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?

Based on the number of alleged violations contained in the nine lawsuits against Ralphs, he demanded more than $75,000. The resolution isn't known. Said Gunther, "Most businesses settle out of court because they don't want it broadcast they had violations."

One reform business owners seek is a mandatory 30-, 60- or 90-day notice to correct access problems before the disabled can sue and collect money. They say the threat of a suit after a notice would bring remaining shops into compliance and satisfy the goal of the ADA. But the proposal infuriates Gunther. He promises that he and other wheelchair-bound individuals will lobby against the reform in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

"It makes about as much sense as sending a notice to a bank robber and telling him he's got 30 or 60 days to stop robbing banks," said Gunther. "According to the law, I've already been damaged if I find an access problem. Why should a business be allowed to damage me?"

Gunther: "Just trying to make the world a better place." Photo by Jennie Warren
Gunther: "Just trying to make the world a better place." Photo by Jennie Warren
Veteran Anaheim fortune teller Dempsey Todorovich avoided greasing Gunther's palm. Photo by Russ Roca
Veteran Anaheim fortune teller Dempsey Todorovich avoided greasing Gunther's palm. Photo by Russ Roca

Last year, Gunther launched Equal Access Now, a nonprofit organization run from the Garden Grove house he shares with his wife Olga, a Canadian immigrant of Ukrainian decent who got a green card thanks to their marriage in Las Vegas nine years ago. The group claims 50 members (mostly in California but "a few" in Nevada) and a goal of educating the public and media about "access discrimination." The public and media aren't allowed to attend the monthly meetings.

"Sorry, it's private," said Gunther. "I teach disabled people about their rights."

One result of the meetings is clear, however: Gunther now leads an ADA wheelchair posse of sorts. According to court records, Gunther has traveled to businesses—usually restaurants—with three other wheelchair-bound individuals: Karl Roundtree, Debra Lara and Kevin Conrad. When they've alleged violations, they've each demanded $4,000 for the same access issue.

The financial threat to a small business is, of course, enormous—worse if Gunther plays another game of hardball. Take the case of the Harbor House Cafe in Dana Point. The posse didn't tell the owner about their May 13 problem (a narrow bathroom entrance) that allegedly caused them "anguish, anxiety, humiliation, anger, frustration, distress, embarrassment, apprehension and disgust." Yet five days later, Gunther and Roundtree returned to the popular restaurant and decided they both needed to use the restroom again. The first that Harbor House management knew of the complaint was two months after that second visit. Using Mehrban, the men filed two lawsuits for the same alleged problem and demanded double the damages. In essence, they'd taken a single issue (narrow passage) and quadrupled their own windfall from $4,000 to $16,000.

In our interview, Gunther didn't want to explore questions about fairness and said he wasn't interested in talking about specific cases. "When people hear about my lawsuits, that's the best way to get them to comply with the law," he said. "Everybody should be in compliance!"

Gunther didn't always celebrate law enforcement. A recent visit to Kern County and his hometown of Taft, an hour west of Bakersfield, helped reveal past addictions to marijuana, cocaine and heroin, some of them funded by crime sprees.

Though Taft officials say they have destroyed much of Gunther's criminal record, I was able to obtain official documents detailing his admission to having a $100-a-day heroin addiction and to being a major narcotics trafficker in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1989, he was arrested and jailed for savagely beating girlfriend Belinda K. Callahan in front of their six-year-old daughter, according to records. He broke her arm and her nose.

While he was incarcerated for that assault, Callahan took the girl and $30,000 from his drug sales and fled. In an ensuing child-support battle (he didn't pay a dime of child support for almost a decade) waged in a Fresno County courthouse, records show that Gunther also admitted that his occupation for many years wasn't something for a résumé: drug addict, petty thief and burglar. From 1993 to 1995, his primary source of legitimate income was government food stamps. For at least three months, he was homeless.

During a 2001 hearing in Fresno, a prosecutor asked him how he could have afforded expensive drug habits when he was unemployed. Gunther replied, "Doing crimes." Indeed, in addition to the assault on the mother of his child and the drug dealing, Gunther's criminal past in Kern and Fresno counties includes:

July 1989: Jailed for petty theft.

June 1990: Cited for operating a vehicle with a broken windshield and registration irregularities.

July 1990: Arrested for driving on a revoked license and without insurance; later arrested again and jailed for 14 days for failing to appear in court on the charges.

Jan. 1991: Cited for driving with a revoked license, no insurance and a faulty registration.

March 1991: Arrested for petty theft; pleaded no contest. He received three years' probation and was ordered not to drive without a license.

June 1991: Arrested for violating his probation by driving with a revoked license.

Jan. 1992: Cited for four vehicle violations including driving with a revoked license; pleaded guilty and received a one-year suspended jail sentence.

Nov. 1992: Cited for driving with a revoked license; pleaded guilty and again received a one-year suspended jail sentence.

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