News of the Weird

* Recently dismissed San Jose, Calif., police officer Johnny Venson Jr., 48, in jail facing 14 counts of on-duty burglary, was awarded a $27,000 annual pension in November by the city's retirement board. The board agreed with Venson that he had a disability, namely an addiction to gambling, which prosecutors say caused him to begin a life of crime as he got further in debt. Said one member about the board's decision, "I'm sure we'll get a lot of flak."

* In November, a jury in Westminster, Calif., convicted college professor Elena Zagustin, 61, of 69 health and safety violations at her suburban home, which is filled with trash and has no running water but many buckets that substitute for toilets. Neighbors of the civil-engineering professor at California State University at Long Beach have complained for years about the smell, the rodents and the insects, and in January, officials declared the house unfit to live in.

* The Classic Middle Name (continued): Indicted for murder in Dallas in November: Monty Wayne Lamb. Dead of burns in Miller, Mo., in September while still under suspicion for killing his wife: Robert Wayne Shelton. A 1989 early-released murderer who was featured in a "Willie Horton" ad in the 1998 Texas lieutenant governor's race: Gary Wayne Etheridge. Charged with murder in October in Prattville, Ala.: Morris Wayne Givens (along with his friend, the not-quite: Andrae Dewayne Barnett).

* Chicago juvenile-court judge Fe Fernandez ruled in February that a father's fondling and tweaking of his adolescent daughter's breasts and adolescent son's genitals were not sexual abuse because such displays are culturally acceptable in his native Sicily. (A local Sicilian-American group disputed that, and in September, Fernandez was transferred out of juvenile court.) And in October, Orlando, Fla., federal judge G. Kendall Sharp gave only probation to two NASA engineers caught with child pornography on their computers, calling them merely "lookers" and not "doers," which the prosecutor said is a distinction not made in the statute.

* In November, Donald Hieronimus, 46, was given only a suspended sentence in Kitchener, Ontario, for assault; he had attacked and choked a man, but it was only his lawyer, and, said the judge, he's not likely to attack anyone else. And Massachusetts inmate Zeferino DePina filed a suit against prison guard Filipe Monteiro for harassing him; DePina is in prison for shooting a man in 1991, namely, Monteiro, who was later hired as a guard and who now refuses to let bygones be bygones. (In October, DePina won $37,000 in damages.)

* The New York Times reported in November that Bangladesh officials believe that well water in two-thirds of the country has been contaminated with arsenic and that, according to one epidemiologist, arsenic in drinking water presents the "highest cancer risk ever found." (The underground system was dug 25 years ago to obtain water that was safer than the then-used pond water.) On the other hand, researchers at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center announced in November that arsenic was a "strikingly effective" treatment for people with a rare blood-cell cancer known as APL.

* Author-athlete Sri Chinmoy sponsored an endurance race for runners in New York City this summer, won by Istvan Sipos of Hungary, who finished the 3,100-mile course in 47 days (6 a.m.-midnight). Four other runners competed on the concrete grounds of a Queens school, circling the facility about 115 times every day (only prizes: a trophy and a photo album). Said one runner, "To me, what the race is all about is the blossoming of the human spirit," but according to the wife of another, the runners are "nuts."

* An October Associated Press dispatch profiled high-school junior Bradley Arnold at his new part-time job at the Bill Head Funeral Home & Crematory in Duluth, Ga. He said he's had his eyes set on being a funeral director since he was 6, ever since he rode in a hearse at an uncle's funeral. He greets mourners, cleans the embalming room and dresses the dead. Said his boss, Bill Head, "That boy just eats, sleeps and breathes funeral service."

* Among the pending prisoner suits mentioned in New York Attorney General Dennis Vacco's annual best-of-the-worst list in September: a burglar seeking $35,000 because he was served stale Pop Tarts; inmate Benjamin Bramble, who sued because his prison's dormitory received only 36 cable channels; and inmate Jonathan Odom, among whose 50 claims is one against the prison for not issuing him deodorant while he was in solitary confinement.

* After Laurence Peters of Long Beach, Calif., settled a former girlfriend's lawsuit against him for $120,000 (over his allegedly knowingly giving her herpes), he filed a claim against Firemen's Insurance Co., arguing that the sex was just another hazard that had occurred on his insured boat, like springing a leak. Firemen's rejected the claim, followed by a judge and, in October, by an appeals court.

* Thomas Macnish, 18, filed a suit in Los Angeles against two former friends for dropping a hot french fry down his shirt, which he says caused him to lose control of his Dodge Caravan. He was badly injured after he stopped and stumbled out the door and one of his friends shifted from park into reverse, causing the van to roll over his leg, and therefore Macnish is also suing Chrysler for not figuring out how to lock the gearshift when the driver steps away.

* In February, the English owner of the two-football-fields-long freighter Oceanus agreed to pay the 700 natives on the isolated Pacific island of Satawal about $2 million for the damage to a valuable coral reef caused when the skipper tried to maneuver out of the ship channel just so he could get a better look at the island's topless women.

Send your weird news to Chuck Shepherd, P.O. Box 8306, St. Petersburg, FL 33738, or [email protected].

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