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.)