Swinging at Matty

Oct 1, 2008 at 12:00 am

News Hits has been following with interest the recent blog postings of former Free Press reporter Joel Thurtell, who apparently isn't letting retirement keep him from stirring up a shitstorm or two.

The fun began when Thurtell used his blog, "Joel on the Road," to report on his run-in with a "shotgun-toting" private security guard while taking photos of the Ambassador Bridge from what is supposed to be public property at Detroit's Riverside Park, located near the intersection of Jefferson and 24th Street just downstream from the privately owned span.

Thurtell says he came down to check out a tip that access to the park's boat ramp had been cut off by a padlocked chain-link fence bearing a sign that reads: "Warning Due to Homeland Security No Trespassing. Violators Will Be Prosecuted."

The guard put a call into the feds as he tried to use his truck to block Thurtell's exit from the scene, but Joel was able to make a clean getaway nonetheless.

Then he started to do some checking. And so did we. First thing we did was scurry right down to snap a few photos of our own, the number of a local bail agent in hand. But, unfortunately, no shotgun carrying "goons" tried to nab us.

Thurtell claimed that unnamed sources within the city told him that the parkland had been appropriated by the bridge company — owned by publicity-shy billionaire Manuel "Matty" Moroun — without the city's permission.

We tried to find out from official sources what was going on, but didn't have any luck. We don't want to get off on the wrong foot with the new administration, so we'll cut Daniel Cherrin, the newly installed spokesman for newly installed Mayor Ken Cockrel Jr. some slack. Those guys have a lot on their hands, moving into their offices and reorganizing the bureaucracy as they try to save the sinking ship that is the city of Detroit and all. So we can understand that answering pesky questions about a ragtag park from this rag isn't exactly a top priority.

But the questions aren't going away, because this is about more than some little park. It is about the power wielded by one of this area's most politically influential moguls, and it is about the disturbing trend toward curtailing civil liberties that's gone on in this country since the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Moroun and his minions have tried before using the argument that his company, controlling as it does a crucial border crossing, is an instrument of the federal government and, as such, doesn't have to abide by nitpicky things like, say, local zoning ordinances.

We also tried contacting bridge company honcho Dan Stamper, who wasn't able to get back to us by press time. He did, however, send a note to Thurtell, taking Joe to task for not recognizing the valiant effort being made by the Ambassador Bridge (or, as Stamper calls it, the AB) and its private security guards in working with the forces of Homeland Security to keep us all safe.

"After 9/11, AB officials were approached by Homeland Security to work in coordination with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to enhance security around this border crossing. This resulted in the security of the AB's infrastructure being the responsibility of bridge officials. In order to secure it adequately, AB officials were given permission to create a security buffer around the bridge in this most vulnerable area in order to protect the infrastructure as best it could," wrote Stamper.

"The reality: both private and public security officials assessed the area to create an adequate perimeter necessary to secure the infrastructure, as a direct result of the charge given from Homeland Security. Yes, both private and public security can and do work together to secure our border crossing and despite their necessary efforts to adequately secure this important international crossway, almost 90 percent of the park is still open for public use."

News Hits put in calls to a variety of local Homeland Security officials including those at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) regional office at Selfridge Air Force Base and its Detroit office, and also the U.S. Coast Guard's office in Detroit. All expressed surprise at learning that said fence had been erected and access to the boat launch had been cut off.

"To my knowledge, there's no connection between the fence being put up at that park and the Department of Homeland Security," says Ronald Smith, spokesman for the CBP's Detroit office.

So, our questions for Mr. Stamper when he does get back to us on this: Who, exactly, in the U.S. government instructed you to put up this fence? And when, exactly, did that fence go up?

Contrary to what Stamper's letter implies, Thurtell says a Google satellite photo of the area taken in the summer of 2007 shows no fence. Did something happen in the past year that suddenly ramped up the security threat so high that the fence just had to be erected to protect us? Or — since Thurtell reports seeing construction equipment parked on what used to be basketball courts — did Matty just need to secure a storage area on city-owned property he considered convenient?

But here's the really beautiful thing about this: After the story got posted on the DetroitYes site, some wag suggested freedom lovers in this area needed to stage a protest of sorts, and suggested a softball game at the park. Others were quick to sign on, with someone suggesting that everyone show up wearing black shirts.

The game's to be held today, Wednesday, Oct. 1, at the park's ball diamond. People are meeting at the foot of West Grand Boulevard and Fort Street around 4:15 p.m. The game begins at 5.

Oh, and by the way. Stamper is offering to supply soft drinks for the whole crowd.

Thurtell promises to be there, but he doesn't plan to wield a bat.

"I'm just a reporter," he says.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]