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10-15-06, 01:10 PM #1
Long but interesting read on criminal taking advantage of the ADA laws to get money
An ex-drug dealer and burglar leads a wheelchair posse terrorizing Southern California businesses. Would you believe he has the law on his side?
“I get hate mail,” he said. “I’m called a scumbag. Someone told me they hope I rot in hell. Another guy said I deserve to be in a wheelchair.”
The hostility is understandable. Since 2003, Gunther has filed more than 200 lawsuits against small businesses he claims have violated the accessibility provisions of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and California’s tougher version, the Unruh Act. The laws are simple in one respect: if a disabled person finds an accessibility barrier—for example, no designated handicapped parking, a heavy bathroom door or a toilet paper dispenser mounted out of easy reach for someone in a wheelchair—that person is entitled to sue and collect $4,000 per violation from the business.
It doesn’t take a genius to calculate that the well-intentioned laws can be a lucrative scheme in the hands of an unscrupulous person. Lawyers familiar with Gunther’s activities estimate he’s taken more than $400,000 in the last 36 months, mostly from mom-and-pop shops in Garden Grove, Anaheim, Fountain Valley, Orange, Tustin, Buena Park, Stanton, Seal Beach, Santa Ana, Dana Point, Huntington Beach and Los Angeles. If true, that’s quite a haul for a man who has spent most of his adult life unemployed, according to records obtained by the Weekly.
A Weekly investigation traced Gunther’s activities around the western U.S. during the last quarter of a century, uncovering evidence that not only has he exaggerated his reliance on a wheelchair, but he’s also whitewashed his own history of chronic unemployment, multiple drug addictions, narcotics trafficking, assaults, petty thefts, burglaries, a decade of missed child support payments, and more than a dozen arrests and stints in jail.
“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].”
Marie Pelletier, owner of Roman Spa and Massage 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.”
“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.”
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.
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.”
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 assault, burglary, and numerous other charges.
Jin Kim and his wife, owners of a Santa Ana restaurant, lost $16,000 to Gunther. Any hint of that criminal record was missing during a June 2005 deposition involving his ADA lawsuit against an Anaheim Jack in the Box franchise. Gunther claimed, “In 1987, I broke my back.” Four years earlier with Fresno County prosecutors, transcripts show he said he broke his back in 1989. Though his own hefty rap sheet seemingly contradicts the assertion, Gunther maintains that he spent most of the 1990s “paralyzed from the waist down.”
It gets more suspicious. Gunther’s next crisis involved his Harley motorcycle, not often the ride of choice for a paralyzed man. But he claims he was riding on Highway 99 near Bakersfield in September 1996 when “an old woman driving 90 miles per hour rear-ended me.” (Or was the accident in December 1997? He’s used both dates.) California Highway Patrol officers in Kern County searched their records for 1996 and 1997 and couldn’t find a record of the incident.
Gunther said his memory is vivid.
“I saw blue sky and then hit the pavement,” he told the Weekly. “I was dragged about 55 yards.”
It was this accident that Gunther says tore the skin off his right leg, shoulder and buttocks; damaged his knee; broke eight teeth; and put him in his current state: “I can’t stand and I can’t walk. . . . When I move, it’s extremely painful.”
In interviews, Gunther has claimed the accident put him in the hospital for “six months”—but records show that within a month of the “near death” collision, he was mobile enough to move to Nevada and begin a $7-per-hour job at a drug-rehab facility.
Gunther—six feet tall and 235 pounds—resisted the doctor’s advice to work out. In a 2001 Fresno court hearing regarding the deadbeat dad issue, he explained why: “I can’t [work out or work] due to my mental disorders.” The motorcycle accident left him with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as well as “insomnia, excessive worry, preoccupation with danger, hyper-vigilance, intrusive and frequent recollections and nightmares,” he said.
Said Fresno County prosecutor James Falkowski in August 2000, “Mr. Gunther’s injuries are grossly exaggerated, if not outright fraud.”
An office manager Gunther sued, had an observation: Gunther was “able to get up from his wheelchair without great difficulty or discomfort,” according to a court record. But also this: during the three previous meetings from June 2002 to April 2004 they had watched Gunther walk into their office.
“The law is on my side,” he said. “I’m trying to stop the humiliation and I’ve got a whole lot of fight left in me.”
Ironically, one businessman he hasn’t sued is his own lawyer. Like so many businesses Gunther has sued, Mehrban’s Koreatown office is located in a converted house. It’s on the second floor, and to get there, a person in a wheelchair faces an insurmountable hurdle: 15 steps up a narrow hallway.
Mehrban says it would not be practical to make his office accessible to the handicapped.
10-15-06, 01:40 PM #2
That article should be printed and tacked on the wall of every business in the area that he's in, with the stuff about him personally highlighted. I would also get tresspass notice against him.\\` ` ` ` < ` )___/\
`` ` ` ` (3--(____)
"...but to forget your duck, of course, means you're really screwed." - Gary Larson
10-18-06, 11:09 AM #3
This is some piece of work. I can't wait for someone to prove he isn't paralized and he filed all these lawsuits fraudulantly. Then he can rot in jail while he is sued and ordered to pay back everything and more!!!"An Unarmed man can only flee from evil, and evil is not overcome by fleeing from it." Jeff Cooper
Some people are meant to be the police......Some people are meant to call the police!!!
"Socialism only works in two places: Heaven where they don't need it and hell where they already have it."
" I believe that forgiving them (Terrorist) is God's function. OUR job is to arrange the meeting."
General Norman Schwartzkopf
Not all Muslims are Terrorists, but all Terrorists are Muslim.
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