In the quarter-century he has owned his ramshackle bar, John Susor has had his share of squabbles with authorities.
One of his dogs, Bonga-Bonga, was put to death because it bit so many people. Another one, Bummer, had a habit of scratching at neighbors’ doors for food. The problems continue with June, whose wandering ways have led to more citations for her master.
Then there was the time Susor was fined $850 for the way he collected contributions during one of his dark horse campaigns for mayor. Supporters dropped bills into a jar on his plywood bar, and Susor couldn’t provide elections officials with an accounting of who gave what.
Even his wizened mug – with his white beard he looks a bit like Ernest Hemingway – has landed him in legal trouble.
Years ago, Susor created a “Sloppy John” logo for his Gulf Boulevard bar, with a picture of himself and a reference to his slovenly ways. But the owners of Sloppy Joe’s Bar on Key West, the watering hole where the real Hemingway once imbibed, called it trademark infringement.
Whenever anyone hears of such legal scuffles in this narrow beach town, they usually chalk it up to Susor’s irascible, irreverent nature. An infantryman during World War II and one-time bookie, Susor has no qualms about whom he takes on – in his bar or in court.
But early one evening in January last year, a chain of events began to unfold that brought Susor’s confrontations with authority to a fever pitch.
It began with another petty incident: a report to police that Susor intentionally had scraped a mini-van. But then it mushroomed. Susor, then 77, got into a scuffle with two police officers looking into the matter. He ended up, he says, with a cut forehead, damaged intestines and short-term memory loss.
Months later, after he threatened to sue for excessive force, the bar owner became the focus of a second police investigation, this one involving a contention he maliciously destroyed stereo equipment in a car outside the bar.
Susor’s attorney, Douglas de Vlaming, says both cases are weak, and he questions the Indian Shores Police Department’s motive for filing them. De Vlaming wonders if the department’s aim is really to prosecute a felony or to force Susor out of business.
“It’s sloppy police work at best and it’s a conspiracy at worst,” de Vlaming said.
Police Chief Earl D. Williams bristles at the insinuations. He stands behind the actions of his officers. As for any conspiracy, Williams said: “Either prove it or get the hell off my back.”
The underlying problem in this most recent standoff is a situation typical of Gulf Boulevard, a crowded stretch of high-rise condominiums and sabal palms where owners of small businesses such as Susor’s vie for precious tourist dollars.
The problem? A dispute about five parking spaces.
Susor’s bar, Mahuffer’s,is “The Wurst Place on the Beach,” or so says a sign out front. “Warm beer, lousy food,” the sign further boasts.
Inside, shrimp nets and crab-trap buoys hang low from the ceiling. The main support for the bar itself is the stern of a salvaged boat. For patrons in need of more privacy, there’s a table in a corner made from an old surfboard.
The bottom half of a naked female mannequin juts out from another of the wrecked sea vessels Susor has transformed into a novelty. The bar owner, who lives on the premises, points with pride to a wood carving of the Grim Reaper which he maintains was sent to him by a former customer now on death row.
June, the mixed-breed dog, lies lazily on the floor. Four cats hide somewhere in the labyrinth of nets and buoys overhead. Parakeets chase each other in a makeshift aviary at the entranceway. The juke box blares Garth Brooks’ hit, “Friends in Low Places.”
A cloud of secondary cigarette smoke hovers over the pool table, and friends and patrons come and go.
It’s just noon.
Right next-door to Mahuffer’s is Il Lido Italian Grille, a restaurant catering to the “upper crust,” in the words of owner Alfred “Alfredo” Conversi.
While Mahuffer’s menu offers a road-kill pelican sandwich, Il Lido’s signatures include cernie brodetto – grouper bathed in a light tomato sauce, smothered with five types of mussels.
While Mahuffer’s jokingly boasts of warm beer, Il Lido offers $50 bottles of imported wine with names like Marchese Antinori and Brunello Costello Banfi.
At Mahuffer’s, an old friend of Susor’s nicknamed “Tumbleweed Ted” may be helping out at the bar when he isn’t strumming his guitar. At Il Lido, waiters in black vests and bow ties scurry about.
For every initialed bra adorning Mahuffer’s, there’s a painting of Pompeii at Il Lido. For every X-rated crossword puzzle, there’s a color photograph of the Vatican.
In short, the two businesses couldn’t be further apart in price or pretentiousness.
What they have in common is a need for parking.
Both Susor and Conversi have laid claim to five parking places directly in front of Il Lido. Conversi, who has only 10 other spaces, said he badly needs the five. Susor said he has just as much right to them because they are in the state road’s right-of-way and therefore belong to everyone.
A portrait of that contest emerges from swelling court files that have grown as Susor continues to battle the criminal charges against him. He refuses to plead guilty to any of them.
The parking fight began virtually at the moment when Conversi opened Il Lido in 1996. Conversi’s people would suggest to Mahuffer’s customers that they use Susor’s lot out back. Susor didn’t like that a bit.
At one point, Susor defiantly parked five junk vehicles – salvaged or bought cheap like everything else at Mahuffer’s – in the spaces. While there, Susor contends, their tires were slashed, their taillight wires cut, and someone threw acid and cat litter on them.
But it was an accusation by Conversi concerning a car he was driving that brought the clash to another level.
On Jan. 25 of last year, Conversi drove to the restaurant in a mini-van he was loaned while his mechanic put a new engine in his 1985 Cadillac. He told de Vlaming during a deposition that he went into the restaurant, but came back outside to retrieve the briefcase he had forgotten.
Conversi said he saw Susor walk alongside the Astro van with his hand up, but didn’t actually see Susor drag a key on the vehicle. Then, Conversi said, he saw the long scrape, with thin strips of white paint left hanging. He called the cops.
A short time later, Sgt. Leo Yates and Officer George Ruppert showed up. According to court records, here’s what happened:
Yates went to Mahuffer’s but was told Susor was on the telephone, so he left a note. Outside, Yates noticed that a camper trailer at Mahuffer’s was parked on public property, and he spoke to its owner, Theodore “Tumbleweed Ted” Gauthier, about moving it.
Yates was talking with Gauthier when Susor came out shouting profanities, the note balled up in his fist. He suggested a part of the anatomy where Yates could put the note.
“One at a time,” Yates said, indicating he was busy with Gauthier.
Susor threw the piece of paper at Yates’ face.
Yates grabbed Susor and told him he was under arrest. Susor tried to get away, flailing his arms to pull himself free from Yates. The sergeant grabbed one of the bar owner’s hands and put a handcuff on it, while Ruppert joined in.
Susor ducked down toward Ruppert’s right side, and, according to Ruppert, tried to grab the patrolman’s 16-shot automatic pistol. Ruppert, who is 6 feet 5 inches tall and weighs 215 pounds, lifted Susor up by his neck and the two officers put him over the side of a Jeep, handcuffing him.
In a cell at the police station, Susor vomited on himself. He complained of pains in his neck, arm and chest, and eventually received stitches for a cut. Somehow, his hearing aids were lost at the station.
De Vlaming, his attorney, said it was unlikely Susor could unsnap Ruppert’s holster from his bent-over position, as Ruppert asserted. The Pinellas-Pasco state attorney eventually dropped all charges related to accusations regarding the firearm.
But Susor still faces charges of battery on a law enforcement officer and criminal mischief, and is scheduled for trial on May 5.
Three months after the scuffle, Susor filed a notice saying he planned to file a lawsuit, and he recently said he’ll seek reimbursement for some $100,000 in medical and legal bills.
Within a few weeks of the April 22 notice, Susor became the focus of another claim of vandalism that not only turned out to be bogus, but smacks of a setup, said de Vlaming.
The matter revolved around a broken-down car parked outside Mahuffer’s bar. This time, Susor got embroiled in a shouting match with a couple of teenagers.
While one teen walked to his sister’s nearby condominium, the other remained with Susor. He later told police that Susor, who wanted the car moved, took some boxed stereo equipment from inside the vehicle, threw it on the road, kicked it, picked it up, and threw it back into the car.
But when the damaged speakers and amplifiers were brought to a Pinellas Park car stereo shop, the boxes containing the equipment didn’t look as if they had been thrown around, a shop employee told de Vlaming in a deposition.
And, the shop employee said, one of the teens asked him to draw up a fictitious receipt for $2,310.98, to show what it would cost to replace the damaged equipment. The shop employee also acknowledged drawing up a fake UPS shipping statement, as if some of the equipment were sent under warranty to Stillwater, Okla.
The Pinellas-Pasco state attorney has dropped the charge police filed against Susor, and instead is pursing a case against the shop employee and one of the teenagers.
Chief Williams denies the department pursued a shoddy claim against Susor to win a felony conviction against him, which would cost Mahuffer’s its liquor license.
Equally preposterous, Williams said, is the theory that officers conspired to bring a charge to weaken Susor’s case against them in his threatened lawsuit. While Susor and his de Vlaming hint at a conspiracy, Williams speaks of doing his best to work with Susor.
“I always tried to keep him out of trouble because he’s constantly doing things that come to police attention,” Williams said. For instance, Susor has been given leeway to renew his license tags, or move his vehicles.
Asked why any force would be used against a 77-year-old man, Williams emphasized Susor has a history of violence. He has wielded baseball bats and ax handles at patrons and neighbors. And, Williams said, he used to brag about how he would cold-cock ne’er-do-wells after walking them outside his establishment.
One of the officers involved, Ruppert, was hired by Williams after he was fired from the Clearwater Police Department for pummeling a man in a hospital bed. De Vlaming said that could be important in the upcoming lawsuit. Said Williams: “The popular defense now is to do everything possible to make police look stupid and incompetent. Concentrate on that and don’t concentrate on the merits of the case.
“We haven’t done anything wrong in any of these cases,” he continued. “If I were conspiring against John Susor, he would be spending life in a Florida state prison.”