Ray Bradbury's Watergate: Justice Pinellas County Style
by Wesley Fager (c) 2003

On September 20, 1988 anti-Straight activist Ray Bradbury found himself before Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge Crockett Farnell. The charge was breaking and entering into the controversial Straight, Inc. juvenile rehabilitation building in St. Petersburg, Florida. Prosecutors were asking for one year in jail. "He 'masterminded' the scheme and harassed the drug-treatment center and its chairman of the board of directors, Mel Sembler...", one said. "This was basically a burglary for sabotage. That's pretty severe. It's not some kid going in somebody's garage and taking a case of beer. . . . They had a very elaborate plan," the prosecutor continued. Prosecutor Richard Mensch must have been especially annoyed at Bradbury. His brother Myron Mensch was on Straight's board of directors!


On a September evening in 1987 Jeffrey ``Gator`` Carpenter and his buddy observed what Carpenter says were two men poaching his crab posts on the Anclote River. Gator says the two had been doing it for a year when he finally caught up with them. According to an account in the St. Petersburg Times, Gator rammed their boat and started firing his high powered riffle, riddling their boat and wounding one man in the leg. The accused rustlers jumped for it and made it to a nearby Island but Gator kept circling the Island keeping them prisoner. The fishermen hid amongst mangrove roots on the Island and finally escaped at dawn at low tide by just barely holding their heads above water. Later one of the victims said, "we were hunted like animals." On June 20, 1988 Gator found himself before Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge Crockett Farnell and Assistant State Attorney Richard Ripplinger charged with attempted murder and two counts of kidnapping. State Attorney James T. Russell liked to assign Ripplinger to murder cases. He got convictions. Ripplinger was seeking two years in prison and one year probation for Carpenter. "These people have been stealing my crabs for a year," Carpenter told Judge Farnell. The victims told the judge that the crab lines had gotten tangled in their motor and they were just trying to free it. The charges were reduced and the sentencing is not known. [St. Petersburg Times, Jun 21, 1988; pg.]

Three months later Ripplinger was before Judge Farnell again. This time he wasn't prosecuting a murderer or attempted murderer, he was prosecuting a young man for breaking and entering into a health care facility. That man was Ray Bradbury, not the novelist, Ray Bradbury the anti-Straight activist. Several former clients from the notorious Straight rehabilitation program in Saint Petersburg, Florida had come to him to get their records from Straight. They were not about to go there themselves since they had been abused there and since Straight had a history of kidnapping and had been found guilty in federal court in Virginia for the false imprisonment of Fred Collins [Straight was about to be found guilty in Pinellas County Circuit Court for the false imprisonment of Karen Norton], and since state attorney James T. Russell, the St. Petersburg Police Department and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Department had a long, deplorable history of doing nothing about it when some one got shanghaied into Straight. So these citizens signed a paper authorizing 23 year old Ray Bradbury to get their medical records for them.

Based on what the former clients had told him Bradbury thought the documents might prove to state health regulators that Straight was abusing kids. Bradbury bravely went to Straight asking for the documents, but Straight would not give them to him. Next Ray Bradbury allegedly did a very brave, but dumb thing. On or about the night of January 26, 1988 he and an accomplice allegedly broke into Straight to get the documents to turn over to state health officials. The cops arrived and the alleged accomplice was arrested, but Bradbury allegedly fled. The alleged accomplice was given probation. Seven months later, upon learning there was a warrant out for his arrest, Ray Bradbury voluntarily turned himself in.

In Florida if you are a misguided priest thinking that an abortionist is a murderer who must be stopped, the powerful and rich pro-abortion lobby will see to it that you get a speedier trial than George Bundy. While it took nine months to bring Jeffrey Carpenter to trial for attempted murder, Bradbury was before Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge Crockett Farnell and assistant state attorney Richard Ripplinger in just three. Only for a trial of this magnitude and importance Ripplinger had brought in help in the form of Russell's chief investigator--assistant state attorney Richard Mensch. Richard Mensch had a personal interest in seeing justice done in this case because his brother, attorney Myron Mensch, was on the board of directors of Straight. Come to think of it, Allen Alweiss, Russell's chief assistant state attorney for neighboring Pasco County, had previously been on Straight's Advisory Board and next year, 1989, Allweiss would be on Straight's board of directors alongside Myron Mensch. (Judge Farnell is a former assistant state attorney.) Their boss Pinellas-Pasco County state attorney James T. Russell himself had personally brought the Straight concept to Pinellas County when he invited The Seed to come to his county. He had even sat on The Seed's Advisory Board along with Lieutenant Governor of Florida Tom Adams, Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, County Judge James B. Sanderlin and Circuit Judge William L. Walker. The Seed had failed after the US Senate accused it of using North Korean brainwashing methods on American teenagers and Mel Sembler had created Straight using former Seed clients as counselors. Problem was Straight was worse than The Seed, but Russell would do nothing about it, and when Ray Bradbury decided to take matters into his own hands, Mr. Russell must have been incensed. That's why he had his principal investigator assisting Richard Ripplinger. His prosecutors were asking Judge Farnell to give Bradbury a year in jail.

On New Year's Day 1988 Melvin and Betty Sembler were trying to enjoy brunch in their back patio when something drew Betty to the front door. "Honey, did you know we were being picketed?" she called back to Melvin. It was none other than a slim Richard Bradbury with his associate Dusty Hopkins. [Photo: Neil McGahee, The Tampa Tribune]

Bradbury claimed that he was the victim of a very powerful organization that had pressured the state attorney to convict him. Not so said Russell's men. According to The Saint Petersburg Times [Sept. 25, 1988. pg. 3.B] the prosecutors said that Bradbury deserves a harsh sentence because,"he 'masterminded' the scheme and harassed the drug-treatment center and its chairman of the board of directors, Mel Sembler..." "This was basically a burglary for sabotage," Ripplinger said. "That's pretty severe. It's not some kid going in somebody's garage and taking a case of beer. . . . They had a very elaborate plan." Mr. Bradbury says he tried to plead no contest but says he will never forget what the judge told him. I have not been able to corroborate Mr. Bradbury's claim, but Mr. Bradbury alleges that Judge Crockett Farnell told him, "Mr. Bradbury, I will not accept a plea of no contest, I will only accept a plea of guilty, or not guilty. If you plead not guilty and the jury finds you not guilty I will override their verdict and impose the full sentence on you."[1]

Mr. Bradbury says his attorney hardly uttered a word as the judge and prosecutors planned out his fate. The judge found Ray Bradbury guilty and then did the rather cruel thing that judges frequently do. He told Mr. Bradbury that he would defer sentencing until the following Tuesday, September 27, making Bradbury sweat it out for a week. Richard Ripplinger wanted Ray Bradbury in jail. Richard Mensch wanted Ray Bradbury in jail. Mel Sembler wanted Ray Bradbury in jail. Betty Sembler wanted Ray Bradbury in jail. The judge had found him guilty and now Bradbury had a week to ponder just how long he would be in prison.

But Ray Bradbury should have slept well that week for he has a guardian angel though he does not know it. Judge Farnell knew it. Mel Sembler feared the angel a like a vampire fears light. His name is Eugene Patterson. Eugene Patterson served as a tank platoon leader under Gen. George S. Patton Jr. in World War II. With Blood and Guts behind him and The Desert Fox in front of him, there's nothing the Church of Scientology™, Melvin Sembler or all their money can do to intimidate him. Patterson was vice chairman of the US Civil Rights Commission from 1964-68. In 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama after a church was bombed killing four little girls, Patterson had used the picture of a black woman holding a little white shoe that was all she had left of her little girl to editorialized,

Every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand. It is too late to blame the sick criminals who handled the dynamite. ... We are the ones who have ducked the difficult, skirted the uncomfortable, caviled at the challenge, resented the necessary, rationalized the unacceptable, and created the day surely when these children would die.

He was later awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his editorials opposing racism. Eugene Patterson was the chairman and editor of The Saint Petersburg Times back when it was a mighty newspaper, a force to reckon with. He knew that Mel Sembler and Straight was a whites-only program. And he knew that Straight's violation of civil rights was just as despicable as the violation of black rights in the South. Straight had been abusing kids since 1976 and Patterson's Times reported all the stories. If Judge Farnell put Richard Bradbury under the jail, then Sembler knew he would have to answer to Eugene Patterson. [A month after the trial, Ray Bradbury and Karen Norton ran out of luck. Eugene Patterson retired and selected Andy Barnes to replace him. One of the first things Andy Barnes did was to hire Straight board member pediatrician Bruce Epstein, MD as a guest writer on child health issues. In 1990 a Pinellas Circuit Court jury awarded Karen Norton $721,000, almost all in punitiative damages, for being abused and falsely imprisoned at Straight. One of her complaints was that Miller Newton had thrown her against a wall. The Tampa Tribune did two stories on it; but aside from a letter to the editor by Richard Bradbury that mentions Karen Norton, Barnes' Saint Petersburg Times has never used her name. Andy Barnes serves with Mel Sembler on the secret Florida Council of 100, Florida's shadow government that works to privatize state employee jobs so businessmen can bid on them. Andy Barnes has also made a partnership with Sembler Company for exclusive rights to sell the Times in Sembler-built shopping centers.
[See http://thestraights.net/articles/shameon-spt.htm ]
[See http://thestraights.net/articles/tash-times.htm ]
[See http://thestraights.net/editorials/tash_vietnam.htm ]

Bradbury had another weapon at his disposal, although he was probably not aware of him either. Arnold Trebach, Professor Emeritus of Law and Social Justice at American University in Washington, DC and President of the Drug Policy Foundation, also in Washington, DC., had been tracking Straight ever since he learned of Fred Collins' kidnapping trial in Virginia in 1983. Professor Trebach has written extensively about Straight and conducted forums on Straight. He even devoted an entire chapter in one of his books to the criminal activities of Straight. Dr. Trebach had been head of the US Justice Department's Civil Rights Division when Eugene Patterson was grieving the deaths of innocent little back children in Birmingham. In fact Dr. Trebach had even investigated the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover for racial discrimination in the days when nobody looked at Mr. Hoovers' G-Men. He wound up getting his home phone tapped for his efforts.

Patterson and Trebach know that Straight is a civil rights issue, and while neither would condone breaking the law to seek justice, if a man was going to be put under the St. Pete jail for doing James T. Russell's job, then Mel Sembler was going to have more explaining to do than a chocolate-faced toddler beside an empty cookie jar. They all wanted Ray Bradbury under the jail, out of the way, but they dare they do it? And so this is what Judge Crockett Farnell settled on. He ordered adjudication withheld[2] which means while accepting an agreement to resolve the charge, there has been no final adjudication pending completion of certain requirements. And the certain requirements imposed by the court?

1250 hours of community service
five years probation
banned from Pinellas County for five years

At least Sembler got satisfaction knowing Bradbury could not come near Straight, protest and expose the abuse. As for the 1250 hours of community service, Bradbury created an organization to cleanup Tampa Bay which he called Community Improvement, Inc. And he became very active in that. Bradbury kept a safe distance, but in the end he was able to close Straight, Inc. It took him five more years. By 1993 all 12 special treatment camps had closed. Almost all had closed under state criminal and/or health investigations, though Straight would often site economic reasons for closing. A 1993 department of health (HRS) IG report revealed that state health officials had tried to close the flagship facility in St. Petersburg in 1989 but concluded that Mel Sembler and unnamed state senators had probably intervened to stop the officials from closing it.

In 1990 a Pinellas County jury awarded former client Karen Norton $721,000 for abuses she had endured at Straight in St. Petersburg, but Straight claimed they didn't have that kind of money. They offered a document that showed that Straight owned only five properties and Straight board member Joseph Garcia, representing himself as an expert in real estate law, came up with some cock and bull algorithm to explain why the property was only worth 50% less than their appreciated value. That would be $315,000. A sixth property was never presented, but on April 1, 1992 Straight sold the sixth property for $200,000. And less than two years after the Norton trial Straight sold the five presented properties for $895,000, not the $315,000 that Garcia had implied they were worth.
(See http://www.thestraights.net/financial/st-fdn-piercing-veil.htm )

So when Straight closed in 1993 it had over $ 1 million from liquidated property plus any other money resources it had. Mel and Betty felt that the experience they had gained at Straight qualified them in other areas of the so-called War on Drugs. They changed the mission of Straight to one of helping companies to set up drug free workplace environments. They got a federal grant. The name was changed to Drug Free America Foundation and another mission was added--to work to establish national and international drug policy. But still Betty felt she had direct experience in running programs to help rehabilitate youngsters from drug addiction. Everyone knows that James T. Russell invited the Straight concept into Pinellas County and helped it grow. Less known is that Russell worked with Shirley Coletti to set up another program--Operation Par. While Straight targeted high income whites [see http://thestraights.net/reports/white-kids-only.htm ], Operation PAR got blacks. In fact the word was in the 1980s in Pinellas County that if you were a white teenager with affluent parents you went to Straight. If you were black teenager with a demonstrated drug addiction problem you went to Operation Par. Experimentation or recreational use of marijuana was not sufficient for PAR, but was for Straight. At PAR all counselors were college graduates. At Straight most counselors were teenagers with virtually no college at all. Operation PAR was priced on a true sliding scale based on one's income; Straight was expensive. So Betty took the knowledge she had gained from working with white kids at Straight and is now on the board of directors for Operation PAR. Chris Yarnold is the man who decided that Fred Collins was a drug addict because his eyes were red. At the Collins' trial Straight had presented Mr. Yarnold as its expert on diagnosis for drug abuse, but, on cross examination, (another entity also donated $170 to his campaign.) Yarnold admitted he did not know what laughing gas was, nor did he know the active ingredient in marijuana [THC]. When asked, in court, if he knew how the hallucinogenic factor in drugs worked, he replied, "No. All I knew was drugs affected people." Chris Yarnold now works for Operation PAR.

Circuit Court Judge Walt Logan presides over juvenile court in Pinellas County and is a member of the Juvenile Welfare Board. According to the St. Petersburg Times of May 9, 1997, Judge Logan stated, "There isn't a day that goes by that we don't send someone to Operation Par at some level." Judge Logan says he will not accept campaign donations from fellow attorneys, but aside from his own personal contributions to himself, his first and third highest contributors are Straight Foundation's former President Walter Loebenberg who donated $500 and then $170 from his company US Health. Judge Logan signed the recent injunction Mel Sembler filed against Richard Bradbury in Mr. Bradbury's latest troubles with Ambassador Sembler. Ironically, Judge Logan is a member of the executive committee of the Clearwater branch of the NAACP. Sixth District Judge Dee Anna Farnell is also on the Juvenile Welfare Board and is one of the judges Logan was referring to that collectively send at least one kid a day to Betty Sembler's Operation PAR. Judge Dee Anna Farnell is wife of Judge Crockett Farnell who tried Bradbury in 1988. Besides Operation PAR, Farnell and Logan send kids to Eckerd Wilderness Camp, Carlton Manor and Brookwood. Like shopping center magnet Mel Sembler, drug store baron Jack Eckerd thought he too could build a drug rehabilitation program for kids. He started Eckerd Wilderness Camp. In 2000 a 300 pound Eckerd counselor restrained a 65 pound 12 year old boy in what state health officials determined to be an inappropriate restraint. The child died. The state found that another Eckerd employee provided falsified documents to investigators, and it found that the camp's managers refused to turn over certain documents to state investigators. Mel Sembler builds Eckerd drug stores.

Recall that Community Improvement, Inc. was the organization Richard Bradbury set up in 1988 to clean up Tampa Bay. The organization he devoted 1250 hours of community service to complete the requirements of Judge Farnell's adjudication withheld order. Well Community Improvement was set up to close Straight and it did too. It just took a lot more than 1250 hours to do it.


[1] I called Judge Crockett Farnell on Sept 9, 2003 and left word with his secretary as to who I am and what I was after. Judge Farnell called me back on the afternoon of Sept 10 or 11. I told him that I was an Internet reporter doing a story on a man who had appeared before him in 1988 for breaking into a juvenile rehabilitation program called Straight. I told him that I realized it had happened a long time ago and that he had had thousands of cases since then. But I told him it had been a high profile case and I was hoping he would remember something about it. I said that Ray Bradbury, the defendant, had claimed that he had tried to plead no contest but that Judge Farnell would not let him, and that I intended to quote what Mr. Bradbury remembers being said, and I had wanted to give the judge a chance to give his recollections. Judge Farnell replied, "I don't remember but wouldn't surprise me if I did that. People are always doing things and then trying to skate out of responsibility when they get caught."--or words to that effect. He said that he honestly did not remember the case at all. When I mentioned that Straight had been founded by Melvin Sembler the current ambassador to Italy, he said, "Now that you mention it, I do recall reading something in the Times the other day about Sembler and some man giving him trouble." I said, that's why I'm writing my story. It's the same two players all these years later. Judge Farnell said he could possibly get the records but from that long ago they would be on microfiche and it would take a month. I said I had a deadline and could not wait a month, but if he recalled anything to please let me know.

[2] Adjudication withheld

See State v. McFadden, 772 So. 2d 1209 (Fla. 2000) (holding when cross-examining a defendant or witness for impeachment purposes as to prior convictions, cases where adjudication was withheld are not "convictions")
See Cella v. State, 831 So. 2d 716 (Fla. 5th DCA 2002) (stating that a defendant who has adjudication withheld and who successfully completes the term of probation imposed is not a convicted person).
See Negron v. State, 799 So. 2d 1126 (Fla. 5th DCA 2001) (defendant who pled an adjudication withheld and who successfully completed probation should not be scored with a convictionunder the guidelines).

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