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Arrest Turns Meter-Feeding Grandma Into Folk Hero

Celebrity: Song pops up on Cincinnati radio about Sylvia Stayton's act of kindness and brush with the law. Prosecutor says case against 62-year-old will proceed.

November 10, 1996|PETER CARLSOM | WASHINGTON POST

CINCINNATI — They're selling T-shirts with the meter-feeding granny on them, they're singing songs about her.

The T-shirts show her behind bars made of parking meters and say, "Sylvia Stayton . . . guilty of kindness."

The song, played on radio station WLW and sung to the tune of the old Marty Robbins classic, "El Paso," goes like this:

The grandma was adding more time on the meter,

The policeman said, "Lady, you're breaking the law!"

But Sylvia ignored him and dropped in a quarter.

Down went his hand for the cuffs that he wore.

Stayton, 62, has become a full-blown folk hero here--the little old lady who fed two hungry parking meters to save a couple of strangers from getting tickets. It was an act of kindness that landed her in a dingy jail cell without her bra, a kindness that inspired the Cincinnati Post to observe that "no good deed goes unpunished."

"I have a hard time believing that there are criminal charges," Stayton said, sitting in her lawyer's office. "I don't feel like a criminal."

She didn't look like a criminal, either. With carefully styled brown hair and wearing a conservative gray turtleneck and a necklace with a cross on it, she looked more like a mother of four and grandmother of 10, which is what she was before all the hoopla started.

That was about 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 24 when Stayton was walking down Cincinnati's Vine Street, heading for a photocopy store. She needed duplicates of the legal papers she hoped would postpone foreclosure on the house that she and her husband, Norris, 70, have lived in for 32 years, a home they mortgaged to fund his pressure-cleaning business, which had fallen on hard times.

Outside Kinko's Copies, she noticed Officer Edward Johnson writing a parking ticket. She asked if he'd written the license number on the ticket yet. Johnson said he hadn't, so she put a nickel in the meter. Then she noticed that the meter next to it had also expired. She put a dime in that one.

"My thought was, 'Maybe I can keep somebody from getting a parking ticket,' " she said. "I hope somebody would do that for me."

Johnson told her it was against the law to put money in expired meters--something that's true in many cities.

Johnson asked her for her ID. She refused to show him one. She didn't think she had to. He told her she was under arrest. She thought he was kidding and started to walk away.

"I wasn't walking away to be a smart-aleck," she said. "I thought he was being humorous."

He wasn't. He grabbed her, twisted her arms behind her back and handcuffed her. She screamed. Not only did her arm hurt, but she didn't want to drop the papers that might save her house. She asked a passerby to get her husband, waiting for her in a car around the corner. When he learned she was being arrested for putting money in a parking meter, Norris Stayton was dumbfounded. "I was under the impression that's what they're for," he said.

Johnson booked her for disorderly conduct and "obstructing official business." On an arrest form, he wrote, "Sylvia Stayton actions prevented A/O [arresting officer] from writing two parking meters which were expired. Hampered investigation." On another form, he accused her of "turbulent behavior . . . screaming and yelling."

Now an accused criminal, Stayton was searched by a female guard who did not have a gentle touch. "She squeezed my breasts," Stayton said, "and she said, 'Wire bra, that'll have to come off.' " So Stayton removed her brassiere and placed it in an envelope with her rings and her cross. The cops took a mug shot of her and let her make a phone call. She reached her husband and her daughter, who started calling local TV stations.

After a couple of hours in the pokey, Stayton was released on $1,900 bond. She walked out of jail and into the glare of a TV camera. She did a short interview and then her husband took her to a hospital to get treatment for her right forearm, which had a big purple bruise. She was still there when the TV news came on; the folks in the emergency room gave her a standing ovation.

Newspapers nationwide printed a brief Associated Press account and BBC radio called for an interview. Her celebrity got her as far as "The Late Late Show with Tom Snyder."

Despite the barrage of criticism that ensued, city prosecutor Terry Cosgrove plans to proceed. "We'll treat it like any other case," he said. "We're not dropping the case because the lady's a grandmother."

Officer Johnson has thus far declined to comment. But out on Vine Street, Verlinda Wise, a 42-year-old meter maid, is happy to present the cops' side of the story. "When a police officer asks you something," she said, "you're supposed to respond. She walked away. She disrespected the officer. That's what nobody talks about."

"We will take this case as far as it needs to go," said David Scacchetti, who is Stayton's attorney.

The process will continue Wednesday, when the criminal case against Stayton is scheduled to be heard. Meanwhile, she said the whole thing has gone so far so fast that her head is spinning. First, the bank announced that it would foreclose on her house. Then she got arrested. Now she's planning to declare bankruptcy to keep her home for another six months.

"I know the Lord is trying to speak to me," she said, "but I don't know yet what he's trying to tell me."

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