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`The Naked Man' stirs a new law in Surf City

July 18, 2007|Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writer

The man whom Walnut Avenue once called Mike took to dawdling near his fence -- cheekily unclothed. Neighbors yanked down their blinds to block out the 5-foot-9, 165-pound man in his birthday suit. Out-of-towners screeched, and some folks phoned police and begged: Please oust the Naked Man.

This kicked off a months-long chain of events that wrapped up Monday night with the Huntington Beach City Council approving a ban on public undress.

Police Chief Kenneth W. Small explained to the council that Miguel Angelo Ferreira, a.k.a. the Naked Man, was alarming partly because his home was close to the city's renovated downtown and the Pacific Ocean -- major tourist magnets.

"Young females in their early teens" were subject to seeing Ferreira "moving his hips from side to side," Small said. "To be confronted with a naked man is shocking for everyone."

Years ago, an undressed man might not have whipped up such a frenzy along the Orange Coast. Seal Beach was once known as a gambling community; Balboa Island had its dance-hall days. And Laguna Beach hosted its own version of Woodstock, complete with acid king Timothy Leary.

But as the coastal residents aged and amassed more wealth, their boorishness subsided. Huntington Beach clung to its rowdy roots longer than most, but in the last few decades has ramped up tourism efforts, such as spiffing up its once-shabby Main Street and luring four-star hotels to build along its oceanfront.

"They are way more corporate and way more concerned about the brand," said Chris Epting, a local historian and Huntington Beach Independent columnist.

"It's a sign that the carefree, wild days are gone."

The city's distress at the Naked Man's unconcealed nether regions was somewhat an about-face -- just seven years ago, the council scrapped a proposed ban on going au naturel in public.

That ordinance was crafted to close the Flamingo Theater, described as a "nude juice bar" with exotic dancing, but the proposed law withered under outcry from local nudists. Ferreira's attorney, Allen Baylis of Los Alamitos, reminded the council of its forerunner's decision.

"You just don't pass a law to deal with one guy or one group," he said in an interview. "But because it's nudity, people get all stupid about it: 'It's immoral, it's a sin.' They just trot out every fallacy in the book."

Ferreira, 42, moved into a single-story gray house on Walnut Avenue a year or two ago, his attorney said. (He has since moved out of Huntington Beach and could not be reached for comment.) The construction worker's home was blocks from luxury hotels, the city's signature pier and a miles-long swath of sand that lures more than 8 million visitors annually.

Neighbors soon bemoaned the fact that Ferreira's picture windows were so big and his wooden fence merely waist-high. Police logged about 100 complaints in a year and at least one quarrel in which a passerby chased Ferreira indoors.

Unbeknown to the neighborhood, Ferreira had a rap sheet. He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of lewd conduct in a public place in 2001, court records said. This February, he was taken into custody again.

Prosecutors charged him with two felony counts of indecent exposure with a prior conviction and one count of misdemeanor indecent exposure involving incidents in 2006. If convicted, Ferreira could face more than three years in prison. He has pleaded not guilty.

To prevent Ferreira from parading around outside his home naked, or inside with blinds open, the district attorney's office suggested that Huntington Beach officials ban public nudity.

Indecent exposure charges require prosecutors to show that the nudity is sexually charged, and most times, Ferreira was just walking around.

The council passed the ban unanimously at a brisk meeting at which reporters seemed to outnumber speakers, though the city had been bombarded with e-mails from opponents. In fact, what caused the most debate among council members was another city law that bars people from taking off their swimsuits in public.

This led to an exchange between Mayor Gil Coerper and Mayor Pro Tem Debbie Cook that was perhaps a signal of disputes to come over disrobing in Huntington Beach.

Cook: "You can't see someone changing under a towel. They're not publicly nude."

Coerper: "They're nude under the towel."

Cook: "Under our clothes, we're all nude."

ashley.powers@latimes.com

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