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Clearwater can sleep soundly…desperado Granny arrested!

Her wait for french fries ends with a taste of jail

An officer who told the woman to move her car got an earful.
By WILL VAN SANT, Times Staff Writer
Published January 19, 2008

Jean Merola’s "little soothe in the afternoon" is a visit to McDonald’s for coffee – decaf with two creams.

But a recent run to the neighborhood Golden Arches turned ugly when a Clearwater police officer busted the 75-year-old grandmother of eight on a disorderly conduct charge and hauled her to jail.

About 4 p.m. Thursday, Merola pulled her gray Lincoln Town Car up to the drive-through window of a Clearwater McDonald’s minutes from her home. She ordered the coffee and medium fries, no salt.

No salt on fries being a special request, the teller told Merola to pull forward to an area of striped asphalt where customers are typically asked to wait if their orders will take some minute.

Suddenly, Merola heard a car horn blasting behind her. In his cruiser sat Officer Matthew Parco, 30, a member of the force since December 2006. He kept honking and waving his arms, Merola said.

She did nothing.

Then he stepped out of his cruiser, walked up to Merola’s driver side door and asked for her license and registration. Merola bristled. Not until you tell me what I’ve done wrong, she told him.

"He told me something about being parked in this particular place," Merola said Friday. "I told him this is where the people from McDonald’s told me to park."

In his report, Parco says he asked Merola to move the Town Car forward a foot to allow cars in line to go around. If he did, Merola said she doesn’t remember it. And it was actually his cruiser blocking people, she said.

But Merola said she was really offended when Parco called a supervisor to say he had a possibly demented woman on his hands who might need to be held under the state’s Baker Act.

"He was aggravating me by saying that," Merola said. "I said, ‘I don’t have dementia, tell your supervisor.’"

By then, Merola had called Parco a brat, but the dementia comment stirred anger. Merola upped the ante and called him a "smart a–" and a "dumb s—."

She’s never been easily pushed around, her daughter said Friday.

"She’s not a meek and mild little old lady," said Deborah Burge of Palm Harbor. "She’s going to say, ‘Hey, what did I do wrong?’"

Parco handcuffed Merola behind her back and put her in his cruiser. Another officer arrived and drove her to the Pinellas County Jail, where the widow of 10 years was booked for disorderly conduct. She had no previous criminal record.

The people at the jail were apologetic as they took her mug shot and fingerprints, Merola said. They kept her out of the holding cells, where prisoners winked at her as she walked by. They didn’t make her wear the yellow jumpsuit.

"They were so nice you wouldn’t believe it," Merola said. "They asked me if I was hungry, and I said I was starved because I didn’t have my McDonald’s."

She may have liked the people at the jail and shown spunk with Parco, but Merola was pretty upset when her daughter and son fetched her at about 7:40 p.m. She was released on her own recognizance.

"She was crying and distraught and relieved that we were there," Burge said.

By Friday afternoon, news of the arrest had spread through Clearwater government because Merola’s son knows Mayor Frank Hibbard. Hibbard called the city administrator, who called the police administration.

"We are looking into it," said deputy police Chief Dewey Williams late Friday. "We are not going to comment on the case until we complete that review."

Parco, who has no disciplinary record, could not be reached.

So, did Merola break the law by cursing a cop?

"You have an absolute First Amendment right to use that type of language to a police officer," said Largo criminal defense lawyer John Trevena. "It might be discourteous, but it’s not illegal."

How about asking to be told what you’ve done wrong before handing over identification?

"If he’s conducting a criminal investigation, you have to produce it," Trevena said. "If he’s just irritated … then that’s not lawful."

Friday afternoon, Merola spent $160 to retrieve her impounded Town Car. In the morning, a doctor checked out a pain in her neck and shoulders. She thinks the handcuffs were on for about an hour.

Trying to account for her own behavior, Merola said she was taught to respect the police because they are there to protect and help you. It’s a message she said she had passed on to her three children.

Despite the uniform, she suggested, Parco just didn’t seem like the real thing.

"I guess I felt he wasn’t a police officer," Merola said. "He wasn’t there to help me, he was there to be mean to me."

Times researchers Caryn Baird and Angie Drobnic Holan as well as staff writer Mike Donila contributed to this report. Will Van Sant can be reached at [email protected] or 727 445-4166.