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Gay activists are keeping Leroy Thomas from his tin-cup beat.
Leroy “Pops” Thomas had perfected a popular scam.
When people would park their cars in his part of Capitol Hill, he would promise to protect their vehicles for $10. (Sometimes, if the car was nice enough, he’d ask for a little more.) If patrons didn’t pay, Thomas said, he couldn’t guarantee that “their windows won’t be broken” when they returned, according to police. A lot of people paid.
His haunt was the unit block of O Street SE, where he grew up, an area that has become a mecca of gay night life. The block is home to three adult-male social clubs, three gay bars, and one of only a few remaining true bathhouses in the city. On Thomas’ O Street, the feel is reminiscent of an all-gay, pre-Giuliani Times Square, a place where the bars are dark and the patrons arrive alone.
Those patrons quickly tired of Thomas’ business, and they went to Bob Siegel to get him to take care of things. “I own most of the block, and when people have problems, they come to me,” says Siegel, an advisory neighborhood commissioner whose name is emblazoned in big, bold letters above one of the buildings in the area. Siegel soon became involved in a bitter personal struggle with Thomas, one that culminated in accusations of assault and sexual intrigue. A secret videotape eventually helped land Thomas in jail.
It all began six months ago, about the time that Sgt. Brett Parson joined the newly formed Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit of the Metropolitan Police Department. Parson was immediately inundated with complaints from the gay community about the aggressive panhandling going on near Siegel’s buildings, so he “set out to make Thomas [his] first priority,” according to an e-mail from Parson to the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance (GLAA).
Within a month, Parson arrested Thomas on a charge of disorderly conduct for his panhandling, and a judge ordered Thomas to stay out of the area.
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Thomas, whom his lawyer describes as “eccentric,” quickly returned to the block. He blamed Siegel for his arrest, and the confrontations between the two soon escalated. One day, Thomas allegedly began hurling rocks at Siegel, who called police. Assault charges were brought against Thomas for the attack, but he was never convicted. Thomas thought he himself was being harassed, the victim of a crusade by Siegel and Parson, and he filed a written complaint against the officer for overzealous police work. (The complaint was eventually dismissed.)
In the meantime, Thomas was not helping his own case. Within 30 days of the assault charge, he was arrested three more times for violating the stay-away order, and three similar arrests followed before the end of the year. As Thomas continued to get slaps on the wrist, the gay community became outraged that he hadn’t been put behind bars.
“It’s just not possible that the U.S. Attorney’s Office [which did not push for jail time] thinks it takes nine different offenses for someone to prove they’re incorrigible,” says Rick Rosendall, GLAA vice president. “It’s insulting to the intelligence. [Thomas] thinks it’s easy to roll people in that area because the courts don’t take it seriously, and we need to prove him wrong.”
“Do you think this would have been handled like this if it had been a Caucasian woman up in Tenleytown [being harassed]?” asks Wanda Alston, Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ special assistant for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered affairs. “To keep giving this guy probation is completely ridiculous. It’s a mockery of the system.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office dismisses suggestions that the rigor of the prosecution was in any way biased and shrugs off intimations of discrimination. “You can’t be judgmental,” says Terry Keeney, special counsel to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “People who frequent those areas are citizens, and they deserve to have their rights protected. There was a pattern of repeated conduct, and we responded.”
The gay community was not satisfied with the response, however, and took matters into its own hands. GLAA and other gay-rights organizations mobilized their supporters, and Siegel set up a video camera on the block to catch Thomas in the act of violating his stay-away order.
When Thomas did return, Siegel filmed him and called Parson, who made an arrest. At a court hearing last week, Siegel was called to the stand. Thomas’ court-appointed attorney, Mona Asiner, suggested that Siegel was acting on a personal vendetta. She claimed that he was targeting Thomas because Thomas had turned down Siegel’s solicitation for oral sex, infuriating Siegel and causing his subsequent crusade to get Thomas locked up.
“Leroy Thomas is the ugliest, most despicable person I can imagine. There is nothing desirable about that man,” says Siegel. “If you are a gay businessman, one of these days someone is going to say you wanted to suck their dick to defend their violent actions. It’s absurd.” Siegel has consulted Parson as to how he might take legal action against Asiner for what he believes is a slanderous suggestion.
“This is the same type of stereotyping that goes on with African-Americans and women,” says Alston. “Why does a gay male always have to be accused of soliciting?”
Adds Rosendall: “It’s a variation of the gay-panic defense. It’s an obviously desperate motive. Mr. Siegel is a good citizen, a business owner, and an ANC commissioner—there is just no possibility that would have happened.”
Thomas did not help his credibility by claiming, early in the hearing, that the only reason he had returned to the area at all was that Parson had deposited him in front of Siegel’s waiting video cameras. Thomas eventually backed off from that claim, but not before the judge lost patience with him. He was sentenced to 180 days in jail for unlawful entry and violating a stay-away order and recently began serving the time.
Thomas has a checkered history: Nearing 50, he has a rap sheet that is seven pages long and dates back to 1978. He recently held a job as a cook for about a month, until he was incarcerated. When he doesn’t go by the nickname “Pops,” some people have taken to calling him “Stinky.”
“Thomas is an excellent example of how the system isn’t working,” says Parson, who believes that psychiatric counseling would have benefited the man. (Thomas was deemed, for legal purposes, mentally competent.) “Putting him in jail isn’t the answer. We need to provide people like this with an alternative to going out on the street and harassing people.”
Thomas may well have found himself locked up only because he messed with the wrong crowd of clubgoers. Had he operated in an area with a less active community, he might have enjoyed the impunity of countless other aggressive panhandlers, such as those in Adams Morgan and around the MCI Center.
“There is no doubt this case received more publicity because the community spoke up,” says Parson. “What happened speaks to the fact that the gay community is very savvy and very strong.” CP