Street Fight

Leon Woodward was expecting an apology when he picked up the letter from city zoning officials in late March.

After all, city officials had admitted their inspectors were wrong for harassing Woodward about the height of signs in his U.S. Parking Systems parking lots, which dot the landscape of downtown Phoenix. They had told him his signs could be no more than four feet off the ground. During a year and a half of appeals, Woodward showed that the city was wrong: Zoning officials were citing an ordinance that referred to properties with buildings, not sprawling slabs of asphalt.

If he was forced to follow the city's mistaken instructions, he pointed out, only midgets in go-carts could safely enter and exit his parking lots.

Instead of an apology, though, Woodward received this warning:

"In today's America, people are fearful and are taking comments to heart. In an era of postal killings, drive-by shootings and September 11, we should exercise care not to frighten or intentionally intimidate other people.

"I implore you to take this letter seriously," wrote Denee McKinley, a senior official in the city's zoning section. "Please avoid all communication with the Sign section staff."

Is Leon Woodward a psychopath, gangbanger or terrorist?

Not at all. He's just a sometimes mouthy businessman with the wrong-headed notion that you can fight City Hall when City Hall is wrong.

Thanks to that notion, Woodward, owner of U.S. Parking, has been the victim of a litany of harassment by zoning and law enforcement officials in Phoenix. Indeed, over the last two decades, he has arguably been Public Enemy #1 to those in local government who believe their power should never be questioned by lowly citizens.

The strange letter likening Woodward to psycho killers stemmed from his arguments with zoning regulator Kelly Kvetko about her incorrect, and likely retaliatory, application of city ordinances. But the letter to Woodward was also prompted by an absurd accusation by Kvetko: that she feared for her safety because she had seen Woodward outside her home in a red pickup truck.

In typical Woodward fashion, he's offered his million-dollar home to anyone who can find a red truck that he owns, leases or ever drives.

Woodward doesn't have a red truck. But he does have a target on his back.

"I can confirm he was targeted because I was told to target him," says Phil Marriott, who worked as a zoning inspector for the city through several of Woodward's fights with the city. "They did target certain people, and it's clear they still target certain people. And I'd guess Leon has been their biggest target for the longest time."

And now City Hall has a new trick to silence complainers like Woodward. The message to property owners is clear: Fight us, and we'll compare you to Mohammed Atta.

Here's what can happen to you if you get crosswise with the city:

Leon Woodward's brawl with City Hall started back in the mid-1980s, when Woodward, a burly former high school football coach, decided he'd had enough of construction workers parking in his lots for free while they were building the parking garage under Patriots Square downtown. He called the construction workers freeloaders, and they called Woodward any number of vulgar names.

As the verbal encounters escalated, an off-duty Phoenix police officer at the construction site began to harass Woodward about his treatment of the construction workers.

A few days after Woodward began confronting the workers, a sign appeared on the entrance to his paid parking lot:

"Free parking today. Happy Holidays. Thanks for your business."

Woodward was incensed when he discovered the sign, which left his fee box empty that day.

So Woodward started putting stickers on the trucks of those who didn't pay. The stickers were difficult to remove.

Three weeks later, construction workers confronted him. As both sides screamed threats, the off-duty officer came over to break up the fight. Again, the officer sided with the construction workers and threatened to arrest Woodward. The next day, Woodward called Phoenix police internal affairs to complain about the officer.

A few days later, Woodward was written up by the construction site officer for disorderly conduct.

Woodward got a copy of the report. Oddly, the report's handwriting looked identical to the handwriting of the "Free Parking" sign.

Woodward then paid $1,500 to a nationally respected handwriting expert to analyze the handwriting of the report and the sign. Sure enough, both were written by the same person.

After a Phoenix police internal investigation of the incident, the officer was suspended for a week.

And the harassment of Woodward by all levels of local government shifted into high gear.

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Robert Nelson