's office. In 1994, the Paeys --- now with three small children -- relocated to Hudson in Pasco County because Richard's father was dying of kidney cancer. Linda Paey, an optometrist, found work in New Port Richey. Richard mostly stayed in bed.

The couple looked for doctors to step in for Nurkiewicz, but encountered a lot of resistance. Staff people would tell the couple that the doctor didn't handle chronic pain patients or that the practice didn't treat people with failed back syndrome. Linda Paey feels that physicians avoided Richard because of his large need for prescription pain meds and his involvement in the experimental back surgery, a potential malpractice suit in waiting.

Dr. Nurkiewicz was sympathetic, say the Paeys, and set up a plan where he would mail prescriptions for Percocet, Lortab and Valium. Some of the scripts were undated; others were faxed and then verified with the pharmacy over the phone. The system worked well for a while -- so well in fact that in 1996 Richard Paey started taking police academy classes at Pasco-Hernando Community College. Nurkiewicz wrote a letter to the school outlining Paey's health status.

Since the time of his botched back surgery, Paey also had tried virtually every conceivable treatment besides opiate drugs, including electronic stimulation, biofeedback, spinal injections, chiropractic, massage, physical therapy and hypnosis. None worked nearly as well as the pills.

'Untreated pain, it'll kill ya," says Siobhan Reynolds, founder/director of the Pain Relief Network, based in New York. Increasingly, pain specialists and advocates characterize chronic pain as its own disease. "If it doesn't get resolved, in time it can become its own malignancy," says Dr. Frank Fisher of northern California. "It can spread and metastasize to other parts of the nervous system and ultimately destroy a person's health."Fisher recently was exonerated of running a pill mill in a rural town 150 miles from Sacramento. Authorities alleged that he indiscriminately wrote scripts for OxyContin (uncut oxycodone) that caused several deaths in the area. The five-year ordeal has left his practice moribund, though, and he still faces possible sanctions from the California medical board.

Chronic pain patients not only face discrimination from law enforcement, but also from society at large. Most of us simply do not understand what protracted, severe pain is like. Many sufferers who spend periods of time untreated (or undertreated) will seriously consider or attempt suicide. (Richard Paey tried twice.)

There's also the highly ingrained notion in our society that pain somehow ennobles us. Call it the grin-and-bear-it ethic. According to several historical accounts, it wasn't all that long ago that late-stage cancer patients were denied opiate drugs so they could more closely feel the pain of Christ on the cross.

Advocates of chronic pain patients see all this as a bunch of hooey; they maintain that with today's technology, there is no reason anyone should suffer unnecessarily.

While most pain docs favor an integrated treatment approach, almost all prescribe opiates, and many think these drugs are the single most effective option. The American Medical Association has dubbed opiates "the gold standard" of pain treatments.

Yet law enforcement and prosecutors -- and the public at large -- remain suspicious of them. One teen who dies of an OxyContin overdose can cause a media shit-storm that further demonizes the drugs.

In 1995, oxycodone and other painkillers were incorporated into Florida's drug trafficking laws, and big-ticket sentences followed.

In a phone interview from his Tallahassee office, James McDonough, director of the Florida Office of Drug Control, declined to comment on the Paey case, saying he wasn't familiar enough with it. He did explain that a proportionately high number of oxycodone deaths in recent years have reinforced the notion that the drug should remain in a class that requires stiff jail terms. (Consider this: If someone is convicted of trafficking in 28 grams of cocaine, Florida statutes call for a mandatory minimum sentence of just three years.)

Pain specialists counter that, yes, certain people are going to abuse prescription drugs, but when used properly they are completely safe. In fact, says Dr. Fisher, "Opioids resemble natural endorphins, which is probably our best natural defense against pain. People have opioids in them naturally. But when chronic pain takes hold, people simply need more of them. [Opiate] pain treatment can be envisioned as supplementation with natural substances, replacement therapy, like insulin for diabetes."

Here's another myth-buster: Chronic pain sufferers do not get a buzz from opiates. "I get no euphoria," Richard Paey says. "I get no mental effects, other than fatigue."

While the science is complicated, doctors essentially say that the effects of the opiates are so concentrated on dulling intense pain that they simply do not have the leftover strength to work on pleasure centers.

And further, the most sophisticated opiate medications are time-released to be effective for up to 12 hours. Sure, addicts can crush and snort them to disable the long-acting capabilities, but junkies aren't using them for physical pain.

"It's ridiculous that these drugs are seen as inherently evil," says Reynolds. "They save people's lives and families. That's more important than the fact that people abuse them; it's just that simple."

Pasco County deputy B.J. Wright got bumped up to detective in '96 and quickly took over the pharmacy beat. He encouraged drug store personnel to contact him if people filled what seemed like excessive prescriptions. Soon enough, Richard Paey popped onto his radar. Here was a guy who couldn't possibly be taking such a volume of pills himself; he had to be selling them, Wright figured. Deputies started watching Paey, and eight times caught him on tape filling scripts of opiate medications -- each of which would later weigh out in excess of 28 grams.

Wright contacted Lisa Loos of the Tampa office of the Drug Enforcement Administration. She in turn called Dr. Nurkiewicz in New Jersey to inquire about his large prescriptions issued to Richard Paey in Florida. The doctor initially told her that Paey was his chronic pain patient who needed the meds.

When Wright and Loos visited Nurkiewicz at his office on March 5, 1997, however, the doctor started backpedaling. He asked if he was under investigation, and the cops matter-of-factly said yes. They also casually informed him that the penalty could run as high as 25 years in prison. Nurkiewicz then denied writing prescriptions after 1996, thus helping build a case against Paey for prescription fraud.

"When the DEA got involved, [Nurkiewicz] started throwing Richard Paey to the wolves," Attridge says. "And it was amazing how the investigators bought every word of it."

Wright still suspected Paey of drug dealing. He and other deputies tailed him and staked out his house over the course of several weeks. Their surveillance revealed nothing.

On March 12, 1997, Richard Paey was in the upstairs bathroom of his home. Linda and the kids were downstairs. His mother, who had been babysitting, prepared to leave. Around 7 p.m., a team of deputies burst into the home with black masks and automatic weapons drawn. Flashing a search warrant, the cops found a modest number of pills, a cache of empty pill bottles, and a bank of computer equipment that they would claim enabled Paey to forge scripts. They discovered letterhead from Dr. Nurkiewicz and other stuff that also suggested forgery. They led Richard Paey from his home in handcuffs. After being released from jail the following day, Paey entered an emergency room with symptoms of a bleeding ulcer.

Ironically, it was during this tense time that Richard Paey received his first truly effective treatment for chronic pain. A doctor surgically implanted a morphine pump that establishes a steady blood level of pain reliever. It was the first time his opiates weren't cut with large doses of Acetaminophen. Paey continued to take periodic pills for episodes of "breakthrough pain," but Linda Paey says he hasn't taken oral meds for a couple of years now.

Prosecutors estimated that Richard Paey filled prescriptions for 18,000 pills over a two-year period. Shocking, huh? Paey's accusers assumed that taking that much medicine would cause serious illness or death.Not likely, say pain doctors. If Paey took Percocet as directed for chronic pain -- two every four hours -- it would add up to 8,760 over two years. Add in doses of Lortab and Valium and it's easy to understand how Paey could eat 18,000 pills in two years.

The larger issue, Paey's backers say, is that cops and prosecutors got to decide at all. "We're asking prosecutors instead of doctors," says Dr. Alex DeLuca, a former pain specialist in New York, now a writer and advocate. "Where do they get the answers? 'Sounds like too many pills to me,'" he adds with a laugh.

Says Dr. Fisher of California: "If you use the concept of titration, where the doses are raised to the point that the patient functions optimally, then law enforcement standards can decide it's too much. You have conflicting ideologies, and law enforcement wins because they have the guns."

Such a system can cause a dangerous ripple effect. Some doctors become fearful of scrutiny by authorities, and the potential loss of professional standing and livelihood, as well as the possibility of incarceration. In a scholarly paper DeLuca presented in April, "The War on Drugs, the War on Doctors, and the Pain Crisis in America," he says prosecutions of doctors for drug violations have risen during John Ashcroft's reign as attorney general.

There's even a name for doctor's anxieties over being labeled a drug dealer: "The Chilling Effect." DeLuca defines it as "the withdrawal by physicians from the appropriate treatment of pain resulting from fear of litigation."

Dr. Clifford A. Bernstein, a pain specialist in Beverly Hills, Calif., much prefers other treatments to opiates, but he still prescribes them. He says the way to avoid the Chilling Effect is to "keep good records. There's nothing wrong with people being on narcotics, but you have to assess the patient, warn about the dangers of these drugs and justify their use in your notes."

Apprehensive pain doctors blame the War on Drugs for the current predicament. It's a war that targets not just dealers and dopers, but doctors and their patients too. DeLuca writes: "The root cause of the widespread undertreatment of pain can be traced directly to the systematic, nationally coordinated, relentless harassment, arrest and prosecution of thousands of American physicians, many of whom had been engaged in nothing other than the standard care of pain and addiction of the day."

The big losers in all of this? Chronic pain sufferers.

Take the case of Robert Stevens, one of Dr. Fisher's patients, who has a ruined back. Five years ago, before Fisher was busted, Stevens, who was on Social Security disability for a mental condition, rode a bike several miles a day and enjoyed a decent quality of life. He took a maintenance dose of OxyContin.

With Fisher gone, Stevens immediately reduced his dose to the lowest he could stand. "I figured I needed to wean myself off," he explains. "But I wasn't prepared for the amount of pain I would be in. It was four years since I'd been in that kind of pain."

Stevens soon became bed-bound. "It felt like an abscess tooth for months upon months with no escape," he says by phone, the pain audible in his voice. "I got headaches from gritting my teeth all the time, my legs cramped up. I thought, 'This isn't living; why don't I just stop it?' Fortunately, I had a support system of people telling me to hang on, or I wouldn't be here now."

Stevens finally found a doctor willing to treat him in Fresno. Once a month, he would make the 656-mile round trip to fill his OxyContin script. It was worth it. But then his doctor dropped him, saying he had concerns about the toll the car rides were taking.

Stevens takes methadone now, which he says is about half as effective as OxyContin. He's in bed most of the time. "I've got paperwork to start going to mental health [care] for suicidal thoughts," he says in a monotone. "And depression."

Studies suggest there are a lot of Robert Stevenses in the country. Their supporters offer a simple solution: Let physicians assess pain patients and prescribe them the medication they need. And keep law enforcement out of the doctor's office. "We need to have the remedicalization of the whole arena," says Reynolds of Pain Relief Network. "Move controlled substances from the Justice Department over to the FDA; don't classify them according to superstitious notions; make distinctions between substances based on medical judgments."

Before the first trial in late 2001, Linda begged Richard to accept a period of house arrest, followed by probation. He already was under a sort of house arrest, she argued. Richard finally agreed, but when he got in front of the judge to seal his plea bargain, he balked, then broke down sobbing. The judge canceled the deal.Two arduous trials ensued, each thrown out or overturned. And still the State Attorney's Office in Pasco pursued the drug trafficking charges. The prosecution made more offers, but each required jail time, and Paey passed.

"They should've dropped the trafficking charges," Linda Paey says, her voice rising. "They held this huge hammer over our heads, and then said they were being nice guys by offering plea deals. They should not have charged him with the trafficking statute knowing he was not a trafficker."

But the Paeys overestimated the court's inclination toward mercy. Richard was, in effect, punished in part for not playing by the rules. The Paey camp insisted that the charges be dropped or reduced without concessions from them -- concessions that would essentially admit to a criminal act -- and such obstinacy does not play well to the prosecutorial mindset.

Assistant State Attorney Scott Andringa, the lead prosecutor, explained it this way: "As a trial lawyer, normally you charge the highest crime that you can prove. If it goes to trail, you might as well lean on that. Then there's [the option] to plead the case out. I understand someone wanting to have their day in court ... But they have to accept that with that there's a risk, and in the case of Richard Paey it was a 25-year mandatory minimum, which he knowingly and willingly accepted.

"While I have sympathy for him, the system did what it does. Everyone did their job. ... We made a decision based on laws passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor. We made the right filing decision as evidenced by the jury's verdict. I don't see this as an issue of whether our office did the right thing ... I have no personal or professional regret about what we've done in this case."

When asked if 25 years in state prison was a proper punishment for Richard Paey's crime, Andringa said, "It's not appropriate for me to give my personal opinion [about that]."

Reynolds replied passionately to Andringa's points in an e-mail: "When you take power away from judges, you give it to prosecutors. If they have the power to induce pleas with the threat of draconian sentences, the defense attorneys are reduced to making deals that minimize the damage done to the lives of defendants who, by the way, have at the time of making the deals, been convicted of absolutely nothing. What goes on, therefore, is a systematic denial of due process, a parallel criminal justice system that consists only of targeting and punishment, a parallel system that is essentially operating outside judicial review."

Eli Stutsman, the Paeys' newly acquired appellate attorney, declined to comment on strategies, saying that he hadn't even received the trial transcript yet. But Attridge, who defended Paey at his last trial, said their main thrust for appeal would be "the perjured testimony of the doctor, which was what the verdict was based on. The state should've known it was perjured. He's entitled to a new trial."

Although Richard Paey was not allowed phone calls or visitors during his stay in the transitional facility, he did get a letter to Linda. They'd shorn his hair and put him in the infirmary because of his morphine pump.

He received some disquieting news. Department of Corrections policy is not to refill morphine pumps, although no decision had yet been made on his particular case. Stutsman called the DOC and impressed upon officials the importance of continuing the treatment.

In early June, Paey was moved to his permanent facility, Zephyrhills Correctional Institution in Pasco County. He wrote his wife and said, "I was told they're going to refill my pump." Then, in a letter Linda received on June 7, he wrote, "I haven't heard anything about my [morphine] pump, other than the staff doctors remark that he didn't know how to handle one of them. It's been said, though, that I was sent here primarily because Zephyrhills could take care of the pump."

Meanwhile, Linda Paey, who for so long had fought the good fight, must confront reality. "Now they're processing him to be in prison for 25 years," she says, her voice cracking. "It's more than depressing. It's scary. This wasn't supposed to happen."

Meth Infiltrates Gay Community

The house in central St. Petersburg is tidy, functional and rather nondescript. Nine months ago, however, it was entirely different. There was a full SM dungeon in the guest room, replete with cages and all manner of paraphernalia. Strobe lights flashed, techno music blared and TVs flickered porno images virtually around the clock. Empty syringes, pot pipes and crack pipes littered the furniture. Sex toys were strewn all over. Naked men writhed in drug-fueled sextasy, anywhere, everywhere.

"You'd be just as apt to find a dildo in the dishwasher as a plate," says Lloyd, sipping a cup of hot tea with Splenda at the wooden table in his kitchen. He is nine months into recovery from an extended addiction to crystal methamphetamine. Lloyd is among a growing legion of gay men who are falling under the spell of the stimulant -- known as meth, crystal or, most common in the gay community, "tina."

Tina is attractive because it provides long bursts of energy, a sense of euphoria and well being, and it can make you (along with anyone else who is doing it with you) horny as hell. You have to admit, it sounds like fun.

Tina also has the power, in many cases, to take over lives, to drop its users into a cycle of dependence and depravity, to keep them up for days on end, partying and engaging in extreme, often unprotected, sex -- followed by cruel crashes that can leave them deeply depressed, even suicidal.

As portrayed in the mainstream media, crystal meth is a rural drug, "hillbilly crack," cooked in trailers and geeking up low-class white folk. Drug enforcement officials and addiction experts generally agree that methamphetamine has yet to deeply infiltrate Florida's urban areas. Instead, crack cocaine maintains its stronghold on the street.

But meth is making inroads via subcultures. At the moment, it's the party/sex drug of choice among many gay men in Tampa Bay. Local substance abuse professionals and gay activists are reluctant to label meth's surge in popularity an epidemic, yet they fear it might become one. Their counterparts in South Florida, however, don't blink when calling it an epidemic there. Gays in many other cities, mostly on the East and West coasts, say methamphetamine has devastated large swaths of their communities.

Experts worry that meth use will lead to the increased spread of HIV and other STDs because of its association with high-risk sexual behavior. They also see a potential for it to spread to the broader club scene, and then to the population at large. It's a scary possibility, which the Tampa Bay health-care infrastructure is frankly not prepared to deal with.

Keep reading... Show less

Israeli Spies Exposed

A major international espionage saga is unfolding across the United States. It's been pretty hush-hush so far, largely because the implications could be a major embarrassment for the government. The spy story is even more touchy because it isn't Saddam, Fidel, Osama or even what passes nowadays for the KGB spying on America -- but our "friend" in the war against "evil," Israel.

The basis of the spy allegations is a 60-page document -- a compilation of field reports by Drug Enforcement Administration agents and other U.S. law enforcement officials.

A copy of the report was obtained from intelligence sources with long-term contacts among both Israeli and American agencies. The government has attempted to deflect attention from earlier leaks about the spy scandal. However, while declining to confirm or deny the authenticity of the document, a spokesman for the DEA, William Glaspy, did acknowledge that the agency had received many reports of the nature described in the 60 pages. Jack Wall, DEA's supervisor in Montgomery, AL said the portions of the document pertaining to his office were "definitely" accurate.

DEA agents say that the 60-page document was a draft intended as the base for a 250-page report. The larger report has not been produced because of the volatile nature of suggesting that Israel spies on America's deepest secrets.

Another DEA spokesperson, Rogene Waite, told Associated Press the draft document had been compiled and forwarded to other agencies.

The validity of the scenarios described in the document is attested to in at least one official mention. The Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, in a March 2001 summary, reported on "suspicious visitors to federal facilities" and noted the type of "aggressive" activity recounted in the document.

The nation's most prominent Jewish newspaper, the New York-based Forward, also has confirmed portions of the vast spying network -- although stating that the Israelis were monitoring Arabs in the United States, not trying to access U.S. secrets. Referring to the arrest of five Israeli employees of a New Jersey moving company who were arrested and held for two months after the Sept. 11 attack, Forward on March 15 stated: "According to one former high-ranking American intelligence official, who asked not to be named, the FBI came to the conclusion at the end of its investigation that the five Israelis ... were conducting a Mossad surveillance mission and that their employer, Urban Moving Systems of Weehawken, N.J., served as a front."

Forward also reported that a counterintelligence probe concluded two of the men were operatives of Mossad, Israel's spy service.

Reports of the spying were first made public in December broadcasts by Fox News reporter Carl Cameron. It isn't clear whether he had the 60-page document or was only told its contents. A French online news service has obtained the report, and Le Monde in Paris has advanced the story. However, in the United States, the media ignored the original Fox broadcast, and only a handful of publications have aggressively pursued the story in recent weeks.

The absence of reporting hasn't gone unnoticed. The authoritative British intelligence and military analysis service, Jane's Information Group, on March 13 chided: "It is rather strange that the U.S. media with one notable exception seem to be ignoring what may well prove to be the most explosive story since the 11 September attack, the alleged breakup of a major Israeli espionage operation in the United States which aimed to infiltrate both the Justice and Defense departments and which may also have been tracking al-Qaida terrorists before the aircraft hijackings took place." In flat language and sometimes excruciating bureaucratic detail, the document relates scores of encounters between federal agents and Israelis describing themselves as art students. The implication is that the seemingly innocuous cover was used to gain access to sensitive U.S. offices and military installations. For example, Paragraph 82 of the document states that MacDill Air Force Base intelligence officers were warned in March 2001 of the art students' efforts. A month later, a special alert was issued about a "possible intelligence collection effort" at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City - among other activities, the base houses AWACS surveillance planes and repairs B-1 bombers.

The author of the document is not identified. However, many DEA and other law enforcement agents are named. Three federal employees have confirmed the incidents described in the report. None disputed the authenticity of the report. One senior DEA official, when read paragraphs that mentioned him, said: "Absolutely, that's my report," adding, however, that he didn't think the incidents were sufficient to prove an ongoing spy operation. All of the federal employees said they could not be quoted by name. The specific incidents are richly chronicled, down to names, drivers' license numbers, addresses and phone numbers of the Israelis.

Perhaps most intriguing, the Israelis' military and intelligence specialties are listed: "special forces," "intelligence officer," "demolition/explosive ordnance specialist," "bodyguard to head of Israeli army," "electronic intercept operator" -- even "son of a two-star (Israeli) army general."

"The activities of these Israeli art students raised the suspicion of (the DEA's Office of Security Programs) and other field offices when attempts were made to circumvent the access control systems at DEA offices, and when these individuals began to solicit their paintings at the homes of DEA employees," the document states. "The nature of the individuals' conduct, combined with intelligence information and historical information regarding past incidents (involving Israelis leads the DEA) to believe the incidents may well be an organized intelligence gathering activity."

The document also links the Israelis to possible drug investigations. The report states: "DEA Orlando has developed the first drug nexus to this group. Telephone numbers obtained from an Israeli Art Student encountered at the Orlando (district office) have been linked to several ongoing DEA MDMA (Ecstasy) investigations in Florida, California, Texas, and New York."

Much of the Israeli activity, according to the report, centered on Florida. In addition to attempting to gain access to government installations, the document states that the Israelis approached many intelligence agents, prosecutors and federal marshals at their homes -- including one incident on Davis Islands.

Further research revealed other encounters not included in the 60-page report. For example, a member of Congress from Georgia recounted of being targeted by the art students. A Hillsborough County judge was also approached. Neither the member of Congress nor the judge wanted to be named.

In an era where CNN CEO Walter Issacson says it would be "perverse" to televise Afghan babies killed by U.S. bombs, it's not surprising some stories go unnoticed by a press that embraces "patriotism" by ignoring sacred cows.

One such sacred cow is what's happening in Israel and Palestine. Reporters know that to criticize Israel -- to point out, for example, that wanton killing of innocents is equally devilish, whether committed by Ariel Sharon's soldiers flying U.S.-made helicopters, or by a Hamas suicide bomber who pushes the button -- is to risk being called an anti-Semite. It's a tired canard meant to bludgeon debate into silence, but it's often effective.

Even with that background, however, it's a little hard to understand the media's avoidance of the spy story. In 1999, word began spreading among intelligence agencies about bands of Israeli "students" doing very strange things, such as popping up around federal buildings and military establishments marketing artwork.

According to intelligence sources, low-level alerts began being flashed around to offices of the FBI, DEA, federal prosecutors and others. By March 23, 2001, counterintelligence officials had issued a bulletin to be on the watch for Israelis masquerading as "art students." The alert stated that there was an "ongoing "security threat' in the form of individuals who are purportedly "Israeli National Art Students' that are targeting government offices selling "artwork.'"

At the same time, American intelligence services were increasingly worried by the dominance of many highly sensitive areas of telecommunications by Israeli companies. Comverse Infosys (now called Verint) provides U.S. lawmen with computer equipment for wiretapping. Speculation is that "catch gates" in the system allowed listeners to be listened to. Software made by another Israeli outfit, Amdocs, provided extensive records of virtually all calls placed by the 25 largest U.S. telephone companies. The relationship of those companies to the detained Israelis is detailed in the 60-page document. The DEA's intense interest in the case stems from its 1997 purchase of $25-million in interception equipment from Israeli companies, according to a March 14 report by Intelligence Online, a French Web-based service that first revealed the existence of the 60-page document.

"In assigning so many resources to the inquiry (all DEA offices were asked to contribute)," Intelligence Online stated, "the agency was clearly worried that its own systems might have been compromised." Often the Israeli "students" sold their artwork on street locations near federal buildings. In Tampa on March 1, 2001, a DEA agent heard a knock on his office door. According to the government report: "At the door was a young female who immediately identified herself as an Israeli art student who had beautiful art to sell." Knowing about the security alert, the agent began questioning the "student." After several contradictory statements, the agent concluded "her responses were evasive at best."

A few days earlier, on Feb. 27, law enforcement officials had become suspicious when another Israeli showed up at the Davis Islands home of a U.S. Marshal selling artwork. The reported noted that the Israelis were "persistent in trying to get inside" intelligence agents' homes, often asking to use the telephone.

Altogether, the list of Florida incidents accounts for about eight pages of the 60-page report.

One of the first encounters to raise suspicions was in December 2000 in Atlanta. A DEA agent was approached at his home by two Israelis who wanted to sell him artwork. The agent became suspicious when the "students" wouldn't provide him with contact information -- and his angst was heightened when he later saw the same artwork for sale at the suburban Mall of Georgia.

Many of the apparent operatives had set up shop at addresses only stones' throws from Arabs in San Diego, Little Rock, Irving, Texas, and in South Florida. Also obtained was a watch list of mostly Arabs under scrutiny by the U.S. government. The addresses of many correspond to the specific areas where the Israelis set up operations.

For example, an address for the Sept. 11 hijacking leader, Mohammad Atta, is 3389 Sheridan St. in Hollywood, Fla., only a few blocks and a few hundred feet from the address of some of the Israelis, at 4220 Sheridan.

A dozen Israelis, including the alleged surveillance leader, had been based in Hollywood, Fla., between January and June last year -- quite possibly watching Arabs living nearby who are suspected of providing logistical support to Osama bin Laden's network. Especially in Florida, where 10 of the 19 Sept. 11 terrorists lived, the revelations about the Israeli activities bolster speculation, reported by a Fox news reporter, that the students-cum-spies might have gained advance knowledge of aspects of the Sept. 11 terrorists -- and not passed on that critical intelligence to the United States. Planet sources with Israeli connections suggest that the information might have been relayed to U.S. agencies, but might have been ignored or overlooked.

Despite the highly suspect behavior of the Israelis, the media hadn't picked up on the story.

Then came Sept. 11. While America was mesmerized by the "War on Terrorism," the media went out to a four-martini lunch when it came to skeptical reporting.

With a few commendable exceptions. One of those is Carl Cameron, a gutsy reporter for Fox News. On Dec. 12, Cameron broke the blockbuster spy story. He said at the time: "Since Sept. 11, more than 60 Israelis have been arrested or detained, either under the new PATRIOT anti-terrorism law, or for immigration violations. A handful of active Israeli military were among those detained, according to investigators, who say some of the detainees also failed polygraph questions when asked about alleged surveillance activities against and in the United States."

Fox also reported the Israeli "students" "targeted" U.S. military bases -- which is bolstered by the report.

In the rest of the world -- Europe, Arab countries and Israel, especially -- the story made headlines. Even the official Chinese news agency perked up. Not in our well-defended (against disturbing news) homeland, however.

Cameron, in an interview, said he doesn't believe the conspiracy theories about why the story was ignored here. An honest scribe, he points to a shortcoming in his own work -- one hammered on by Israeli critics at the time -- conceding "there were no (on the record) interviews. I didn't tell other reporters where to find the documents. They couldn't do instant journalism."

Others at Fox confirm there was intense pressure on the network by pro-Israeli lobbying groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League and the misnamed Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting (CAMERA).

"These charges are arrant nonsense unworthy of the usually reliable Fox News," CAMERA huffed in a Dec. 12 release.

Cameron reported Dec. 13 that federal agents were afraid to criticize Israel. "Investigators within the DEA, INS and FBI have all told Fox News that to pursue or even suggest Israeli spying ... is considered career suicide."

Cameron told me in similar language that's what journalists also can face. And, what's clear is that Fox quickly removed the story from its Web site. (It was reposted this month by Fox after other media began showing interest in the story.)

After Cameron's initial reports, the story pretty much evaporated in the United States before Christmas. Then, all hell broke loose in the last few weeks. Intelligence Online in France obtained the same 60-page June 2001 federal report. The French Web site reported that 120 Israelis had by now been detained or deported by U.S. authorities.

Let's repeat that: 120 potential spies. This isn't worth press curiosity?

Few papers have given the story significant space. Many haven't uttered a peep.

Some of what has seeped out is disturbing. The Oklahoman, prompted by the French articles, reported last week that 10 months ago four Israelis peddling artwork (but carrying military IDs) were detained near sensitive Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. Le Monde in Paris recounted that six intercepted "students" had cell phones purchased by an Israeli vice consul in the United States. Sources told me that many of the phones had a walkie-talkie feature that was virtually impossible to intercept.

Bush administration shills were quick to try to spin the story -- perhaps to minimize damage, should it turn out the government did have information in advance about the people or activities that led to the Sept. 11 attack. A Justice Department spokesperson, Susan Dryden, called the spy report an "urban myth," and other federal flacks trumpeted that no Israeli had been charged with or deported for spying. Of course, in the Great Game, "friendly" spies are seldom embarrassed by being called by their true colors.

The Washington Post, which apparently doesn't have the 60-page document, nonetheless reported March 6 that unnamed law enforcement officials had told the paper that a "disgruntled" DEA agent had compiled the report after other federal agencies didn't react to the Israelis' suspicious behavior. The Post, however, also quoted a DEA spokesman who acknowledged that the large number of incident reports had been combined into a draft memo. As with the Planet's inquiry, the DEA spokesman wouldn't confirm for the Post whether the memo was the 60-page document. The validity of the document is attested to in at least one official mention. The Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, in a March 2001 summary, reported on "suspicious visitors to federal facilities," citing the curious behavior of the Israeli art students. Predictably, Israeli Embassy spokesman Mark Reguev derided the Intelligence Online report as "nonsense."

And, pro-Israeli apologists such as anti-Arab ideologue Daniel Pipes quickly took the field with strident polemics. Pipes, who makes no claim of having seen the 60-page document, nonetheless claimed in a March 11 column that the story was a "dangerous falsehood" and that "U.S. journalists found not a shred of evidence to support" it.

The fact that reporters were beginning to piece together real shreds was blithely ignored by Pipes.

Israel in the past has belligerently denied wrongdoing until long after the truth was obvious. Israel claimed Jonathan Pollard -- a super spy who did horrendous, deadly damage to the United States until arrested in 1985 -- wasn't an agent. And, Israel has stubbornly contended its 1967 attack on the USS Liberty, in which 35 American sailors were slaughtered, was an accident -- a lie exposed in recent reports including one last fall on the History Channel. A recent authoritative book, Body of Secrets, by James Bamford, concludes that National Security Agency officials "were virtually unanimous in their belief that the attack was deliberate."

With the purported art students, it's likely that denial will reach screeching levels. The Bush administration would find it difficult to explain why it either ignored or discounted such a large espionage operation.

This article was originally published by the Tampa Bay Weekly Planet. Excerpts from the 60-page field reports document obtained by the Weekly Planet can be viewed at http://www.weeklyplanet.com/2002-03-20/news_feature.html.

John F. Sugg, former editor of the Weekly Planet, is now senior editor of the Planet's sister paper in Atlanta, Creative Loafing. He can be reached at 404-614-1241 or at john.sugg@cln.com.

A Visit to the Town that Banned Satan

Inglis, a little municipality in Florida, has come to be known as "The Town That Banned Satan," thanks to its feisty mayor, Carolyn Risher.

Inglis is one of those forgotten Florida towns. Bypassed by Interstates and turnpikes, it languishes too far from the vine to take advantage of any economic boom. Its economy is inconsequential; its residents are mostly working-class shrimp fishermen, commuters to the nearby power plant, or retirees. Few tourists visit Inglis.

Thus its 1,500 souls hardly merit a pixel on the big screen of Florida politics. Dozens of American flags line both sides of U.S. 19, leading north out of the nearest big town, Crystal River. The flags fade away long before the highway reaches the bridge spanning the ass-end of Florida's most shameful eco-disaster, the Cross-Florida Barge Canal. Inglis starts halfway across the next bridge, in the middle of the Withlacoochee River.

There is a wide spot in the road where Inglis' one traffic light slows down enough cars to keep two gas stations and a citrus stand in business. A left at that light leads to a big, official-looking brown sign of the type identifying state parks and wildlife refuges. Some 40 years ago, says the sign, Elvis Presley made a movie in Inglis. The town's main drag was renamed Follow That Dream Parkway in honor of that event -- the most significant thing to ever happen in Inglis.

That is, until November, when the town's mayor decided to outlaw Satan.

When I turned down Follow That Dream Parkway, I already knew about the town's Elvis connection. I had called the Inglis town hall a few days before my visit to set up a meeting with the Satan-banning mayor, Carolyn Risher. When I explained I wanted to profile the town, Risher had excitedly told me all about Elvis' visit.

My first contact in Inglis, however, was town clerk Sally McCranie. Mayor Risher was busy when I called. "She's being interviewed by television news from New York," McCranie said. She was happy to tell me all about the Satan ban, however.

The mayor and town clerk had attended a Halloween weenie roast at their church, the Yankeetown Church of God. At the party, Pastor Rick Moore brought up the idea of banning Satan from town. "The mayor felt impelled by God," said McCranie, to participate in the ban; the next day, she drafted a proclamation on city letterhead.

The proclamation began, "Be it known from this day forward that Satan, ruler of darkness, giver of evil, destroyer of what is good and just, is not now, nor ever again will be, a part of this town of Inglis. Satan is hereby declared powerless, no longer ruling over, nor influencing, our citizens."

"She felt inspired to put the words on the paper, but God directed it," said McCranie. "She did the proclamation and signed it, and I signed it along with her."

Risher, McCranie, and Moore then performed a ceremony more appropriate to a Voodoo ritual than to an act of government. They made four photocopies of the proclamation, rolled them up and inserted them into holes drilled into the centers of 4-by-4 fence posts. The determined Christian soldiers then marched the posts onward to the main roads through town and planted the posts at the city limits.

"Then we prayed over them," said McCranie. "And that was it."

The action kicked off a media circus unlike anything seen in Inglis since Elvis. Area newspapers carried the story, which was picked up on the wire services and repeated by newspapers, radio and television stations across the country.

The media had been friendly, McCranie said. I wondered what New York news show would take enough interest in the little town to send a correspondent to Florida. "Some daily news show," she said. The interviewer, she said, was "Steve something." She found his card. "Steve Correll -- that's the guy she's talking to now."

Mayor Risher was facing cameras from Comedy Central's The Daily Show and had no clue they were in town to make fun of her.

A few hours after Correll had finished skewering Risher, she verified the story and explained her motive for exiling Satan from Inglis. "Satan is everywhere. We've had ungodly acts in town," said Risher, citing child abuse, drunkenness, and other generally despicable behavior as examples of Satan's busy hand in her small town.

"Kids have even taken hit lists to school," she said. "And we tried holding a teen dance, but we had fights on the very first night." After hearing Moore's plan, Risher said, "I was directed by the Holy Spirit to reclaim our town back for God, so I wrote and signed the proclamation."

She did not consider the political ramifications of the proclamation and didn't approach the town commission beforehand. "When God moves you to do something, you don't question it," she said, "You just don't question God."

A week after our phone conversation, I entered Inglis with some trepidation. I did not get struck by lightning while crossing the city limits; I took that as a good sign. However, controversy had arisen over the proclamation. One commissioner had questioned the mayor's legal right to publish such blatantly religious remarks on behalf of the city, and area newspapers had reported that Inglis resident Polly Bowser had begun threatening ACLU-assisted legal action. A petition calling for Risher's removal from office reputedly circulated among residents.

Ordinarily, mayors issue proclamations designating dates like "Clean Up Your Yard Day" or in formal support of "National Alcoholism Awareness Month." According to Risher, her proclamation was a ceremonial act, and her job includes serving as the ceremonial head of the town.

"I guess the commission could vote on it," she said. However, a proclamation doesn't carry the legislative weight of an ordinance; it doesn't bind Inglis' citizens to any particular rules or regulations. "It's like when we have an election, we do a proclamation, just to say we're holding an election. It just states a fact."

Attorneys had mixed feelings about the proclamation. After she told Inglis' attorney Norm Fugate about it, "he didn't think it was a problem," Risher said.

Seminole County municipal attorney Lonnie N. Groot explained that a proclamation "generally is an expression of intent, desire, or the general view or opinion of a jurisdiction. It's not a binding piece of legislation." However, he added, a town's charter could require proclamations to be adopted by the commission. "If it says that, then you might have an issue."

Prominent Florida civil rights attorney Steven G. Mason took a more critical view. Such an action on the part of the mayor could be a problem, especially if it influenced other local government philosophies and actions.

"It always comes down to definitions," said Mason. "Define Satan. What does that mean? There are any number of things people call Satanic," he pointed out, including a variety protected artistic expressions, along with some new age religions like Wicca. "Does this mean if someone does something the mayor doesn't like, they have to stop?"

Inglis Commissioner Richard Kellman opposed the proclamation, and was annoyed by a local newspaper's soft-pedaling of his opposition. "I don't agree with the opinions and declarations contained in the proclamation," he said. "And I don't agree that it was correct and appropriate for her to do it."

"I do believe that as private citizens officials have the freedom to express their opinions," he added. "But I don't believe it should have been put on town stationery."

I hoped the controversy had not made Risher and her fellow anti-Satanists media shy. I also wondered about the absence of 4-by-4 fence posts at the city limits. The mayor was "out running errands," said McCranie, who met me at town hall. She assured me Risher would return in the afternoon. The posts, she explained, had been "temporarily taken down. DOT made us move them while they mow," she said. "But we'll put them back up."

The media had been generally positive, but she and Risher were dazed by the controversy. "Never in any of our wildest dreams did we think it would make this raging fire," said McCranie. "It created quite a stir, but I think it's a good stir; 99 percent of the calls we've gotten have been positive."

No one seemed to take seriously the threat of impeachment. "There's a petition to have the mayor and myself removed, but I haven't seen any names on it," she said. "Besides, I read the first amendment, and it says nothing about this."

"Anyway, I think it has changed things," she said. "When you take a stand, it will have an effect. It has gotten some people angry, and it sure got Satan upset. But God always wins."

While waiting for Risher to return, I decided to look around town and talk to her pastor. Moore wasn't quite ready to receive visitors but would be in a half-hour or so, McCranie said. I filled the time driving down Follow That Dream Parkway, which cuts through the heart of Inglis, past the police station and town hall, before crossing the line into neighboring Yankeetown.

Outside Yankeetown, the parkway cuts a straight swath through slash pines, then scrub, and then salt marshes before finally terminating at a boat ramp. Beyond the ramp, the salt marshes reluctantly give way to turtle grass as the land slopes gradually into the gulf. The concrete cooling towers of the Crystal River nuclear power plant loom in the distance, a landmark for the retirees motoring by, hunting trout and redfish.

It doesn't take long to explore the town; it takes up only a few square miles. Captain Inglis founded the settlement before the turn of the century, and a few of the older buildings still stand. They are made, Risher later told me, from rocks gathered from the surrounding woods.

However, most of Inglis appears to have sprung up in 1956, the year it incorporated -- and the year Ed Sullivan's cameras chopped Elvis off at the waist, sparing viewers the sight of his gyrating pelvis. It's a pretty town, in a quaint, fish-camp sort of way. Boston Whalers sit in the ubiquitous carports of nearly every Florida cinderblock home on every pine-shaded street. There are a handful of restaurants and bars, two hotels, and numerous bait and tackle shops.

"There are seven or eight churches in this little town," McCranie had told me. "It's always been a Christian-oriented town; people go to church here." And indeed there seems to be a church on every corner, most of them fundamentalist denominations like Pentecostal and Church of God.

Moore's house is only a few blocks from town hall. I had expected a buzzard-like, Bible-thumping old-time-religionist in a threadbare stovepipe suit and scrawny black tie, or perhaps one of the slicker types with a high pompadour, gold Rolex, and baby-soft, manicured hands.

Instead, a burly, bearded Pastor Moore met me at the door, cordially and firmly shook my hand, and apologized for not being able to see me right away. He had been surfing the Net all morning and had not yet gotten dressed when McCranie called to set up the interview, he said. It was hard to imagine the soft-spoken, affable fellow pounding a pulpit.

He seemed pleasantly surprised by my interest in his point of view. "The media doesn't seem to want to hear from the religious side," he said.

The Yankeetown Church of God was built in the 1960s. However, Moore has lived in Inglis for only two years. He grew up near Tampa and spent more than 22 years as a security policeman in the Air Force, followed by six years teaching ROTC in Ocala. "I have a college education, but it's in criminal justice, not theological," he said.

In early 1995, Moore "got a call" to the ministry and, he said, "gave my life over to God." In the Church of God, he explained, when one receives such a call, he talks to the pastor of his own church. "If he shares the opinion that you're called to the ministry, he works with you" through training and study. The clergyman-to-be then goes to the state office of the church for testing and interviews before receiving the first set of credentials. Moore became pastor of the Yankeetown congregation, which includes "56 people last Sunday."

The mayor's proclamation originated, Moore explained, after he read a book titled The God Chasers, which includes stories about gold-rush pastors who, Moore said, would "stake a claim for God" in their wild and woolly frontier towns.

"I felt impelled to do something like that," he continued. "In our country, there are many people who don't know Christ, don't go to church and don't know God. Inglis and Yankeetown are a microcosm of the country," subject to modern problems like drug abuse and families destroyed by alcoholism. "The local drug task force just arrested a man for having a meth lab in Inglis," said Moore.

"Those are the kinds of things we don't want in our community, and we are determined to fight back in the spiritual realm," he said. "And if you believe in the Bible, you believe there's a Satan, and it has been proven that the closer we are to God, the better off we are."

The mayor and commission were doing what they could in the material realm to fight those problems, too, Moore said. "You have to address these things in nature as well as spiritually," he said. "For non- churchgoers to say Biblical principles have no place is wrong, but it would be just as wrong to say that all we need is prayer."

The local controversy surprised him, he said. "We were all surprised because it was just done to create a (more moral) atmosphere," he said. "Someone got a notion that this imposed some religion on them, but there's no ordinance involved; it was just a symbolic action."

"As a Christian, (Risher) knows how to fight evil," Moore said. "But the only people the proclamation really says anything about would be the Satanists -- people who actually worship the devil -- and the mayor has publicly said that everyone, including them, has a right to their religion."

It was lunchtime when I left Moore's house, so I stopped in the busiest business in town, a barbecue joint on the highway. The barbecue was good, and the waitress too busy to talk. The folks at the surrounding tables just shrugged off questions about Risher.

Fortunately, the ol' boys at D&D Bait were a little more forthcoming. The owner, Dan Cummings, explained why not too many people would care to talk about the proclamation.

"When it first came out, there was some discussion in town," he said. "But people in this area are going about their own thing. It's kind of a non-story to us; I think it's a bigger story everywhere else than it is in town."

As to whether Risher was within her rights to issue the proclamation, Cummings said, "I think it's a lot of blowup over nothing. I'm a Christian myself, but I don't really know whether what she did was right or not."

"She's a loony tune," added a store patron, who preferred to be called, "just Joe."

Cummings added that "just Joe" is one of the best local fisherman in the area. "Joe doesn't think she had a right to say (the proclamation)," said Cummings. "But I think the response of the vast majority of people around here is, "Who cares?'"

Back at Town Hall, I almost bumped into a petite, well-dressed woman in her early 60s who swept the floor just inside the doorway. I wiped my feet on the doormat.

"You'd better wipe your feet," said the woman, smiling. "I hate this sand people track in here."

"Mayor Risher?" I asked.

"That's me," said the woman with the broom as she swept me into her office, where a collection of Elvis memorabilia hangs on the wall behind her desk. Elvis and Jesus share the rest of the office wall and shelf space with photos of family and friends. Risher was born a block from the city limits and has lived her entire 61 years in or near Inglis. Except for "a couple of years, when I was Baptist, I've been Church of God all my life," she said. "And I am just as active in church as I am as mayor." Her father was a county commissioner "for many years," she said. "I used to go with him to rallies, handing out cards and asking people to vote for him." After her five kids "were all grown and gone," said Risher, "I decided it was time to do something for my town." She ran twice for commissioner, getting defeated each time. "But I'm a fighter, and the third time I got the highest vote."

She served one term as commissioner, was re-elected and then decided to run for mayor. "I ran unopposed," she said. She continued to run unopposed for each of her five terms in the office because, Risher says, "In my heart I feel people have been very satisfied with how I've handled the position. They see me working every day, and I believe they feel I'm a good, moral person."

As is typical of such tiny towns, Inglis' mayor works hard for very little money. "I make $350 month," she said, chuckling. "I didn't run for the money; I figured out once that for the time I spend, I make about 45 cents an hour."

"I've been on live talk shows with London, England, and Anchorage, Alaska," Risher gushed. "Channel 8 and 13, Tampa radio, and Harper's magazine interviewed me. I've been on the radio in Oklahoma City, Fort Worth, and Detroit, on Fox 35 TV and radio stations in Massachusetts; Austin and San Antonio, Texas; Seattle, Washington. And New York."

I wondered how she felt about her interview with The Daily Show.

"I was a little upset at The Daily Show," she said. Apparently, The Daily Show team let Risher assume it was just another news show from New York, although while the cameras were rolling, someone tipped off her pastor that the "news" show is really satirical.

"They left out the comedy part until we pressured them," said Risher. When the crew asked her to let them film over her shoulder as she read passages from the Bible, she refused. "I looked (Steven Correll) in the eye and said, "Steve, this isn't a comedy. I won't let you mock God and use me as an instrument to lampoon God's word.' That more or less ended the interview."

"I hear after they left here, they had someone dressed up in a Satan costume," she said ruefully. "They were paying people $20 to come up and tell him to leave town."

Risher agreed that most of the media have treated her well, however. "I was a willing vessel," she said. "Any time you tell someone what God has put on your heart to do, it makes you feel good that God gets that recognition."

Some interviewers had even suggested other mayors should take a similar stand, and Risher agrees. "Our currency says "In God we trust'; and our nation was founded on biblical principles," said Risher. "I think we should encourage other legislators to take the nation back for God. I'm asking God for a worldwide revival to bring people together -- to stand as one against the evil that causes all these bad things in the world, to love one another and to raise our kids in a Godly atmosphere."

Some people might question whether it was appropriate for a government leader to focus on Satan as the cause for some of those ills, I said. Perhaps they'd prefer government address issues like economics and education, rather than Satan.

"Everyone knows what Satan's done," Risher responded. "And to me, it doesn't take education or money to know how to treat your fellow man right."

Several weeks after my visit with Risher, the ACLU threatened to file suit in federal court against Inglis. After receiving notice of the pending litigation, the commission held a special meeting. They determined that the proclamation was solely an act of the mayor and not an official action of the commission.

According to Edinger, the commission "avoided the necessity for federal litigation" by voting to adopt a resolution declaring that the proclamation was not an act of government and of no force or effect.

"The rationale behind this was that the mayor has no authority to issue a proclamation without the vote of the City Council," said Edinger. The commission also required Risher to pay back the cost of copying the proclamation and to move the proclamation-bearing 4-by-4s to private property.

Inglis commissioner Gary Mosher commented that he "personally didn't have any problem with (the proclamation). I think it came out of inspiration, and it was in a positive direction." However, he explained, "Everything has to be approved by the commission. The commission pretty much runs the town, so until the ordinance is changed, the commission has to approve pretty much everything."

Risher took the commission's action as a light slap of the hand. "I will die stating that I did the right thing," she said. "They haven't convinced me that I have done anything wrong." Nor, she said, have they "impressed or convinced me that there's a separation of church and state."

Whether the controversy might affect Risher's chances for running unopposed when her next bid for re-election arrives remains to be seen. "I think they're content with what I've been doing," she added. "If not, there would be someone else running for this seat."

"Maybe next time there will be an opponent," Risher mused. "But I welcome a challenge. I'm a fighter; they won't bother me at all."

Risher believes the support she has received from the media and public provides evidence that she has done no wrong. When the commission met to decide otherwise, "The town hall overflowed with people that came to support me," she said. "There were cameras all over the place. CNN was here live the next morning, and people have called from all over the world; they thought it was awesome."

Risher claims that her callers have included community leaders who plan to take a similar stand against Satan. She happily advises those who want to "get on the bandwagon" to "pray first," and "if God tells you to do it, you should do it."

"My goal is to keep the flame burning," she added. "I expect there to be more battles," said Risher. "But God can give us the strength and power to deal with the opposition."

Not all of Florida's community leaders are as supportive as Risher believes. Mark Shuttleworth is the mayor of Lake Helen, a small Florida town with a commission the size of Inglis' and a population slightly more diverse. Churches, some dating before 1900, stand prominently on its tree-shaded corners.

Asked if he would consider hopping onto Risher's bandwagon, Shuttleworth answered flatly, "No."

"Every elected official has their own source of spiritual inspiration, but to use the government to impose that on a group of people is wrong," Shuttleworth explained. "Government should be careful to consider the feelings of individuals of all religions -- or non- religions, for that matter.

"We're supposed to consider all the people we represent and be considerate of their point of view," he added. "That's really what America is about."

However, he said, other government leaders might not hold that fundamental principal sacred. On a recent trip to Tallahassee, Shuttleworth heard Florida legislators "pushing something of the same kind of thing, the idea that every school should have to display a big plaque (on its campus) that will say "In God We Trust.'"

"I think that's a little more inclusive," he said, "but it still pushes the line a little bit. I think that's about as far as government could go before it steps on the toes of those with other viewpoints."

In our conversation, Pastor Moore brought up an interesting point: "After Sept. 11, the mayor organized prayer vigils and a candlelight service at Town Hall," he said. "Over 500 people came to that, and they all sang church songs as well as patriotic songs. The whole community was patting her on the back for that. But how is that different from this proclamation?"

I pointed out to Moore that the proclamation contains some pretty strong language; it mentions "citizens cleansed by the Blood of the Lamb" exercising their "authority over the devil in Jesus' name" to command "satanic and demonic forces" to leave town. Perhaps, I suggested, it's relatively easy to sing God Bless America and talk about evil in Afghanistan and in New York, but it's harder to take when evil is so righteously pointed out in your own back yard.

"That's exactly right," said Moore. "And that's what I call paying lip service to God."

One might admire Risher's faith. One can hardly find fault with her concern for the welfare of Inglis' citizens, or even her resolve to fight evil in "the spiritual realm." However, Risher has ignored one of the most basic tenets of American governance, that imperative to protect the rights and beliefs of individuals, regardless of their religious beliefs or disbelief. Some Americans might call that "paying lip service" to the Constitution.

When Morris Sullivan isn't holy rolling his way through small towns, he's a freelancer who lives in DeLand, Fla.

The New Meanies

A husband and wife are out for an after-dinner walk in their neighborhood. It's a little late -- about 10 p.m. on a Friday night. A car pulls up. Just a couple of guys asking for directions. They look college-age, harmless enough save for the plastic cup of beer the passenger is holding.

As the husband steps near and starts pointing them the right way, the passenger flings the cup at them.

Turns out it wasn't beer in that cup. It was urine.

The couple did what any of us might do if we were the victims of a drive-by pissing: The husband stood there dumbfounded and the wife screamed obscenities. She gave chase, trying to get the license plate. They then called the police, who were sympathetic and angry, but because she'd gotten only a partial license plate number, the police couldn't do more than keep their eyes open for a car matching the description they'd been given.

"It might have been a fraternity prank," says the woman, who understandably prefers not to be identified. "They looked about that age." Recalling the incident months later, she still gets rattled.

"It's sick. It's totally sick."

These kinds of jokes aren't funny to anyone but to the perpetrators. What's with all the meanness out there? Cruel, aggressive, hostile behavior has long existed, but probably not since Roman times has it been so prevalent, not as a means to an end, as in -- I don't know, war, maybe? -- but as an end in itself.

The economy is healthy, unemployment is low, we survived the dreaded Y2K Bug, and still our entertainment is dark, our kicks low and rude. It's like the higher our species goes up the technology ladder, the lower our threshold for entertainment. We asked a few pundits why.

There is ample evidence pointing to our collective penchant for cruel, curt, catty, cretinous, crusty, cranky, curmudgeonly, unconscionable and generally crappy behavior, and few clear explanations as to why it exists.

Some experts believe our collective hostility, aggression and increasing depersonalization might stem from environment, an inability to connect with other people, feelings of being trapped, lofty testosterone levels (hello, boys), socialization, poor mental circuitry, brain injuries, and the GOP favorite, family values -- or the decline thereof.

Take your pick. Much has been made in recent years of the decline of civility. Peel back civility, and you have a pretty good view of our dark, collective mean streak. It's there, heaving and sucking wind, black as a coal miner's lungs.

This darkness is reflected in all aspects of media, particularly television -- comedy shows like South Park, where the character Kenny dies each episode and returns each week, a cartoon thumbing his nose at those old critics of Roadrunner cartoons. Then there's The Tom Green Show, game shows like MTV's The Blame Game, "reality-based" shows like COPS. Then there's Jerry Springer, who not only belongs in a class by himself, but should probably be expelled. In radio, Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh are still going strong. And in pro sports, athletes fight, talk trash, spit on fans.

And it seems like all the time our threshold is reaching new highs. Commercials for the movie Gossip tell us, "You know you love it." 7-Up has turned the phrase "up yours" into a clever marketing campaign: "Make 7-Up Yours." On MTV's The Blame Game, couples attack each other for their annoying little idiosyncrasies, like drooling in their sleep, while a peanut gallery whoops and hollers. A recent Adidas commercial features Los Angeles Lakers' guard Kobe Bryant, repeatedly whacking back the shots of a boastful kid half his size. And it's funny. It's entertaining. It's marketing.

It's just that there's something a little bit mean about it, too.

Mean-streak entertainment has become our spectator sport supreme, our equivalent of Roman gladiators killing each other for entertainment. Some psychologists believe that, whether on TV or in real life, seeing the other guy get pounded, dissed, ridiculed, dumped, you name it, appeals to something primal in us.

We find the suffering of others comforting, says psychologist Robert R. Butterworth.

"There's a thing called Zeitgeist," says Butterworth. "It's the way things are." (Literally, it's a German word that means 'time ghost.' The spirit of our times.)

"There's something in our society, what happens when being mean and nasty is cool, that's a problem. So if it's cool to be mean and nasty, we're gonna see more of it."

"We have to remember," says Butterworth, "In the old days we lived in a society where people kept track of one another, so if you had a kid who flipped you off, and you lived in the neighborhood, you could knock on the door, and say the kid flipped you off, and Mom would smack him one. Try doing that now; Mom's not going to smack them because he'd be taken away. You're not going to knock on somebody's door because people don't do that anymore.

"We're all fragmented. ... when we're not all linked together, there's no social consequences."

Kids don't have to be cruel to be cool, but it helps. A recent pair of studies cited in The New York Times found that, along with the athletic, well-dressed, intelligent and gregarious, cruel kids were often the most popular. Mean and athletic boys fared particularly well.

Psychologist M. J. Hurd credits a lot of the free-floating negativity in our culture to cynicism. Meanness, he says, is a lot like cynicism. "Today's culture is one of disillusioned idealism," he says. "People have given up on idealism, and so as a result, don't expect much from others -- including the others in their entertainment."

There is a yearning, he says, for heroes, romance and drama, as evidenced by COPS and the tremendous popularity of ... Titanic. Yes, James Cameron's turgid opera above (and below) the Atlantic.

"Titanic, while not a perfect movie by any means, did have elements and remnants of the old romanticism; and look how spectacularly popular it was. People yearn and crave it like you wouldn't believe. Only most do not fully realize that this is what they want, and as a consequence don't demand it. The recent movie October Sky comes to mind as a beautifully done, heroic story, completely out of place in today's America."

Hurd, the author of several books including the forthcoming Grow Up America! doesn't see the lack of viable heroes as the only reason for our mean streak. Some credit goes to political correctness.

"It's a general sense in our culture that we can't and shouldn't make judgments -- not merely that we shouldn't be irrational or prejudiced, but that we shouldn't make judgments at all. This, of course, is impossible. We all judge. We all need to judge in order to survive -- to judge what career you should have, to judge what kind of people it's good to have in your life and it's not good to have in your life, and so forth.

"This sense that we shouldn't judge -- even though we need to judge and, deep down, want to judge -- creates a cultural climate of hypocrisy. In this social context, people like Howard Stern can become appealing. Howard Stern is one of those people who says, in effect: 'So you say we shouldn't judge? Just watch me!'

"Howard Stern becomes the escape hatch. It's like the person who retreats into sexual pornography when he's been sexually repressed for too long."

Meanness is a manifestation of our collective cynicism, says Hurd. "Meanness increasingly appeals to people simply because they've been led to feel that they must be nice no matter what the circumstances and what the price. If people felt more like they could be honest, though still rational and benevolent, in their judgments -- then you wouldn't see such a widespread appeal for meanness."

Like Hurd, Butterworth believes the hostility and aggression in our culture may be a result of political correctness.

"On the one hand you're saying that people are meaner, but on the other hand, people are still afraid to be mean, says Butterworth. "By that I mean ... being politically correct. Your behavior has to be so confined, and you have to be paranoid about saying anything, that it has to come out somewhere. It's like when you squeeze the tube of toothpaste, if it doesn't come out the front, it'll come out the side. And I think that's one of the reasons Howard Stern and Jerry Springer do so well: because they're opposite this sort of political correctness."

You can't talk about mean streak entertainment without talking about schadenfreude. It's an inescapable German word meaning, as Dennis Miller put it in The Rants, his 1996 compilation of monologues from his HBO show: "The malicious enjoyment of another's misfortune" (adding, "Leave it to our Teutonic friends the Germans to concoct an intricate glossary of pain terminology.")

Schadenfreude certainly explains the popularity of The Three Stooges. But it is also what allows us to watch COPS and other reality-based programming, from The Real World and its annual cast of back-stabbing, irrational idiots, to shows like Who Wants to Marry a Rich Potential Wife Beater. Schadenfreude is what makes us laugh like hell -- admit it -- at America's Funniest Home Videos, where the more pain inflicted, the better. Or when we read about the goings-on in rural America in the Enquirer or watch people air their foul laundry on Jerry Springer.

And who can forget the phrase heard 'round the land a few years ago: "I've fallen and I can't get up." Were we were making fun of the poor acting and cheap production values of the commercial, or the fact that an old lady had fallen and potentially broken a hip?

Closer to real life, in professional sports, don't you just love it when someone on the team you loathe fails to score, fouls out, maybe even sprains an ankle?

Or when you see Tom Green, on one of MTV's most popular shows, haranguing oblivious strangers by trying to sell them pizzas they don't want or trying to get them to take a bite of a sandwich made from his chest hair. Or when he brings bagpipe players into his parents' bedroom for a pre-dawn concert.

That's schadenfreude.

To better understand schadenfreude, we must look to another 50-cent word: catharsis. (Yeah, shrinks are smart -- that's why they get paid the big bucks.)

Catharsis is defined as "a technique used to relieve tension and anxiety by bringing repressed material to consciousness." it is also, says Butterworth, what makes us feel better about ourselves.

"When we see things happen out there, we feel better inside. I'll be doing a thing for E! on car crashes. I mean, people go and watch these car crashes happen, like in a stadium. There are shows that show this stuff. Because in a sense, when we see other people getting it, it relieves our own stress. We can sit there and yell and scream at sporting activities as well."

The gladiator games aren't the sole domain of celebrities. Gossip, pranks, office politics, ridiculing others and generally instigating trouble -- we're all guilty.

And if you've ever been the brunt of a practical joke or innocent prank, you know there is practically nothing innocent about "innocent pranks."

Dania and Bryan met two years ago. Dania had recently moved in with him, but his company sent him to Atlanta, so they now see each other only on weekends, leaving plenty of time for mischief in the interim.

Says Dania: "I wake up Saturday morning, April first, hung over, and the first thing I do is call my boyfriend to say good morning; forgetting the date. We hardly say hello and with this serious low tone he says, 'Dania ... there's something I have to tell you.' Of course I get defensive right away and say, 'What?' I knew something was coming that I wasn't going to like. I've expressed to him a couple times how I feel about men who cheat. I have told him that if he is ever unhappy or unsatisfied, to let me know so we can work on it or call it quits. But ... don't ever cheat on me. If you do, at least have the respect to tell me so I can make my own choice to stay or leave.

"He then says, 'Well ... last night while I was out with the guys, I ran into this girl I used to date ... and we kind of hooked up. I said, 'What do you mean you kind of hooked up?'

"He said, 'What ... do you want details?" Of course by then my eyes are tearing up, and I get choked up as I try to ask, 'Did you fuck her Bryan?!'

"He says, 'Dania ...'

"I asked again, "Did you fuck her Bryan!?'

"Once I heard that 'yes,' all he was going to hear was a dial tone. He couldn't even sit there for a second to milk this anymore and began cracking up and said, "April Fool's!"

"There will be payback ... one way or another, sooner or later, but I will get revenge! That was sooo not funny!

"He could have come up with something else," she says. "It may not have been as good but this was just plain cruel!"

Of course, Dania (pronounced Don-you) has cooked up something even worse for him. She has a friend who is five months pregnant. Dania says she will wait about a month, "then buy the old faithful E.P.T. pregnancy test and have her tinkle on it for me. I'll plan this for a weekend he's coming home, have the box on the counter and all. I'll have those tears rollin' off my face and milk this for at least 30 minutes. Make him go through the conversation about what we're going to do. Just to make it worse on him, I'll disagree with whatever he wants to do, which I'm sure will be termination.

"Once I feel he's suffered enough, then and only then, will I bust out laughing my ass off, like he did, and spill the beans."

It must be love. Or schadenfreude.