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Case of Stolen Chili Cheese Dog Is a Little Hard to Digest

This is one of those stories where your first impulse is to say, “There has to be more here than meets the eye.”

Then again, who knows. Maybe it’s just one of those situations that got ridiculously out of hand, and nobody has said, “Hey, wait a minute.”

One of the things not in dispute, as lawyers say, is that 16-year-old Joe Smith is scheduled to go to Juvenile Court next week for stealing a 74-cent chili cheese dog. If you can picture that scenario ending up in Juvenile Court, you’re already one step ahead of me, but I’m trying to keep an open mind.

I heard about the case from Joe’s aunt and uncle, Pam and Henry Smith. They live in Costa Mesa and have been acting as Joe’s guardians since the first of the year when Joe moved in with them. At the time, Joe was in the midst of probation for his role in tagging a building the year before. He was also given community service duty, which he has completed.

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The other night in their home, the three of them laid out their story about the chili cheese dog and why it’s heading to court. At the end of it, Henry looked at me with a look somewhere between befuddlement and exasperation. “Do you think I’m nuts?” he asked.

Here’s the Smiths’ account, augmented, where applicable, by the original Tustin police report:

Last July 29, Joe went with a former neighborhood buddy in Tustin to a convenience store. Joe says he went inside to buy the cheese dog. His version is that he took a bite or two out of the dog before paying for it, but that he had every intention of paying for it.

He says the store clerk began haranguing him and told him to get out of the store. The clerk later told police he had told Joe on a previous occasion never to come back, but Joe says he had never caused trouble and that the clerk may have confused him with other boys because they all tend to favor the buzz cut and baggy clothing associated with gang affiliation.

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Joe says he told the clerk he planned to pay for the chili dog but that the clerk yelled at him and waved him out of the store. Joe told me he put the money on the counter but that the clerk brushed it off onto the floor while evicting him. The police report quotes the clerk as saying Joe never offered to pay. The report doesn’t refer to any other conversation between Joe and the clerk.

Whether Joe intended to pay is the first disputed detail in the story. What isn’t disputed is that Joe then left the partially eaten hot dog on the counter and walked out, having considered himself banished. He was walking down the street when two convenience store security guards detained him and made a citizens’ arrest for petty theft.

That arrest has set in motion the events culminating next week when Joe goes to court. Along the way, the district attorney’s office offered him a “deal” of doing 40 hours of community service. Joe refused.

“If I was guilty, I’d plead guilty, but I’m not,” he told me the other night in his home. “Why should I get punished for something I didn’t do? I’m not going to lie and say it happened the way they explained it.”

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Joe’s family said their efforts to get the convenience store video tape have proved fruitless. But it’s unknown whether the videotape will be made available in court.

Representatives of both the Probation Department and district attorney’s office said they couldn’t discuss the case without judicial permission, because it involves a juvenile.

So, allow me to speculate.

I assume they don’t care about a chili cheese dog. Surely the two departments don’t have enough money in their budgets to pursue 74-cent cases. Surely there’s some larger issue than a disputed story over a partially eaten hot dog.

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If there is, though, Joe’s guardians haven’t been told about it.

“If there’s nothing beyond this, then it’s ridiculous,” Pam Smith says. “If there is something beyond this, then let us know so we can try and help.”

The Smiths do not call young Joe an angel, but they say he has lived up to every significant condition of his stay with them, such as school attendance, maintaining reasonable grades and abiding by their rules. They also say he has owned up to things he has done wrong.

“I swore I’d stand by him if he played by the rules,” Henry said, referring to the talk he and Joe had when Joe first moved in. “He’s done so. If I didn’t go to court with him, I’d be reneging on my promise,” noting that going to court is costing him money because he works for himself as a carpet layer for yachts.

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Even while conceding that Joe rejected the community-service offer, thereby prolonging the case, Pam says it’s absurd that it hasn’t been resolved in the nearly four months since the original incident.

“We can understand pursuing minor cases,” she wrote in a letter to me about the situation. “If gone unchecked, they have a way of becoming major felonies, especially with young people. We are not suggesting that young thugs be allowed to intimidate store owners. But this case is obviously not malicious.”

Like the Smiths, I’m baffled.

At this point, all I can answer to Henry Smith’s question of “Do you think I’m nuts?” is to say, “I don’t know, but somebody sure is.”

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Dana Parsons’ column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.


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