Lead Story

New Scientist magazine reported in May that DARPA, the Pentagon’s cutting-edge research agency, had received a patent for a human-cannonball-style device–consisting of a compressed-air-powered seat traveling on rails mounted on a portable ramp–designed to fling special-forces troops, firefighters, or other personnel at the correct trajectory and speed so that they land gently on high-up, hard-to-reach surfaces. According to the patent, such a launcher could place a person atop a five-story roof in under two seconds.

Government in Action

The Associated Press reported in May on the ongoing battle between the family of the late Sergeant Patrick Stewart and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Stewart, who was killed last year while serving with the Nevada National Guard in Afghanistan, was a Wiccan, and his family wants a Wiccan symbol–a pentagram inscribed in a circle–to appear on Stewart’s plaque at a veterans’ cemetery in Fernsley, Nevada. But despite pressure from Nevada officials, Veterans Affairs has so far refused permission; it allows only approved religious emblems to be used on gravestones and other markers, and though more than 30 such emblems have been recognized by the department, the Wiccan symbol isn’t one of them.

Bright Ideas

Last year, as part of China’s efforts to acquire farmland for new construction, officials in the rural village of Renhe offered residents the chance to trade their land and houses for brand-new apartments–two-bedroom units for married couples, one-bedrooms for singles. Spotting a loophole, 98 percent of the village’s couples quickly got divorced, with the idea they could remarry and live in one apartment and sell or rent out the other one. According to a May dispatch in the Los Angeles Times, things haven’t worked out so well: There were far too few one-bedrooms to meet demand, meaning most villagers will have to wait in cramped quarters for their second apartments. In the meantime, under great stress–the farms are gone and jobs are scarce–a surprising number of the newly divorced couples have split up for real.


In April 58-year-old Thomas Vogedes of Wausau, Wisconsin, was sentenced to six months’ probation after he was caught on videotape hanging bras and panties (some new, some not) from the mirrors of vehicles belonging to the local parks department; officials had complained to police about 30 to 50 such incidents.

Playing Hardball

The Guardian reported in March that Israel’s justice ministry was considering prosecution against the Moqassed hospital in East Jerusalem: after an unnamed Arab woman gave birth to triplets there in January but was unable to pay the bill, the hospital let her and her husband take two of the babies home but allegedly held the third as collateral for two months until the government intervened. And in April the UK paper the Telegraph reported on unemployed Darren Wheeler, 30, of Whiston, England, who’d had six front teeth extracted in anticipation of receiving dentures but then was informed by the clinic that because of difficulties with controversial new National Health Service dental contracts he’d have to pay roughly $5,500 out of pocket to get his replacement teeth installed. (According to later reports, the clinic finally agreed to finish the job for free.)

Least Competent Criminals

Impulse shopping: In February surveillance cameras at the Upshur County courthouse in Buckhannon, West Virginia, caught 29-year-old Sarah Zablotny, there to pay a speeding ticket, folding up an eight-foot hallway rug and carrying it out of the building. When police later tracked her down, she asked if she couldn’t just give back the rug and everyone forget the whole thing. The answer was no; she served five days for petty larceny.

Least Competent People

Ryan Wright, 20, surrendered to police in Williston, North Dakota, in March and was charged with terrorizing, a class C felony. A few weeks earlier Wright had allegedly entered a bank wearing a ski mask, walked up to a teller, and demanded money; he then took off the mask, said “Just kidding,” made a withdrawal from his checking account, and left.

Beware of Person

Robert Mays, 64, an associate dean at the University of Southern Indiana, agreed in May to plead guilty to drunken driving and battery for an incident in Evansville in which he bit the leg of a man who’d stopped to assist after Mays rear-ended another car. In March Carolyn Kolb, a middle school teacher in Louisville, Kentucky, was fired over a scuffle she got into with a 14-year-old student (he’d ignored her order to spit out a piece of candy) in which she reportedly bit him on the back. Janet Strong, the 53-year-old owner and operator of Loving Touch Child Care in Milton, Florida, was arrested in April for allegedly biting a toddler on the arm. And the New York Post reported in March that Isadore Bolton, an assistant to boxing promoter Don King, had settled a lawsuit against Mike Tyson for about $275,000. According to the suit, in May 2003 Tyson had become enraged while driving on I-95 near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and got out on the median strip; when Bolton tried to calm Tyson down, Tyson allegedly punched Bolton twice in the face, then bit his leg.

Those Darned Informants

In April police in Elgin, Illinois, said they’d sent an informant, 29-year-old Robert Bridges, into a drug house with $300 to buy seven grams of cocaine and thus set up the dealer for arrest. When he hadn’t emerged an hour and a half later, officers entered the house to find Bridges allegedly getting high; the money and all but 2.8 grams of the cocaine were gone.

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