Lead Story

In March a three-judge panel ruled against Billy Reed of Fleetwood, Pennsylvania, in his 19-month battle to have his driver’s license photo taken with his eyes closed. He’d argued that by insisting his eyes be open, the state’s Department of Transportation had violated his right to freedom of expression and his “right to happiness,” but the court pointed out that “nowhere in the Constitution does the government guarantee a citizen the right to his own idiosyncratic vision of happiness.” Reed, a 49-year-old auto mechanic who says he studies law in his spare time, told reporters he’d probably appeal.


In January 2004 Charles Gonsoulin of Los Angeles, then 40, attempted to visit a Quebec woman he’d met online two years earlier but was denied entry to Canada because of a 1984 robbery conviction. This February Gonsoulin tried again: he set out from Pembina, North Dakota, planning to sneak across the border on foot and get to Winnipeg (about 70 miles away), where he could catch a bus to Quebec (another 1,600 miles). Temperatures dropped as low as minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit, however, and when Canadian police found Gonsoulin wandering around a golf course just north of the border he had been outdoors for roughly 100 hours and was disoriented and severely frostbitten. In custody and facing the amputation of eight fingers and four toes, he remained upbeat: “It was all worth it for me. It’s the difference between sitting around dreaming about things and going out and getting them.” After his surgery in March, the object of Gonsoulin’s affection, 43-year-old Jennifer Couture–who had not yet met him face-to-face–described him as her “hero”; authorities said he would be deported after a month of recuperation.

After serving prison time for a variety of nonviolent crimes, John L. Stanley began a serious study of criminology in 1989, going on to lecture extensively on crime and host a Dallas radio show on the subject. In December he pleaded guilty to a 2004 Kansas City bank robbery; police had caught him near the bank, counting money in his parked getaway car. At his March sentencing, Stanley, now 61 and in bad shape after being beaten up by another inmate, suggested that he’d intentionally gotten caught so he could return to prison to continue his study of the criminal mind. “There are some things about crime you can’t understand,” he told the judge, “unless you get into the belly of the beast.”

Compelling Explanations

A female athlete who had won track and field medals at several African meets was charged with impersonation in Kwekwe, Zimbabwe, in February after authorities confirmed she had a penis. Samukeliso Sithole, 17, told the court she was born a hermaphrodite; her parents had hired a traditional healer to make her totally female, she said, but because they’d failed to pay the entire fee her penis had grown back.

Farmhand Dean Schwankert, 37, was arrested in Lyndeborough, New Hampshire, in February and charged with indecent exposure and lewdness. Police said Schwankert, while naked, chased his 75-year-old boss through her house in pursuit of sex; Schwankert insisted he was merely asking what time it was. Also in February, Paul Callahan–who made News of the Weird last year when he attempted to rob a copy shop in Boston thinking it was a bank–requested a lenient sentence for the two bank robberies he pulled off that day because his motive was (in the words of his lawyer) “not money, but to validate his being a man of strength” after having been sexually abused as a Catholic altar boy.

Questionable Judgments

During a fire in December at Westminster High School in Westminster, Maryland, teachers followed school policy for emergency evacuations: they brought the school’s two wheelchair-bound students, whose classes are on the second floor, to the stairwell, which was filling with smoke; they then exited the building with the other students, leaving the wheelchair users to wait alone for firefighters. The next month a specially convened committee modified the policy by adding a single word, recommending that students in wheelchairs be left only in smoke-free stairwells.

In February the cafeteria at Eaton Elementary School in Washington, D.C., was chosen as the site of a health department-sponsored weekend clinic at which hundreds of stray and feral cats were sterilized and vaccinated. “The air was thick with the smell of urine,” one parent told the Washington Post. “I’m shocked that they would . . . cut up a cat in a school cafeteria.” Eaton’s principal had assured parents the school would be open as usual on Monday, but the massive cleanup–estimated to have cost between $5,000 and $10,000–took longer than expected.

Unclear on the Concept

Lawrence M. Small, chief executive of the Smithsonian Institution, pleaded guilty in January 2004 to a violation of the Endangered Species Act–possessing a private collection of Amazonian artifacts that contain the feathers of protected birds–and was sentenced to 100 hours of community service. Hearst Newspapers reported in February 2005 that Small had not yet begun his sentence, as he was still negotiating for the right to serve it by spending 100 hours lobbying Congress to change the Endangered Species Act.

Thinning the Herd

Twice in recent months a 20-year-old man was killed after putting on a flak jacket–failing to understand such garments are intended only to stop shrapnel–and apparently persuading a friend to shoot him. In a December incident near Weippe, Idaho, the victim dared his friend to fire a 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol at him; police believe the other victim, in Hobart, Indiana, in February, asked to be shot with a 20-gauge shotgun as preparation for his upcoming military service.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Shawn Belschwender.