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At age 46, a divorce, a failed religion and a successful battle with alcoholism have taught Ronald Vaught to speak his mind, and the former Jehovah's Witness is not a man of few words. He can spend five minutes telling you where he was born. But it's four words and an ampersand—on a small posterboard sign reading "Impeach Bush Cheney & Rumsfeld"—that he says got him thrown off an Orange County Transportation Authority bus on Labor Day, in Santa Ana.
It was the second time in a month that Vaught, who carries his Bush sign everywhere, was challenged by OCTA. The first time, Aug. 4, Vaught says he was riding the No. 50 bus, which runs from Long Beach to Orange along Katella Avenue, when the driver asked him to put his roughly 16-by-24-inch sign away. He says he did that, folding it up. But when he got home, Vaught called the bus company's customer service department, where two employees told him that he could have his sign on the bus—if he wasn't taking up more than one seat or doing something intrusive like handing out fliers. Vaught says he referenced that conversation with customer service when he talked to the second driver, last week, after she stopped the No. 64 bus on First Street near Walnut Avenue in Santa Ana.
"She said 'Put that sign away or you're getting off at the next stop.' I said, 'I already went through this a month ago and I'm allowed to carry this sign,'" says Vaught, an Anaheim resident who typically holds his sign upright on his lap. The bus is his primary transportation. "She didn't respond at all. She started to accuse me of disturbing the other passengers. I said 'Nobody's bothered by this. The only person who's bothered by it is you.'" And so she called Orange County Sheriff's deputies, who provide contract security for OCTA. Vaught decided this was a good time to leave, so he stepped off the bus, got his bicycle out of its front rack, and pedaled away. The patrol car found him almost immediately, and Vaught says a Deputy Rodriguez checked his identification.
"He came back and he said, 'This is the way it is: the bus driver is God whenever you're on that bus. Whatever [OCTA customer service] told you is wrong,'" says Vaught, who has discussed the confrontation with two lawyers, one of whom specializes in First Amendment issues. "I said, 'Isn't it public transportation?' And he said, 'Yes, but it's private.'" This doesn't sound right to anybody.
"It's obviously a First Amendment issue, the right to free speech, and a statement on a sign is clearly speech, so the question becomes whether the government can suppress the speech. And they cannot," says Belinda Escobosa Helzer, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union's Orange County branch, who spoke to Vaught after OC Weekly provided his telephone number. She is investigating the incident. "If he did have a sign that wasn't taking up a second seat, that wasn't impeding anybody, that looks suspect," Helzer says. "That looks like the bus driver was suppressing his sign for what it said. . . ."
OCTA spokesman Michael Litschi stands behind what the company's customer service representative told Vaught on Aug. 4. "Our policy definitely doesn't prohibit someone from taking a sign on the bus, so long as it's not so huge as to be blocking the aisle or creating a safety hazard," he says. But Litschi says, according to Sheriff's Lt. Jim Rudy who manages OCTA security, the Sheriff's deputy never told Vaught that the bus driver was God—and Litschi says that on Labor Day, Vaught was asked to get off the bus because he was disturbing other riders. "He began to talk to and harass other passengers and some of the other passengers went up to the driver," Litschi says. "That's when the driver called dispatch and said 'I'm having trouble with a passenger. Can you send a deputy out?'"
Vaught, who works as a commercial painter and a yoga meditation instructor, looks like a person who rides the bus, which may be part of his problem. He is skinny and tanned; balding in front, but with a full reddish beard and long red hair; a metaphysical sun-moon-ish shoulder tattoo on one side with tiny red numbers, and some sort of tribal-like arm band inked on the other.
Just to watch Vaught ride a bus, I picked him up at his home one week ago. He brought his homemade Bush sign, a black, paint-spattered backpack, some tile he needed to have cut, and a red baseball cap with his name and several phrases—including "Instant Karma"—handwritten on it in black marker. As I drove us to Home Depot and a tile store, he gave me a crash course in astral projection—out-of-body experiences—and numerology. His name, he says, represents the numeral sequence 1-4-7, and he found those numbers repeatedly on the license plates of cars we passed. I loaned him $2 for water, and he used it to buy each of us a bottled Thai tea. After that, we rode the No. 64 OCTA bus from where Vaught boarded it Labor Day—First Street and Euclid Avenue—to First Street and Ross Avenue in Santa Ana, near where he was repainting parts of some businesses downtown. No one bothered us. As we rode, Vaught mouthed Buddhist mantras silently; he says he chooses different mantras—chants thought to bring about positive effects—based on the crowd. We sat across from an Asian man who coughed sporadically, and Vaught whispered to me that he thought someone wicked was astrally projecting himself into the man's body, to send him—Vaught—bad vibes.
And Vaught, naturally, disagrees with OCTA's version of what happened Labor Day.
"So the bus driver is exaggerating, trying to cover herself," he says. "It's sad but kind of predictable that this is how it's turning out." Litschi seems to find it less than predictable.
"I don't know what you're going to do with this," the OCTA spokesman says. "I guess sometimes the true story is somewhere in the middle."