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60-year-old says age sank bid to be a deputy

Tony Mastrangelo is a funny cat, one of those East Coast guys born to work a room. He started in the music business and paid his dues until one day telling his wife, “I’m going to be a hypnotist” and off he went, eventually working throughout the 1980s and ‘90s at Knott’s Berry Farm as the star of the Tony Angelo Show.

Given that background, it’s pretty amazing the story that Mastrangelo now wants to tell.

His is the story of a guy who once wanted to join the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and now wants to sue it.

It’s how, at 60, he decided to become a deputy, passed the written exam and a physical test that has disqualified people half his age, only to be done in by a three-member panel that didn’t give him high enough scores in an interview.

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A three-person panel? When you’ve performed at biker bars and roadhouses and on stage in front of hundreds of thousands of people over the years, you’d think there’s no way you can’t do a strong 15 minutes in front of three people.

When he walked out of the interview last April, Mastrangelo says, “I’m thinking, when is the start date of the academy?” referring to the training program for recruits.

Instead, he got the word shortly afterward that he hadn’t made it. Perhaps he’d be interested in something less than a deputy’s position?

He was not.

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After getting advice from a longtime friend who’s a judge, Mastrangelo got mad. Convinced his age had been the determining factor, he contacted the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Last fall, one of its investigators found “reasonable cause to believe that ... [the department] discriminated against [Mastrangelo] on the basis of his age....”

The case was referred to the commission’s legal staff, but in an office known for backlogs, no action has been taken yet.

The Sheriff’s Department denies the allegation and says the selection process is more involved than the investigation indicated.

Buffy Reynoso, an assistant manager in the department’s Human Resources office, says 4,414 people applied to be deputies in 2006, and only 118 were hired. She thinks Mastrangelo might be the oldest applicant to pass the obstacle course test but said the three-member panel that later interviewed him didn’t give him a high enough cumulative score to advance him.

She says there is “some subjectivity” in the scoring but denies that Mastrangelo’s age was a factor.

She hints that some thought Mastrangelo might have drawn a bit too much attention to himself during the obstacle course test. “He didn’t just show up and blend with the group,” she says, noting that he brought friends with him for support and “handed out CDs to a couple of the testers.”

Mastrangelo bristles at that, saying he gave a CD to one official after they talked for a while and she asked him what his hypnosis show was like.

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“They can say I’m a transvestite,” Mastrangelo says, sarcastically. “They can say anything they want.” What’s true, he says, is that he really wanted the job.

And so these things go. Did Mastrangelo raise eyebrows because he was considered too “showy,” or was he downgraded because he was pushing retirement age?

The EEOC investigator said he can’t discuss his findings, but Reynoso concedes that he had access to the department’s interview with Mastrangelo and could compare his answers and scores to those of others who were accepted.

Meanwhile, back in Laguna Niguel, where Mastrangelo and Pam, his wife of 35 years, live, he can still work himself into a mini-lather over it. He insists his application wasn’t a lark but rather the product of looking for a new career and of harkening to a younger day when he was a military policeman and wanted to be a cop. That is, until learning that, at 5 foot 8, he was under the height requirements then in place.

And now? Would he still want to work for the Orange County department?

Without cracking a smile, he says, “If you loved shellfish with all your heart and you got food poisoning from it once and almost died, would you want to eat shellfish again?”

He’s not laughing, but I am.

Mastrangelo’s story comes with an epilogue, also fraught with suspicion and denials.

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Several weeks ago, Mastrangelo applied for a concealed weapons permit, following a crime that he says occurred in his home and for which he fears possible reprisal. Although the department approves more than 90% of all permit requests, an official says, Mastrangelo was denied.

Mastrangelo is certain it was retaliation for his EEOC complaint.

Sheriff’s Dept. Lt. Dave Nighswonger says he can’t go into detail but says Mastrangelo’s stated reason for the permit didn’t pass muster. Nighswonger says he’s aware of the EEOC matter but that it didn’t play a role.

Mastrangelo scoffs but knows there’s not a whole lot he can do about it.

He says his experience with the department has soured him.

“It’s the most unjust thing that has ever happened to me,” he says. “And I worked so hard for it, and I wanted it so bad, and I lost it .... “

The future is a bit murky. He and Pam, who’s been part of the hypnosis act throughout the years, still do gigs. He’s worried the Sheriff’s Department might still have it in for him. He knows that sounds paranoid, but he can’t help it.

Mastrangelo knows he’s born to entertain but remains convinced he has all the virtues of a good cop -- the ability to defuse situations, to work under pressure, to think on his feet.

Just as he’s done on stage all these years.

All of which leaves the hypnotist to say: “I think they missed somebody who would been a helluva good cop.”

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Dana Parsons’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com.

An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons.


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