Stella Case No. 055, Originally Published: 18 June 2003
In April 2002, a man had breakfast at an International House of Pancakes restaurant in Philadelphia, Penn. After eating, he went to the manager and said he could not pay, and would they take an “IOU” instead? The man wouldn’t identify himself and said he had no money or credit cards, but offered to wash dishes to pay off his debt.
Nervous since the restaurant had recently been robbed, the manager called 911. Hearing the words “refusing to pay” and “recent robbery,” the police department dispatched Officer Thomas K. O’Neill with lights and siren through morning rush-hour traffic to confront the man. O’Neill had also responded to the earlier robbery.
“When the male continually refused to pay for the breakfast, the officer informed him that he would be placed under arrest,” said Philly Police spokesman Inspector William Colarulo. Once the subject of arrest was brought up, the man “jumped up and screamed that it was a … practical joke, that he worked for” a local radio station.
The man turned out to be Diego Ramos, 31, an “on-air personality” at WIOQ-FM morning radio in Philadelphia. Not only that, but the “practical joke” was being broadcast live on the air via a hidden microphone plugged into Ramos’ cell phone.
“This was a prank that we don’t consider funny,” spokesman Colarulo said. “The manager of the IHOP was acting in good faith by calling 911” and noted the officer “handled everything by the book” while Ramos “deliberately tried to bait [the] officer into some type of altercation while this was being broadcast.” Ramos was released by the officer after radio station personnel — who were listening in — called the restaurant and gave them a credit card number to pay the bill.
Colarulo said the case was “being investigated as a criminal incident” and noted that if Ramos were to be arrested, “we do not take IOUs for bail.” But after reviewing the case, the district attorney declined to file any charges. In an interview later Ramos apologized “if we inconvenienced anyone.”
Well over a year later, the silly stunt is long forgotten, right?
Stephen R. Lee, the owner of the restaurant, has filed suit in Montgomery County Court seeking unspecified damages from Ramos, the radio station, and the station’s corporate owner Clear Channel Communications.
At the same time, Philadelphia Police Officer Thomas K. O’Neill has separately filed suit in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court against the station and Clear Channel, asking for a minimum of $50,000 against claims he was defamed “in that his unwilling participation in the joke publicly made him look foolish and made him out to be a buffoon.” Further, he says, “he was publicly and personally embarrassed and humiliated and that his authority as a Philadelphia police officer was degraded.”
Yes, it was a stupid radio stunt, and some DJ-inspired stunts are getting way out of hand — and the radio stations don’t care, since “any” publicity tends to be “good” publicity as far as they’re concerned. But if the restaurant was harmed, it was because the manager overreacted to a man who offered an unconventional approach to paying his debt — the diner did not, after all, attempt to walk out without paying.
And how was the officer harmed? Even the department said in public that he “handled everything by the book.” So was he really “personally embarrassed and humiliated” to have it revealed that he does his job correctly? If he had handled the situation improperly, the radio station would have been doing a public service to expose him, but he passed their test with flying colors. One would think there would be significantly more “embarrassment” by using a public forum — a courtroom — to cash in on a claim of victimization, thus holding up every cop in the city to the ever-more “humiliating” concept that a 16-year veteran officer cannot take a joke, and is still crying in his cruiser after more than a year.
- “Radio Prankster’s Stunt Was in Questionable Taste, Police Say,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 6 April 2002.
- “Radio Prank Does Not Go Over Easy,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 15 June 2003.
This case turned out interesting in that it was the first time I ever rescinded a Stella Award. After it was published online several readers objected, noting that it’s illegal for a radio station to secretly put people on the air like this.
An arbitrator in the police officer’s case agreed: the cop was awarded $1,000 in damages plus, because the broadcast was illegal, $3,000 in punitive damages. He also won $20,000 for attorney’s fees. Clear Channel, which owns the station, says it “completely disagrees with the ruling and will appeal.” The suit by the restaurant is still pending. Total elapsed time for the officer’s case: 28 months.
Update Source: “Q102 Told After IHOP Prank: Check, Please,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 8 August 2004
My 2021 Thoughts on the Case
If I rescinded the Stella Award, why am I republishing it with the other cases? Because it’s instructive: there can be factors that change the impression of cases.
Yet while I’m totally behind the award for secretly putting the officer on the air (and the original does note “Yes, it was a stupid radio stunt”), I do still believe the main basis for the suit — that Officer O’Neill was embarrassed because the station “made him look foolish” after an official police spokesman went on the record to say O’Neill “handled everything by the book,” is still worthy of censure.
That station owner Clear Channel was vowing to appeal when the smoke still had barely cleared from the nightclub fire fiasco (Case 041) just proves how completely out of touch the company was. I find it very unlikely that they did file such an appeal.
Indeed I don’t find any mentions of one being filed, let alone decided. I also don’t find any other follow-ups, so I don’t know the status of the suit filed by the restaurant owner, Stephen Lee. My guess: Clear Channel quietly settled. I always thought his case was the more righteous.
In 2009 the Inquirer reported that the radio guy, “Diego Ramos, most recently the lone Philadelphia voice on the syndicated Elvis Duran morning show on WIOQ (102.1), was let go after nearly 20 years Tuesday as part of a purging at Clear Channel Communications.”
Meanwhile, WIOQ is still on the air in Philly, and is still owned by Clear Channel (which was renamed to iHeartMedia in 2014).
First, sorry there was no case repost last week. I’ve been working on a special project, which (as special projects are wont to do) took much more time than budgeted. I’ve now come up for air while it bakes. Case reposts will continue on the once/week schedule until I can catch up a bit.
Considering the revocation of the Stella Award in this case, I think it would be fair to include this case’s letters on the same page — the ones that led to the revocation.
Jim in New Mexico: “To accuse the victims of being unable to take a joke is misdirected. To heap upon the victim the assertion that he went too far to have called 911 is wrong. The perpetrator of this affair is lucky. The manager might have immediately wrestled the perceived criminal to the floor in self-defense. Then what? I have no sympathy for these ‘shock jocks’ who will do anything to get some ratings. They have gone too far.”
First, I didn’t at all say the manager did the wrong thing by calling 911 — that indeed is the correct thing to do when faced with a customer who refuses to pay. I said it was an overreaction for him to sue over it; the radio station prankster didn’t walk out without paying, he didn’t threaten violence (so if the manager had “wrestled him to the floor” he would have been guilty of assault), and the restaurant was made whole for the bill before the guy left.
J.T. in Iowa: “I do have to side with the restaurant manager and the police officer. The courts should be used to ensure fair judgment in issues of public interest (whether civil or criminal) — and to show that public idiocy will not be tolerated. Whether the policeman or the manager overreacted is not the point. There was no reason they should have ever been in that position in the first place. This is a situation where the court can be used to show other potential jokesters that such behavior carries a price — that free speech does have its limits. Yes, this is a punitive suit, but the radio station deserves it!”
Jodi in Florida: “If some arrogant radio broadcaster had played that stunt on me, I would be very angry. It wasn’t a joke; it was a deliberate attempt to ensnare other individuals and hold them up for entertainment purposes against their will for the profit of the radio station. There is no doubt in my mind that the police person in question probably has had to deal with a lot of jokes and (hopefully light-hearted) harassment from his peers and probably from the public. While these things may not warrant some big money lawsuits (which I don’t consider $50K to be), he most likely has had quite a bit of annoyances resulting from a ‘joke’ broadcast that shouldn’t have happened. Maybe I am wrong but there seems to be an arrogance, a disregard for fellow human beings, a typical media position of ‘anything for a story’ behind this stunt.”
“So, if you’ve read this far,” I wrote in the next week’s Letters section, “you get a reward: I’ve changed my mind on this case, mainly because I didn’t realize (as several other readers pointed out) that it is against FCC regulations for radio stations to put people on the air like this.”
While most people aren’t aware of that rule, certainly radio professionals are, and they violate it at their peril. Whether or not the two suits are reasonable, the DA indeed should have pressed charges for disorderly conduct (or whatever similar type of offense that’s on the books in Pennsylvania).
- - -
No new cases are being published, so please don’t try to submit cases.
While there are no new cases coming, all of the previously published cases are returning to this site over time. You can subscribe to notifications as those classic cases are posted, scheduled for Mondays and Thursdays. Click here for a Stella Awards subscribe form.
Meanwhile, my flagship email publication This is True does continue to come out with new stories every week. It’s “Thought-Provoking Entertainment” like Stella, but uses weird-but-true news items as its vehicle for social commentary. It is the oldest entertainment newsletter online — weekly since 1994. Click here for a This is True subscribe form.