Crisis at 40: Birthday in the Lockup

Times Staff Writer

Turning 40 is not supposed to be such a big deal, or so John Longenecker thought.

The Oscar-winning movie producer was prepared to face mid-life crises, but he was not ready for the one that struck on Feb. 16, just hours before a surprise birthday party was to held in his honor.

Longenecker, who won an Oscar in 1970 for producing the best short film, "The Resurrection of Broncho Billy," was arrested and spent several hours behind bars in a Beverly Hills jail cell.

When asked by a police officer if he knew why he was taken into custody, Longenecker replied: "I don't know. The only thing I have ever been guilty of is getting a parking ticket."

He was right.

Longenecker had failed to complete court-ordered payments on $3,400 in fines and penalties for 114 parking tickets in 1984-85, issued for illegally parking on city streets between 2:30 and 5 a.m.

Lobbied for Permits

Ironically, Longenecker, who parked on the street because his nine-unit apartment building did not provide a garage space, was one of many tenants who successfully lobbied the City Council in 1985 to provide special permits to park on the street.

Before the change, residents without spaces were forced to park in empty commercial parking lots or across the border in Los Angeles. Longenecker defied the law and began parking on the street after a mugger confronted him late one night in an empty bank lot.

After the law changed, Longenecker said, he thought his fines would be forgiven. But they were not. A warrant was issued for his arrest after he stopped the $40-a-week payments he had agreed to make.

It all caught up with him on Feb. 16.

That day, Longenecker said, getting arrested was the last thing on his mind.

'Had to Take Me In'

Dressed in tattered jeans and a worn-out sweat shirt, he was vacuuming his white 1968 Eldorado near the alley in back of his apartment building when a policewoman drove up and asked him to identify himself. A routine computer check found that a warrant had been issued for his arrest.

"The policewoman was very polite, but she said she still had to take me in," he recalled.

He was frisked and handcuffed before being taken to the station in a patrol car. Once there, he was led down a ramp and up an elevator and through a number of locked doors before being booked and fingerprinted.

"It was a place that you know instantly that you cannot get out of," he said. "The police treated me very, very seriously. This was not fun.

"They told me I had to come up with $500 to get out, but they wouldn't take my American Express card. So I had to call my friends for help."

But Longenecker's friends were out preparing for his surprise birthday party.

'Reach Me at Jail'

"I kept getting their taped messages. I said: 'Happy birthday, you can reach me at the Beverly Hills jail. I need $500 to get out,' and I left the phone number."

He left several messages before an officer led him to an empty cell.

"At dinner time, they served a great birthday meal of Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes and a glass of orange Tang," Longenecker said.

Nearly eight hours passed before a friend arrived to bail him out. He was ordered to return to court on March 16 for a hearing.

Longenecker went home, showered and changed clothes. He went to his birthday party, which by then was not such a surprise.

At the court hearing, Sheldon Sacks, Longenecker's attorney, argued that his client had suffered enough. He asked that the remaining fines owed on the parking tickets be dismissed.

"He should have obeyed the law, but his life was threatened," the attorney said. "He got out of his car one day and a man held a gun to his head. After that, he didn't want to take the risk."

Sacks also asked the court to take into account the hundreds of hours that Longenecker has volunteered for Concern for Tenants Rights, a tenants organization, and other community efforts to improve parking in the city.

Beverly Hills Judge Pro Tem Richard E. Ungar dismissed the warrant last week and said that Longenecker's community service satisfied the fine.

"I felt like I had a chance to right a wrong and it felt good," Ungar said.

Ungar said that a few years back he was in a similar predicament. He said he lived in a Beverly Hills apartment that had a garage that entered onto a dark alley.

"There were a lot of problems with this particular alley so I refused to park in the garage late at night," he said. "Well, after a while I had a lot of parking tickets and when I went before the judge, I asked for the option to pay the fine in community service and he agreed."

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