The New Crips

An ex-drug dealer and burglar leads a wheelchair posse terrorizing Southern California businesses. Would you believe he has the law on his side?

"This rude guy [a process server for Gunther] walks in one day, drops the lawsuit and says, ‘You've been served,'" Cheryl Gibson recalled. "Mom just laughed and laughed. She was a wonderful woman and here was the man trying to steal her money when she was battling her own serious medical problems."

After learning that Gibson wasn't an ideal target to sue, Mehrban—infamous for using obscure provisions in the law to sue small California businesses—tried to dismiss the case. Gibson initially declined, her daughter remembered.

"Mom wanted to go to court to teach [Gunther] a lesson," Cheryl Gibson said. "We knew he had never come to our shop. It was a scam."

Jin Kim and his wife, owners of a Santa Ana restaurant, lost $16,000 to Gunther. Photo by Jennie Warren
Jin Kim and his wife, owners of a Santa Ana restaurant, lost $16,000 to Gunther. Photo by Jennie Warren

Records show that the elder Gibson filed a hand-written response at the courthouse. She attached pictures of herself in a wheelchair and of the large, J-shaped ramp that led into her flower shop.

"I am disabled," she told the judge. "I am in a wheelchair. There is a ramp in the back of my shop accessible to anybody with mobility problems. I demand an apology to the court and to me."

The case was dismissed, but Gibson went to her grave without an apology. Gunther was too busy. He'd filed dozens of other lawsuits.

"I don't go driving around looking for businesses to hit," he told me. "It's only when I want to patronize a business [and find problems]."

In fact, however, on the day Gunther said he drove to Gibson's flower shop, he claimed in separate legal filings that he also wanted to patronize Gibson's neighbors: a massage parlor, a dental office and a palm reader.

Dempsey Todorovich, who has given psychic readings in the same converted residence since 1968, said he was startled to get Gunther's lawsuit. He'd never met the man.

"Nobody had ever complained before," Todorovich said as he pointed to the entrance at his front door. "I've always had a ramp right there. You can easily see it from the road."

Though Mehrban's lawsuit letter advised him not to call his office, Todorovich called anyway.

"I asked [Mehrban] why he was demanding money," he recalled. "When I told him that he could come and see the ramp, the lawyer was quiet and then he said he'd drop the case."

Marie Pelletier, owner of Roman Spa and Massage, wasn't so lucky. She says she had to pay Gunther $4,000 because of the step at the entrance to her business—one that was less than an inch high.

"Can you believe that?" Pelletier asked while scrubbing a shower room wall. "He could have gotten in here if he'd wanted to, if he had really come here, which I doubt. He's a crook. This is how this guy makes his money. It's the biggest damn racket I've ever seen."

Attorney Phil Fife says he'll never forget Gunther, who sued his client, an Anaheim Jack in the Box, in 2004. After a deposition at Fife's Los Alamitos office, Gunther sued him too, claiming that the restroom at his office park was inadequate: the door was too heavy to open and, inside, a coat hook wasn't low enough for him to use.

"I fully support laws requiring accommodations for the disabled, but I don't support the disabled abusing the law," said Fife. "It's just pure extortion, a shakedown."

He relayed those sentiments to Orange County's judiciary. A judge was sympathetic, deeming Gunther's testimony not credible. Yet, Gunther still received an out-of-court settlement for $4,000 from the property owner of Fife's office building.

Gunther isn't apologetic.

"I see myself as a champion of the rights of disabled people," he said. "This is a good thing, but I'm not surprised that people get angry at me."

He described a torturous daily life filled with discrimination—no wheelchair ramps; no marked handicapped parking; no grab bars in toilet stalls; heavy doors; exposed hot-water sink pipes; and mirrors, coat hooks, toilet-seat-cover dispensers and towel dispensers that are mounted too high.

"I've gone to place after place and can't get into the restroom," he said. "It's embarrassing and it happens every day of my life. Usually, I'm blocked by narrow doorways or some other kind of architectural barrier. It took a couple of years of this before I got fired up."

Sometime in 2003, he decided to take action. "I had urinated all over myself because I couldn't get into a bathroom," said Gunther. "I said to myself, ‘I've got to do something about this.' I got an attorney and started filing the lawsuits here and in San Francisco and LA. . . . It's pretty simple: the best way to address this problem is the lawsuits. I know people say I'm a con artist but the ability to file the suits gives teeth to the access laws. Without it, people would continue to ignore us."

Gunther isn't shy about swinging the legal bat he's been handed. On just three days in July and August 2004, for example, he claimed in lawsuits that he'd needed to shop and use the bathrooms at nine different Ralphs supermarkets in Anaheim, Fountain Valley, Huntington Beach and Los Angeles. At some of the stores, he complained that he was "humiliated" because he couldn't "preen" himself. The bathroom mirrors were inches too high, he argued.

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