In his 52 years, James Osipenkof has developed strong, if unremarkable, habits. He smokes two packs of unfiltered Old Gold cigarettes per day, and drinks whatever coffee is at hand, no matter how bad.

His life is arranged so that, come evening, there is a familiar bar within walking distance, and he walks there often.

A failed inventor, among other things, Osipenkof has spent the past year and a half living sparely at the Whole Life Foundation homeless shelter near downtown. The shelter gives him his two packs per day and the use of a dubious coffee maker.

In exchange, Osipenkof solicits contributions for the place--finding people to donate lumber or pipe or anything else needed to keep the shelter patched together.

A Russian emigrant, he arrived in this country in 1951 and came to Phoenix 13 years ago. But all of that, and his two marriages and various business failures, are in the past, and he does not care to talk about old things.

After more than five decades of hard wear, the six-foot Russian is holding up well. At least he was until February of last year, when he took an unexpected--and very painful--trip to the Madison Street Jail.

Arrested on an outstanding misdemeanor warrant while walking home from a bar, Osipenkof ended up with eight broken ribs and various head, neck and wrist injuries.

He had to be hospitalized for two weeks, he says, and it took months for him to recover. He is still taking medication for lingering pains.

His injuries, Osipenkof contends, came at the hands of two police officers and several jailers who beat him while he was handcuffed. More than a year after the fact, Osipenkof now discusses the events with dark glee.

The way Osipenkof figures it, he is poised to become the Rodney King of Phoenix. He has filed a civil suit that he hopes will make him at least comfortable, if not wealthy, and that will also stick it to the cops who felt at liberty to beat a 50-year-old man picked up on his way home from a bar.

"These guys are total morons to pull this stuff," he says. "What they did was malicious. They were like 12-year-old kids playing a game."
Like the infamous King case, Osipenkof's treatment at the hands of the law was captured on a videotape, and Osipenkof believes the tape is money in the bank.

In Osipenkof's case, the video monitoring system at the Madison Street Jail recorded the fateful moments of his scuffle with Phoenix police officer Charles Willrich and Chandler police officer Michael Bluse. It also captured another incident in which Osipenkof says unknown jailers beat him in a holding cell.

After severely injuring him, Osipenkof says and court records reflect, the cops then turned around and charged him with aggravated assault on a police officer. Several months later--after viewing the jail tapes--a jury acquitted him swiftly, with little internal disagreement.

The video captured by the jail's camera system, according to two jurors from the trial, was crucial in determining what happened, and the jury decided that Osipenkof was not guilty of starting the altercation that left him badly injured.

"If the tape wouldn't have been there, the whole trial would have been all different," says one juror. "It was quick. It was unanimous. I don't think we were in [the jury room] ten minutes."
But now that Osipenkof has filed his civil case, seeking redress for having his rib cage crunched while in custody, a curious thing has happened. The tape of the night he was admitted to the Madison Street Jail has been destroyed.

All that remains of the evidence crucial to Osipenkof's claim is a bad copy of the original jail tape, recorded at the wrong speed, from which it is virtually impossible to tell what happened.

Although Osipenkof remains optimistic that he will win his case, his civil lawyer and the public defender who represented him in his criminal trial say the loss of the original video may gut Osipenkof's chances of convincing a jury he was wronged.

Arrested for breaking down a door, Osipenkof wound up with eight broken ribs and then spent four months in jail before the jury acquitted him.

But the tale of the tape may prove to be a final, grim joke on the Russian.
@body:It was a little before midnight on February 13, 1992, when Osipenkof was drifting back home from his then-favored bar on the corner of 19th Avenue and Camelback.

There had been a disturbance in the area. Police were about, and Officer Charles Willrich stopped Osipenkof to check him out.

According to Osipenkof and court records, Willrich got a hit when he fed Osipenkof's name into the crime computer. There was an outstanding warrant for criminal damage.