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by John Cheese
What you're about to read is the 100% truth. It happened in April of 2006, and after a few hours in jail, a meeting with the local prosecutor and a trip to court, the story became kind of an internet campfire story. Not because it was awesome, but because it was so incredibly stupid.
This is how I went to jail for the sake of a dumb prank.
On one of my old jobs (I was the computer guy at an auto dealership), I worked with a woman who we'll call "Jim" for the sake of anonymity. Jim was the kind of woman you never saw in a bad mood. She always smiled and was genuine when she asked those small talk questions like, "How are you this morning?" She wasn't just using it as a greeting. She actually wanted to know how you were. In the three years I worked for that company, I never saw her angry. Until April of 2006.
Two days before this incident happened, we'd had a violent storm in the Midwest that knocked out power for a large portion of the town in which I worked. One of the places that lost electricity was the elementary school that Jim's son attended. This happened in the middle of the night, and the next day the power was not restored, so they canceled school. Unfortunately, the only place that this was announced was the local radio station. Since Jim does not have a radio in her house, she didn't hear the announcement and took her son to school as usual. When she arrived to find that it was closed, she figured out what happened and took him back home to her husband and continued on to work. No big deal.
The next morning, I was privy to a side of Jim that I had never seen before. She burst into the office and slammed her purse on her desk, mumbling under-the-breath curses and rants. Her eyebrows tilted down in a fierce frown that was so unnatural on her usually cheerful face that it reminded me of Jack Nicholson's breakdown in The Witches Of Eastwick. I asked what was wrong.
Or any character he's ever played.
That morning, just to be on the safe side, she had called the radio station to see if the school was still closed, and the guy who answered the phone was unbelievably rude. One might even say he was a huge f**king d*ck. Without the censor marks, even. The conversation went something like this, his end, loaded with heavy, bitter sarcasm:
Her: I was just calling to see if [we'll call it Whopflopple Elementary] was closed?
Him: We've been announcing that ALL MORNING!
Her: I'm sorry, I have no radio in my house, so I can't hear the announcements.
Him: Yeah, it's amazing how many people don't have radios.
Her: So is it open or closed?
Him: I said we've been announcing that all morning. My suggestion to you is to go buy a damn radio.
He then hung up on her.
If you live in a big city, this might sound strange, but in a small town, it's pretty common to call the radio station to get this kind of information; at least at the time. It was a part of the service they provide to the public.
This pissed me off. Partly because he was a huge douche, but mostly because I hate people who have a public service job and can't even pretend to be civil for a ten second phone call. I later found out that this donglord (who answers all calls and doubles as a news DJ) is like that to everyone, all the time.
"I long for the deaths of your children."
I told Jim to just blow him off; he'd get what's coming to him eventually. I then went to my office and pulled up the forums for the website I co-ran at the time, relaying what happened and setting up my request. I wanted to pull a prank on the radio station, and I'd need the help of our fan base.
The joke was simple: I wanted about ten or so people to call that radio station and ask if Whopflopple Elementary School was closed. That's it. I told the readers, "You don't have to be a dick about it. Don't try to be funny. Don't try to pull a Jerky Boys. Just call and ask if that school is open and then politely hang up when you have your answer." The joke to me wasn't in pestering the guy. It was the fact that a large portion of our reading audience was from outside of the United States. The thought of a dozen or so people calling this small town and asking with their obviously-foreign accents about a school they know nothing about made me smile. That's what was supposed to happen.
What actually happened was that people told friends about it. Those friends told other friends about it. And before we knew it, the radio station was being absolutely bombarded with calls. They were coming from Australia, London, Thailand, South Africa, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Canada, about half of the states ... The guy at the station thought it was just one guy calling over and over, changing his accent each time.
One reader sent me a recording of his call which went something like:
Radio: Good morning. [Radio station name].
Caller: Hello. I was just wondering if Whopflopple Elementary was closed?
Radio: Christ. Where are you calling from?
Radio: And you're that worried about a school in the middle of Illinois, huh?
Caller: No, I don't care one way or another. I was just curious as to whether it was closed or not.
He doesn't know I'm right behind him. IDIOT!
Another reader called in and convinced the guy that he was an employee of Verizon.
Radio: Good morning. [Radio station name].
Caller: Good morning. My name is Randal, and I'm with Verizon wireless service. We received a complaint about an unusually large influx of calls to your number this morning, and we're currently running traces on them. Are you still experiencing the same problem?
Radio: Yeah, we've had some kids calling in this morning, pranking the station.
Caller: Ah, I see. Unfortunately it happens. Well, we're tracing those calls now, and we should have an idea where they're coming from in just a few minutes.
Radio: Thank you. I've been dealing with this stupidity all morning.
For the next few minutes, the fake Verizon worker made small talk with the douchebag radio guy, while he worked his fake tracing magic. After a good five minutes of conversation ...
Caller: OK, it looks like we're getting returns on the traces. We're not allowed to give you the numbers, but we'll be reporting these to your local police department.
Radio: Great. Thanks for the help.
Caller: Can I ask you a question, though, out of curiosity?
Caller: Is Whopflopple Elementary closed?
Then, the women began to call. Now, he thought that it was at least two people pranking, so he phoned the sheriff's department, and they put some sort of interceptor on the line. All calls that asked about that school got transferred to the police, and the cops started calling numbers back.
New phone who dis?
Eventually, they got through to one of our readers in Texas, and they began pressuring her for my name. She contacted me online and told me what was going on, saying, "I have the sheriff on the phone right now, and he's asking for your name. What do I do?" I told her to give it to him. I didn't want anyone getting in trouble, and they were threatening legal action on anyone involved.
Now, before we go any further, I know some of you are thinking, "They can't do that! What could they possibly get you for? You're just asking if the school is closed!" Well, that's what I thought at first. I'll explain why it isn't that simple in a bit.
So anyway, I told my friend, "Just give him my name, and tell him I'll be over to the police station in just a few minutes. I work half a block from the sheriff's office anyway."
It's important to know that during this whole fiasco, which at this point had been going on for an hour or two, I was keeping the front office of my workplace updated on the happenings. I was also keeping the forums updated as well and trying to keep a mental record of how many calls were made. I estimated that at this point, approximately twenty or so calls had been placed. Twice the number I had originally expected. As you'll find out in a few minutes, I was incredibly wrong about that.
So after I was told about the police, I immediately went on the forums and deleted the original threads that were asking for the readers to call. I then posted a new thread, asking them to stop. I let them know that the joke was over and that it had now gotten out of hand. I of course didn't want it to stop, but I knew that once I got to the police station, I'd have to show them how it all started, and I wanted a record of me telling them to cease all calls.
I then went into the front office of work and said, "I'm clocking out and heading over to the cop shop. If I'm not back in thirty minutes, it probably means I'm in jail." We all laughed about it, and I left. This next part still makes me laugh, even 12 years after it happened ...
We live in a very small community. Every town in this whole section of my state is thirty minutes apart from each other, and the populations range from 50 to 2000 people. There's not a lot of crime here. Just the occasional pot smoker or drunk driver and lots of spousal abuse. We get the obligatory party fights and petty theft, but for the most part, we're a pretty clean part of the country. With the exception of meth lab busts, police in this area don't have a lot to do.
Prank calls are serious business.
When I walked into that station, I swore that there must have been a bank robbery or a murder. The cops were running around like roaches. A couple of them were on the phone, tracing leads. A few more were running back and forth from computer to computer as if someone's life was hanging in the balance, the difference between their next birthday and their burial depending upon the work ethics of that office.
One officer with a "what now" look on his face approached me and gave me an annoyed, "Can I help you?"
"Yeah. I'm the guy who started the prank that's grown out of control."
Two cops immediately burst out laughing and ducked into a back room, hoping I didn't see their reactions. The two at the computers stopped their running and typing. The two on the phones looked up, halting their conversations, and then resumed in much calmer voices. The one who "greeted" me sighed.
"You got any ID?"
I said I did and pulled out my license. He looked it over, gave me a scowl, and said, "Follow me."
He took me to a room in the back of the police station and told me to sit down. He then pulled out a clipboard and a pen and called another plain-clothed officer into the room, closing the door behind them.
"So," he began in a stern, fatherly voice, "Do you do this sort of thing often?"
"No," I said with a pleasant smile. "This isn't a regular thing with me. I just wanted to pull a small prank, and it just grew much bigger than I expected. That wasn't my intention at all."
He glared at me and began writing on the clipboard. He commanded me to tell him what happened from the beginning, so I told him what you're reading here. Though I softened it up quite a bit so I didn't look like as much of an asshole. It was midway through the story that I realized I had just told him about "John Cheese" and the whole website thing (for those who don't know, John Cheese isn't my real name). I mean, I kind of had to in order to show him how the calls grew to their current numbers.
Throughout my story, he continually interrupted me with smartass comments and the cliche "angry cop" attitude. After each of these comments, another other officer would reply with something kind and reassuring. After about three of these exchanges it suddenly donned on me that these guys were actually doing the "good cop / bad cop" thing. That's not a joke. They were really doing it.
I thought the guards outside the room were a bit much.
At one point, Bad Cop got up and exited the room, leaving me with Good Cop, who attempted to fish more information out of me. I told him, "Look, I'm not hiding anything from you guys at all. I'm telling you with 100% honesty what happened. I realized the prank got too big, and I came over to clear the air. If I was trying to hide anything, I simply wouldn't have come over at all."
He smiled and wrote some more on his own clipboard, and then he took me into another room which had a computer with Google pulled up. "John Cheese" was already in the search box.
"Do me a favor and pull up your website."
"OK, I see here that you asked them to stop. That's good. That'll work in your favor. Where's the original thread where you asked them to call?"
"I deleted those because I didn't want even more people to read it and call the station."
Part of that was true, but the main reason I deleted it was because if he read the original thread, I think I would have been in much more trouble than I currently was.
The cop read through the thread and replies and then took me back into the interrogation room. The bad cop had returned and was still scribbling on his clipboard.
"So what time did you call the station?"
"Me? Actually, I never called the station."
Bad Cop gave me a "bullshit" smirk and repeated his question.
"No, I'm telling you the truth. I've been at work the entire time, and I don't have a cell phone. Feel free to check the phone records at the dealership. I asked my friends to call, but I never called, myself."
They seemed to be satisfied with this and both of them wrote some more. After a few minutes of silence, Bad Cop said, "Well, we're going to have to arrest you, so as of this moment, we're going to read you’re your rights. However, we're not exactly sure what charge to give you. So let me make a call to the District Attorney, and I'll be back with you in a few minutes."
"He did WHAT?! My. Dear. God."
Half an hour later, he returned and said I was under arrest for "accountability for phone harassment." He had me sign the scribbled-on clipboard, which contained my full statement, and I noticed that at the top, I had been officially tagged with an alias by the State of Illinois: "John Cheese." At that moment, I was sure that my life's work was done.
I was processed and put into a holding cell, pending my bail and was allowed one phone call. I honestly considered calling the radio station and asking if Whopflopple Elementary School was closed, but I decided against it. Instead, I called my then-wife to let her know I was in jail.
The good news was that she wasn't angry. The bad news was that we were flat broke, and we wouldn't have any money until I got paid several days from then. So accepting my fate, I lay down on the bunk (slab of concrete with a one-inch thick pad laid across it) and considered getting in some much-needed nap time.
Fifteen minutes later, another officer appeared at my cell and unlocked the door.
"Your bail has been posted. You're free to go."
He took me into the processing office, gave back my belongings and then escorted me out the back door, where one of the salesmen from my workplace stood, smiling and smoking a cigarette.
"You know you owe me big, right?"
"I know. Thank you so much. I'll have you paid back as soon as I can."
Then, right in front of the cop, he said, "Take your time. It was worth every single penny. That was the funniest shit I've heard of in a long time."
The cop smiled at the salesman and went back into the station. We finished a cigarette each and then went back to work.
Meeting The Prosecutor
After the bail money had been posted, I went back onto the forums and told them the story. We all got a good laugh out of it, and then we started talking about the fines. That was the biggest setback for me. I could handle the jail time, but the loss of money was big. I had a wife and three kids to support, and I had no business getting myself in trouble over something so stupid.
My readers knew this, and within one day, they had rallied together and sent us via PayPal enough money to cover the fines, fees and court costs for the entire fiasco. They paid for it all, saying the same thing as the salesman who bailed me out. They even gave me enough money to pay him back for his help.
So now that the monetary loss had been taken care of, I had to talk to the District Attorney to find out what was in store for me. I set up an appointment and met him in his office, where he proceeded to give me a 45 minute lecture on what is and isn't funny. The guy was a complete buttass about it, but I knew that was his job. He wasn't there to tell me everything would be OK. He wasn't there to congratulate me on a mediocre joke. He was there to prosecute me. And I deserved it.
After the lecture, he said, "So you think you're some kind of professional comedian, huh?"
I told him yes.
Pfft. I'm verified, bitch. Let's see YOUR Twitter.
He glared at me and said, "You are, are you? In what way?"
"Meaning I've been paid for comedy writing. I've written for National Lampoon and have been paid for it, which technically makes me a professional comedian."
He stared at me for a few seconds and then just responded with a genuinely interested, "Really?"
Then, my ego got the best of me, thinking of his near-hour-long ass reaming, and I said, "Look, I don't mean to be an ass here, but I have to tell you something. I know you don't think what I did was funny. That's understandable. In my current situation, it's not seeming all that funny to me, either. But I don't need a lecture from you on comedy. If we both wrote a book on what we thought was funny, the difference between the two would be about the same as the difference between the Holy Bible and the Necronomicon. All I need from you is information on what I should do next and what to expect. Do I get jail time? Do I pay a fine? Do I get probation? I have no idea what to expect here, which is why I'm talking to you before talking to a defense lawyer."
To my surprise, he stopped being a dick. He pulled out a folder with all of my information in it and said that if I accepted his offer, he'd tell the judge to waive jail time and suggest a fine instead. I'd have to pay restitution to the station for any lost business, and I'd get six months of non-reporting probation. I accepted.
I spoke to a couple of people in the law field, and they all said I took the right path. Turns out that if the Feds had been involved, I could have gotten "cyber terrorism," which is a charge punishable by hardcore prison time. And it's very possible that if I hadn't turned myself in, the Feds would have in fact been called. In a small town like this, internet crimes are to be turned over to higher authorities if they're not solved right away. It also turned out that the number I had everyone call wasn't just the request line. It was their business line. So that's the main reason I got in trouble.
So here's why they were so angry about what we thought at the time was just a few prank calls: Our calls kept their phone lines busy from eight in the morning to around five or six at night. Approximately 500 calls came through that station, preventing any serious calls from making it through. Even the police had trouble reaching them because of the constant pranking.
Later, they announced on the radio and in the local newspaper that "the police, in conjunction with Verizon, had traced, apprehended and arrested the suspect," leaving out the part where I walked into the station on my own and announced, "HERE I AM!" They must have forgotten that part. I was referred to as "John Cheese" on the radio, which still makes me smile.
"Wait, did they say they arrested John Cleese?"
The Aftermath: Telling My Boss
The next day, the owner of the dealership came in, and I asked him if we could talk in private. We sat down, and I took a deep breath, preparing for the worst. He's bipolar and doesn't take his medication, so I didn't know what to expect.
I told him everything, but was sure to stress the fact that I never called the station, myself. I also told him about an apology letter that I had written to the owner of the radio station (which I did, explaining in soft terms what happened). Why did I tell him all of that? Because the story was quickly circulating through the dealership, and when it got back to him, I didn't want him thinking I was screwing around off on his dime. I mean, I was screwing around on his dime, but I didn't want him thinking that. He also happened to run all of his advertisements through that station, so I felt that he needed to know in case the owner decided to be a dick and pull his ads.
My boss listened to me with an "I'm going to f**king murder you" look on his face -- again, without the censor marks -- and I began mentally preparing to hear the words "you're fired." Out of the blue, he picked up the phone and dialed.
"Hi, this is [we'll call him Brenda Bloodhoof]. I own Brenda Bloodhoof Auto, and I do all of my advertising at your station. Is this the guy who was involved in all the phone calls the other day? OK, I just wanted you to know that I don't give a f**king shit who's right or who's wrong in this situation ... No, just shut up for a minute. I'm talking. Just shut up and listen. Like I said, I don't give a shit if you're right. I don't give a shit if the other guy is right. All I'm saying to you is that the guy you're prosecuting does all of my advertising placement. He's very influential with me, and I let him run the whole advertising show. What he says goes because I keep my nose out of stuff like that. I just want you to think about that before you decide how far you want to push this thing. I'm not saying he's going to be vindictive or anything, but if he tells me to put my ads somewhere else ... No, I don't care. I don't care at all. I just want you to think about that. Have a good day."
He hung up and smiled at me and said, "We'll see what that does."
I didn't have anything to do with the advertising of that dealership at all. Not once did I ever have a say in that department; nor would they have trusted me with that kind of marketing responsibility. He was just bald-faced lying to the guy.
Still smiling, he said, "You know what you ought to do? You should go back on the internet and tell your friends to all call the station back and individually apologize to them. That way they get five hundred more calls, all from people who appear to be legitimately concerned about their business. What are they going to do, arrest you for saying you're sorry?"
I laughed long and hard at that idea, but I decided that yes, they probably would arrest me again, and this time the consequences would be much harsher.
In the end his phone call actually worked in a small way. The restitution was reduced from $300 to $50. The rest of my sentence was just as the DA proposed. When I walked into court, the entire case was handled in twenty seconds.
"Sir, I understand that you have agreed to a deal with the prosecution?"
"Yes, your Honor."
Looking over the paperwork, "Prosecution, is this the deal you proposed?"
"Yes, Judge, it is."
"Ok, I'm fine with that. Have a good day, sir. You can pay your fine downstairs."
"Yep, that's it. Have a good day."
I went back to work and considered calling the radio station to ask if Whopflopple Elementary was closed. I didn't, but holy crap, I wanted to.
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