News of the Weird

Week of August 5, 2001


-- On July 21, police arrested a squatter couple who had boldly commandeered an unoccupied (but definitely not abandoned) house in isolated Tunbridge, Vt., and had begun elaborately remodeling it, in keeping with their professed beliefs that property should be shared rather than privately owned. Jeremiah Sturk, 38, and Rene Hunt, 26, had torn out some walls, ripped out some plumbing, and were starting to redo a bathroom (financed by selling some of the house's antiques) when the owners arrived from their principal home in Massachusetts. Said the arresting officer, of the couple: "(They're) definitely (people) with a different mindset."

-- IBM said its "artificial passenger" dashboard device might be on the market in three years, thus helping to make highways safe from dozing drivers by, among other things, shooting a stream of cold water into the driver's face. According to a July issue of New Scientist, when the device detects drowsiness, it launches into jokes and other conversation and automatically rolls down windows, sounds an alarm and changes radio stations, among other things.

-- The city of Cascavel, Brazil, recently enacted a law banning office gossip by municipal employees. Punishments include reprimand, mandatory sensitivity training and dismissal, in order to protect government workers whose reputations are degraded by rumor and innuendo, especially by newly hired workers who express contempt for incumbents.

The Great American Holiday, 2001

-- Three Pennsylvanians were killed in separate fireworks mishaps on July 4 (in Butler Township, Altoona and Wilkes-Barre). A 21-year-old soldier was shot to death in Huntsville, Ala., early on July 5, allegedly by the man the soldier asked not to launch fireworks nearby. A 46-year-old man was killed in Spanish Fork, Utah, on July 4 when a fireworks stand toppled over and crushed him. A mother and three children were killed in a fire in Houston on July 4 that a relative said was spread by fireworks. An off-duty police officer was beaten and sent to the hospital in critical condition on July 4, allegedly by two men who objected to the officer's request to stop launching fireworks near kids (Jersey City, N.J.).

Great Art!

-- Tatsumi Orimoto, according to an April report in London's Observer "a grand old man of Japanese contemporary art," said he will be working his signature piece of performance art off and on until the day he dies: "Bread Man" (in which he roams a city's streets with a half-dozen baguettes wrapped tightly around his head to pay homage to the Christian homily of "bread means body").

-- Several days after Moema Furtado's exhibit opened in March, municipal officials in Knoxville, Tenn., told her to remove her installation of thin-latex likenesses of large pieces of pulled human skin hanging from walls and ceiling, which she said were testaments to the horrors of the Holocaust. City official Mickey Foley said that the exhibits reminded her too much of huge, used condoms and that East Tennessee was not ready for that kind of art.

-- In June, playwright Bob Ernst suffered a setback at his final dress rehearsal for his work, "The John," which was being staged entirely inside a basement men's room at Maritime Hall (capacity: 20 seats) (story: a middle-aged theatergoer meets "Death" in a men's room during an intermission of "King Lear"). Ernst had rented the space, but the only Maritime supervisor with keys to the "theater" had taken the day off for his birthday, and when the room was finally opened, Ernst realized that it had not been cleaned in a while. Nonetheless, the show went on.

Bright Ideas

-- Among the Cold War intelligence ideas of the mid-1970s was the British MI5 agency's proposal to station gerbils at airport terminal gates, in the hope that they would exercise their ability to detect passengers who were unusually sweaty, in that such passengers were disproportionately likely to be spies entering Britain. MI5's director-general during that time, Sir Stephen Lander, speaking at an intelligence agency conference in June, said the idea was abandoned when the agency realized that lots of people who go up in airplanes sweat.

-- Kevin Erwin was charged with rape, kidnapping and assault in Canton, Ohio, in June, based on his allegedly acting out on his female "sex slave" whom he had met over the Internet. Faced with imminent arrest, Erwin smugly showed police a signed contract, in which the woman had agreed "to freely give myself to Kevin L. Erwin as a personal slave and life mate" and "to make myself sexually available to Kevin at all times." (She also agreed to divorce her husband and marry Erwin and to pay Erwin $100,000 for "alienation of affection" if she ever broke the contract.) The prosecutor said the woman was coerced.

People With Issues

-- London's Steve Bennett continues his quest to become the world's most successful amateur rocket engineer, with all systems go for launching himself into space in a "test flight" (to an altitude of 10,000 feet) in 2003 on a venture that most professional engineers called foolhardy, according to a June story reported by the BBC. The more that is known about Bennett's mission (e.g., he recently said it would be a rocket capsule made from a cement mixer, with modest installation and a small computer), the more rocket scientists believe his launch will result in instant death. However, the louder the criticism, the more certain of himself Bennett professes to be. He still rejects conventional preparations such as wind-tunnel tests and g-force tests: "That is what the test flight is for," he said.

Least Competent Criminals

-- According to the account of police in Shaker Heights, Ohio, in June, Darryl Owens, 33, may be the least intellectually equipped bank robber of 2001 so far. He walked in to a Huntington bank as it was opening at 9 a.m. and approached a teller, demanding money in a threatening manner; the teller told him to go back and get in line with other early-arrivers. Owens threatened a second teller, who then pulled out a large wad of money and laid it on the counter for him, and Owens took about half and fled. Before police arrived, Owens walked back into the bank, laid the money on the counter, and asked for a $45 money order. The teller, thoroughly confused, told Owens to get out of the bank, which he did, leaving on the counter his entire stash. Police chased down Owens' car a few blocks from the bank and arrested him.

Recurring Themes

-- More Penile Clashes With Nature: In June, two fishermen bled to death in Papua New Guinea's Sepik River after pirhana-like fish, attracted by the men's urine streams, attacked the source with their razor-sharp teeth. And two weeks later, a 63-year-old peasant squatting to answer nature's call in a field near Lorica, Colombia, was bitten on his penis by a poisonous Mapana-tigre snake and was rushed to a hospital (where he arrived with the snake still attached because he feared trying to dislodge it); he is recovering satisfactorily.

Also, in the Last Month ...

-- St. Louis Alderman Irene Smith, reluctant to yield the floor during a filibuster against a redistricting plan, took a restroom break at the podium, shielded by aides holding up a quilt. A man seated in a hillside cafe‚ quietly playing dominoes was knocked unconscious by a wandering cow that fell through the roof (Nevsehir, Turkey). The Transport Minister in Abuja, Nigeria, Ojo Maduekwe, pedaling to the weekly Cabinet meeting to promote greater use of bicycles in the traffic-snarled city, was accidentally knocked into a ditch when hit nearly simultaneously by two passing buses. A 39-year-old man was arrested at a store in Plainville, Conn., after surveillance cameras caught him three times urinating, apparently deliberately and inexplicably, on the back of a man's trousers.

(Send your Weird News to Chuck Shepherd, P.O. Box 18737, Tampa, Fla. 33679 or, or go to

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