Scottsdale’s sidewalk solicitor behind bars - East Valley Tribune: News

Scottsdale’s sidewalk solicitor behind bars

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Posted: Friday, June 27, 2008 6:15 pm | Updated: 9:24 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

For more than a decade, Bernard "Bernie" Kessler has been a fixture on downtown Scottsdale streets, wearing official-looking outfits and soliciting people to make donations to a no-kill animal shelter in lieu of paying bogus fines.

But for now, the man who has been caught between his First Amendment right of freedom of expression and being perceived as a public nuisance is off the streets and behind bars.

No longer is he wearing his familiar bright-orange safety vest and a foreign legion-style hat while doing what many merchants have called overbearing tactics to solicit donations for his shelter, HELP, or Help Elevate Life for Pets, in Glendale.

Since May 14, Kessler, 71, has been held in the psychiatric unit of the Maricopa County Lower Buckeye Jail on $100,000 bond. He is awaiting a hearing in Superior Court on July 9 to determine whether he is competent to stand trial.

Kessler, whose soliciting tactics have been described by business owners as ranging from pushy to fraudulent, was arrested at his Phoenix residence by Scottsdale police on Oct. 11 on suspicion of unlawful imprisonment, impersonating a public servant, disorderly conduct and being a public nuisance.

Witnesses told police Kessler restrained a woman in a wheelchair who had an anxiety attack on the corner of Brown Avenue and Main Street in front of the Mexican Import Store the day of his arrest.

However, Kessler's wife says that allegation is untrue and believes her husband hasn't overstepped his bounds.

"They want to say he's crazy because he keeps talking about the First Amendment," said Sherry Kessler. "My husband has the propensity to open his mouth and (anger) everyone ... which is what he has done. He's quite a character. They just don't want us to solicit in Scottsdale."

Depending on the results of his competency hearing, Kessler's trial is pending in Scottsdale City Court.

Caron Close, a city prosecutor, said Kessler's public defender requested his psychological evaluation, but would not comment on the case because it is ongoing.

Kessler's lawyer did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Many business owners did not know Kessler had been arrested and that he was banned from soliciting in Scottsdale.

"Good. He is a public nuisance. He's very pushy and very aggressive. Him collecting money for his pet shelter is like somebody selling fog to the English," said Alex Babic as she pushed food and drinks from behind the bar at the Rusty Spur Saloon.

Sue Anderson, who owns the Rusty Spur with her husband, said Kessler used to try his tactics on her every day when she went to the mailbox.

"I have to laugh. This has been a long process. He would step right in front of me," Anderson said. "I would just wave my arm at him as I warned others not to give him money. I'm glad the courts have finally paid enough attention to him to do something about it."

Kessler's wife told the Tribune that her husband was exercising his constitutional right.

"They want him to look like he's crazy because he still believes in the First Amendment to the Constitution," she said. "He doesn't believe there's any First Amendment in Scottsdale because they stopped him on complaints."

As Kessler would pass out fans to those who wanted them or not, Kessler's trademark pitch often would begin with telling people they've been "recognized," or "Didn't you see that sign behind you?"

He often would tell them they were committing a violation, but if they wanted to get out of paying it, they had to make a donation to the pet shelter.

Many people who frequent the shops are equally happy he is gone, according to Rosann Song, owner of the Mexican Import Store.

"We're just happy he's not around," Song said. "The customers are not as stressed out when they come in - he would not take 'no' for an answer."

Another time, Kessler called the police on Rose Cano, who works in the Mexican Import Store and accused her of hitting him.

"I never touched him," she said.

Hector Corral, owner of the downtown Scottsdale Los Olivos Mexican restaurant, said he wished authorities would have taken Kessler off the streets sooner.

Rebecca Burton who works at Saba's Famous Texas Boots, said she's glad she no longer sees Kessler chasing people down the street for donations when she looks out the store's window. "Anybody that's willing to chase you down the street for money ..." Burton said, as she shook her head.

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