Is That a Badge in Your Pocket? Or are you just happy to see me?

Are OC's cops a little too excited about busting men for gay sex?

The sun is going down in Estancia Park, and I've run out of notes to take. As I sit in the dimming light, the could-be cop in the sweat shirt and jeans swishes past me again. I'm trying to act naturally, but I'm having a difficult time figuring out what "natural" is. I feel cornered. Finally, when he gets about 50 feet away, I make a move-walking briskly toward my car, writing down the license number on the Jeep as I approach. But I hear footsteps behind me. I turn and confront him, with what I hope is a smile that cannot be misconstrued as anything more.

"Are you Mr. Delgadillo?" I ask, dropping the name of the Costa Mesa police officer I've read on so many reports.

"Huh?" he asks flatly. It certainly is not the kind of enthusiasm that might be expected from someone who has been trying so hard to get my attention.

"Are you Mr. Delgadillo?" I repeat.

"No, uh-uh, no,'' he says, just as flatly.

I try again. "Are you from the Costa Mesa Police Department?"

"No," he says, unflustered. This time, it's his lack of reaction to my mention of the police-in an area where they make a lot of arrests-that doesn't ring true.

"Well, I'm doing a story about lewd-conduct busts at this park, and I wondered if that's what you were here for," I offer. "Are you working undercover?"

"No," he says impassively. "Can't help you."

I get into my car, and he begins to walk back toward the park. I roll down my window and call after him. "Well, if you're not a cop, be careful because they make a lot of busts here."

He doesn't even acknowledge me.

Later, when I phone Smith, he says he doubts the man was an undercover officer. "The description doesn't sound like any of our guys," he says. "And I don't think we have a Jeep."

But when I phone defense attorneys whose clients have been arrested by Delgadillo, their description of the officer coincides very closely with who I saw. As cops are so fond of saying, he matches the profile.

But a couple of weeks later, when the license-plate check comes back, it shows the car is registered to a private citizen.

What does that mean? Well, that I didn't need to be afraid of that guy. I didn't need to hurry home from the park. I could have said hello, or I could have ignored him-or I could have minded my own business and remained as oblivious to others' harmless walks through the parks on beautiful winter evenings as I was before I learned that undercover cops are skulking around public restrooms.

"Like I said, we don't do it much," says Smith. "Just enough to send a message."

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