Dead Man Driving

Dead Man Driving

In one way, the ticket James Hamburg got for running a red light on Country Club Drive in October wasn't so unusual. He was heading south when the light at University Drive turned red, and he kept going. Woo hoo! The camera snapped his picture, and the Mesa Police Department sent him a ticket.

In another way, it was very unusual -- because James Hamburg is dead. In fact, if the City of Mesa's police report and his own family are to be believed, he's been dead five years.

The Bird isn't shitting you: James' elderly widow got her late husband's photo-radar ticket in the mail last month. At home recovering from heart surgery, she frantically dialed her son, Steven Hamburg, a retired firefighter.

"I don't know if this is a cruel joke, or what," Lorraine Hamburg told her son, who rushed over to ogle the ticket himself. And there his dead father was, behind the wheel of the family sedan. And, holy crypt-keeper, Batman! Steven's mother was in the passenger seat.

The Bird would have called local "medium" Allison "I See Dead People" DuBois (the inspiration for the TV show starring Patricia Arquette called Medium) and demanded to know what Steven's dead father was doing driving his mom around town, because corpses are notoriously bad drivers (if you don't believe The Bird, noodle around Sun City for half an hour).

But our Steven had already called Mesa police, and that's when things got really wiggy. The younger, and still-alive, Hamburg says he explained the situation to Detective Terri Dorn, but she refused to drop the ticket unless he offered proof that his dad was no longer breathing, and thus unable to operate a motor vehicle in the state of Arizona. Hamburg says he faxed over the death certificate (which The Bird itself has seen with its own beady little eyes) but never heard anything back from Dorn.

So Hamburg did what anyone whose dead father was being accused of being a bad driver would do: He tattled to the press.

When The Bird contacted Mesa police, Sergeant Chuck Trapani claimed that Dorn never got the death certificate from Steven Hamburg. But the coppers finally did a little digging and discovered that James Hamburg was, indeed, quite dead. Then, on November 15, Mesa's finest asked the court to dismiss the ticket. End of story, they hoped.

But Steven Hamburg's posthumous plight has The Bird scratching its plumed noggin. If that was truly Steve's late father at the wheel, doesn't that mean the ticket was at least five years old, and that Mesa's red-light-running camera equipment is seriously flawed? Or does it mean we're living in a cheesy George Romero flick, where carcasses pilot Plymouths through the tonier burbs?

If Mesa's red-light mean machine is spitting out five-year-old citations and claiming they're new, it could mean a major scandal (and what defense attorney wouldn't love that possibility?). Which may be why Trapani's department did still more digging and discovered that archived tickets are destroyed after three years.

So, in a routine straight out of a rerun of the old Kolchak: The Night Stalker TV show, Trapani's boys enhanced the photo of the dead guy. They also determined that one of the buildings in the background of the snapshot hadn't been built yet when Hamburg died.

The police investigation, in fact, involved tracking down the structure's building certificate, which was issued (insert scary organ music here!) last November.

"There is no doubt in anyone's mind that the car was driven through the light on October 10," Trapani squawked to The Bird. "The only question is who's driving the vehicle."

Someone (Dracula? The Mummy? Kolchak star Darren McGavin?), Trapani swears, must have taken Mrs. Hamburg out for a spin.

Steven Hamburg begs to differ.

Thanks to her heart surgery, he says, his mother isn't out running around in cars, and certainly not with strange men. She's nearly 80, for Bela Lugosi's sake! And Hamburg knows mom didn't slip out of the house and just forget to tell him, because her daughter-in-law, Hamburg's wife, was using the elderly woman's car all that day.

"I know where the car was, I know where my dad was, and I know where my mom was!" Hamburg declares. "These things are not on the same track. And this is just ridiculous."

The whole thing comes down to just one question: Is the guy in the photograph James Hamburg? If so, Mesa police have got a lot of explaining to do, the sort of explaining that a new building permit's not going to cover.

Not only did the cops cite someone five years after he died, but they didn't even do the due diligence of pulling his DMV records to see if he was driving with a valid driver's license. (As it turns out, he wasn't. James Hamburg's license expired in 2002, which was two years after he died, but three years before he was ticketed.)

And if it isn't James Hamburg, who in the name of Frankenstein is it?

The guy driving the car (see photograph) looks uncannily like the late James Hamburg (see inset photograph, of Hamburg with his wife). And James Hamburg didn't have a twin brother. He didn't have a brother, period.

Unless, of course, he really had an identical twin brother he kept hidden from his kids, but not his wife. And so she met up with the secret brother five years after her husband's death, and he took her for a spin down Country Club Drive -- and blew through a red light.

But right now, Mesa's sticking to its story. If bird brains wanna believe a ghost was driving that sedan, then so be it.

Because if its "flawless" photo contraption screwed up this time, how many other times has it screwed up? And is such photo equipment in other cities, say, Scottsdale and Paradise Valley, screwing up, too? How much fine money from supposed red-light runners could those dratted attorneys get back?

Talk about scary.

Mexican Standoff

Speaking of dead guys, this feathered fiend went to a funeral the other day. Now, The Bird is hardly what you'd call a professional wrestling fan (truth be told, it'd have a hard time telling the difference between a pile driver and a screwdriver). So when word reached it that World Wrestling Entertainment superstar and Valley of the Sun resident Eddie Guerrero was headed for his dirt nap at Green Acres Mortuary and Cemetery in Scottsdale, the beaked wonder swooped in to survey the scene -- if for no other reason than to hear the fanatical flappings of local rasslin' fans.

The scene wasn't disappointing. This may-he-wrestle-upstairs-in-peace party was as fun-filled as a three-hour pay-per-view extravaganza.

And despite the efforts of the Guerrero family to keep the event's location on the down-low, the details were the worst-kept secret since wrestling was revealed as a theatrical sham. Local grappling groupies (and members of the media, natch) camped out early at the cemetery fence to catch a glimpse of such heroes and villains as Rey Mysterio, Rob Van Dam and John Bradshaw Layfield. (Oddly enough, The Undertaker was a no-show.)

Some fans dragged along their video cameras, because nothing says "Kodak moment" like a fare-thee-well to a dead wrestler. Among the not-so-bereaved was 25-year-old Joe Fax of Mesa, who regularly stalks WWE wrestlers whenever they mosey into town, ambushing them at restaurants and at the airport.

WWE security permitted some of the less-gross groupies to get as close to the corpse as the cemetery's parking lot, where The Bird spotted 42-year-old Maureen Cavallaro, who'd ditched her secretarial post that day to get a ghoulish glance at the proceedings. Maureen even dragged along her 15-year-old daughter for the ride.

Cavallaro told this taloned tussler that she'd pissed off a posse of about 20 "rowdy Mexicans" who'd dared to pull up in pimped-out rides to pay tribute to their fallen hero, Guerrero, who went by the nickname Latino Heat and regularly drove a low-rider into the ring.

"We came prepared," Jimmy Arbizu sneered in Cavallaro's direction. "We got sandwiches in the truck, and we got some Corona." The Bird could tell that the 43-year-old municipal worker was a wrestling fan even before he explained that he rented his vintage 1966 ice-blue Chevy Impala to Guerrero when WWE last visited the Valley. "This is Eddie's last ride, man. He woulda wanted us here."

No doubt. But Cavallaro sure didn't. She pouted to The Bird that she was "mad the Mexicans were going to screw it up for the rest of us," but she was ready with her own smarter-than-you plan: She convinced the Latinos she worked for the WWE and told them to keep a distance from the proceedings, as though she were ordained by WWE chieftain Vincent K. McMahon himself (who attended the funeral with his whole family) to enforce security.

"I just kinda gave the impression that I [worked for WWE] because we didn't want them trying to worm their way past us," Cavallaro spewed. "We were here since 9:30 in the morning, and they arrived after they saw [the funeral] on the 12 o'clock news. And they're calling all their friends to come out."

Okay, but what's wrong with that, Maureen? After all, Eddie's motto was: "Lie, cheat and steal."

But in a comeback worthy of Hulk Hogan himself, Arbizu one-upped Cavallaro and spoke with actual security officials, as well as members of the Guerrero family, and got to park his ride next door to the Green Acres chapel. His sons, James, 11, and Andrew, 8, even got to shake hands with "Stone Cold" Steve Austin.

"That was the meat and potatoes," says Arbizu, who had only one complaint for The Bird about this party for the dearly departed:

"I thought there was gonna be mariachis here, man!"

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela