Here's Looking at You

From downtown to Uptown, shop clerks trade stories about the man with the scary stare. But John Fitzgerald Wyche says his only crime is being a nice guy.

Just as the last leaves were fluttering off the trees in Uptown, photocopied flyers bearing his mug shot appeared--on store walls, restaurant bulletin boards, light poles. Above the two stark photos, these words blared in thick magic-markered print: "Please Beware! He is a convicted rapist!" Though no one will admit to having made the flyers--some of which, in a revised version, still circulate in the neighborhood--everyone in the tightly knit Uptown business community seems to have seen them. "I'm glad those people flyered," asserts a woman who works at a hair salon. "We have to walk to our cars or take the bus home at night. But when we know he's out there, our guy friends will meet us or our managers will walk us to our cars."

There was only one problem with the flyers: The man in the mug shot, John Fitzgerald Wyche, has never been convicted of anything more serious than a misdemeanor. True, Wyche was arrested and charged with criminal sexual assault last October, but on February 23 in Hennepin County District Court, those charges were dropped. In addressing an unrelated string of misdemeanor charges against Wyche, Judge Philip D. Bush set another court date and ordered him to stay away from Uptown until those charges are resolved. Specifically, he may not set foot within three blocks of the intersection of Hennepin Avenue and Lake Street in Minneapolis.

The ruling doesn't seem to have stilled the buzz about Wyche: Mention his name around Hennepin-Lake, and you'll likely get an earful about what one woman calls "the failings of the system that allows him to walk the streets." There's talk about how Wyche got off on a "technicality," how he's had a vasectomy and thus left no DNA evidence in the alleged rape. Explain that those theories, too, are untrue or unproven, and people insist it doesn't matter: He's a creep, they say. He scares them, and they don't want him around.

In person, well-coifed and decked out in black pants and a white dress shirt, John Wyche doesn't look like a man who could inspire such strong antipathy. If it weren't for the garbage bag in which he carries his possessions--his wife threw him out of their Minneapolis apartment after the October arrest, he says--he could easily be taken for a Warehouse District up-and-comer. He read five books during his three months in jail, Wyche says, and right now he's in the midst of the Elmore Leonard novel Gold Coast. He describes a passage in which a police officer hands a crime victim a photo of the man he wants to finger, before the woman picks him out in a lineup. After the ordeal of the past four months, Wyche can see how that sort of thing might happen.

"You know, there are stories within stories," he muses. "Within this one is a guy in a city he liked, swept up and charged with a crime that he'd never committed. And those flyers have helped to inflame the situation."

Listening to Wyche and to the people who fear him is almost like watching the trick reflections in a funhouse mirror. The Uptown workers see a grotesque villain; Wyche sees a flawed but generally decent guy. "People don't like me for how I look," he says, then adds grudgingly, "or maybe a little bit of my actions. But I've never hurt anyone."

Maybe not. But he certainly has caused some commotion.

Named after JFK ("I was born a few months after he was assassinated"), Wyche moved to Minnesota in 1981 with his mother and younger sister. "My mother was in a tumultuous relationship, and she was getting away from that person," he explains. "Not broken skin and punches, but harm to us emotionally." He'd grown up in the small town of Havana, Florida, just outside Tallahassee. After graduating from high school, he joined the army for a year, but left after finding that "philosophically, the army and I differed."

Court officials in Havana and Leon County say their documents show no criminal record for Wyche. But he did land in trouble within a few years of his arrival in the Twin Cities. There was a misdemeanor trespassing charge, later dismissed, in May 1984, followed by shoplifting arrests at stores like Kmart and Rainbow Foods each year through 1993. Wyche's record has the most entries in 1992 and 1993, when, he says, he was doing cocaine. The low point, he says, came near the end of 1993, when he was busted for indecent conduct after being caught masturbating behind a bookshelf in Uptown's public Walker Library. Though he's ashamed of that incident, he feels he shouldn't have to answer for it any more. "Don't you see it doesn't apply to my current situation?" he asks. "Right after that I spent 30 days in treatment, and I haven't used cocaine now for years and years."

Minneapolis and St. Paul police logs show no arrests for Wyche from early 1994 to early 1997, a period during which he got married and was employed at various jobs. But in March 1997 something went wrong. Wyche won't say exactly what, except to note that "work was very sparse." He was arrested for shoplifting. Later that year came other arrests, culminating in a December trespassing charge at downtown Minneapolis's City Center; police records say he had been "harassing a Victoria's Secret employee."

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