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.

No one in Uptown will admit to making the flyers bearing Wyche's mug shot and an inflammatory headline
Craig Lassig
No one in Uptown will admit to making the flyers bearing Wyche's mug shot and an inflammatory headline

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."

By the summer of 1998, Wyche had logged four additional shoplifting and trespassing arrests, and he was beginning to be noticed by the beat cops in Uptown. Wyche pulls a document out of his envelope archive; it's a handwritten log he began keeping in mid-June 1998 of his encounters with police. A July 9 entry reads: Standing at Hennepin and Lake in front of McDonald's restaurant, I took a stick of gum out of wrapper, balled the tiny wrapper up, and tossed it overhand, baseball style. Three seconds later, out of McDonald's strut [Officers] Daniel Lysholm and James Bulleigh. One of them says, "What was that you threw in the street?"

"Gum wrapper."

"You know you're not supposed to litter." Silence. "You know we have laws for a reason."

"What do you want?"

"I'm gonna write you a ticket."

"This is bullshit."

"I'm going to write you another one for profanity."

Hennepin County records show that the incident resulted in charges against Wyche for using profanity in public and littering. He demanded a jury trial, and the case is still pending. Minneapolis Police spokeswoman Penny Parrish says officers Lysholm and Bulleigh can't comment because Wyche is involved in ongoing cases. But Cindy Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Uptown Business Association, says area retailers have worked with police to cut down on behavior that violates "community standards."

Again the funhouse mirrors: If Wyche's logs show a blameless victim of police harassment, Uptown workers remember a constant, unsettling presence. A manager at the Fresco juice shop who would give his name only as "Terry" says that last summer and fall, Wyche "would sit in here for hours. He was just obsessed with females, would sit and stare at them."

A clothing-store employee says Wyche does not instantly set off red flags: "The scary part is that he's well-spoken and dresses well. There are no outward signs that he could be a threat to women." A co-worker interjects, "Yeah. He blends in really well around here. With his white shirts and black suits, he looks like those guys that work at Jon English [Salon]." Adds a coffee-shop worker: "He scared all of us. What I especially don't understand is, he knows we're all scared of him. Yet he still comes around."

Wyche says he kept coming back because "Uptown is a fine part of town. At one time I didn't think that I was doing anything that could even be perceived as deviant, so I wouldn't have thought to stay away." As for the complaints, he says, "People stare at me, too. I know that I'm a guy, and a guy of color, and that brings different baggage to it."

Some Uptown workers say Wyche desperately tried to strike up friendships with them, even after they'd made it clear they weren't interested. Wyche says he doesn't get that: "So let's say I'm at this grocery store to buy some chips, but then the clerks get frustrated about me and say, 'Why can't he just say hi and smile?' I like to talk."

On September 1 Wyche was picked up for disorderly conduct at the Pier 1 Imports store on Lake Street. The police report reads: "The defendant is a chronic problem in Uptown and he has been trespassed from numerous businesses for his disruptive behavior, theft, and inappropriate touching and stalking of employees. Within the past few days, the defendant assaulted the employee of a business when told to leave. That business had the same problems with him continually loitering. Officers have witnessed the defendant also to chase a female across a parking lot... He continually returns to the area and officers believe that he is a potential threat to the citizens and employees."

The report's allusion to Wyche's "being trespassed" refers to a procedure, developed by the Minneapolis Police Department's Community Crime Prevention/SAFE unit, that allows business owners to ban individuals from their premises by handing them a special "trespass form" and having it signed by the unwanted customer or a witness. The bans are valid for up to 90 days and can be made permanent by filing a request with the city attorney. Violators can be charged with trespassing.

Uptown retailers weren't the only ones who wanted Wyche off their premises. He was banned from City Center after the Victoria's Secret arrest; in October officials at the downtown library filed a trespassing order against him. Alex Wakal, building superintendent for the Minneapolis public library system, says that Wyche had become "abusive to our staff. The least little thing, if he's not getting prompt service, he would start getting loud and abusive."

By last fall, Wyche and his behavior (which his own public defender, Jim Krieger, characterized during a court proceeding as "bizarre and evasive") had become a major subject of the thriving Uptown grapevine. Any new anecdote would be passed around the neighborhood, often picking up extra details along the way.

 

Not surprisingly, word of the rape charge got around within hours. On October 19 of last year, Minneapolis police were dispatched to a Northeast Minneapolis address where a woman had reported a sexual assault. According to a criminal complaint prosecutors later filed against Wyche, the woman told officers that she had been waiting for the bus that night with two other women and a man, who was acting strangely. When she got off the bus, she charged, the man approached her from behind, held a gun to her head, forced her into a nearby alley, and raped her.

According to the complaint, on October 22, police were called to the downtown library to remove an "unwanted person." A security guard pointed the officers to Wyche, who "created a disturbance" and was arrested for disorderly conduct. The library's Alex Wakal says the guard also suggested that Wyche matched the description police had circulated of the Northeast Minneapolis rapist. Police took Wyche's picture, put together a photographic lineup, and brought in the victim, who identified Wyche as her assailant. Wyche was taken into custody and remained there until the first hearing in the case, January 15.

That day, however, brought another surprise: Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Mark Hammer asked the judge for a continuance. The seminal fluid taken from Wyche's alleged victim did not contain sperm, the prosecutor explained, and the county was having trouble extracting DNA from the samples. (According to Hammer's argument, genetic material is commonly found in seminal fluid but is not as easy to detect as that of sperm.) Hammer said more tests had to be conducted.

A subsequent KMSP-TV (Channel 9) report featured Wyche's mug shot and an image of a test tube with the caption "No DNA!" Reporter Tom Lyden also noted that Wyche was "known as the perfume pervert" for the way he sniffed at scented items in Pier 1 Imports.

After the hearing, Wyche was released on the condition that he stay out of legal trouble and away from both the downtown library and the scene of the alleged crime. But Wyche found himself back in jail nine days later, when employees at the Uptown Caribou Coffee shop reported to police that he "was verbally harassing [a] female employee and customer." (Wyche flatly denies the accusation. "They said that I told her, 'Make it [the coffee] slow so I can watch you.' There's an unbelievableness to that sort of comment.")

When Wyche appeared in court for his February 23 hearing, the county dropped the rape charge. Prosecutors won't comment on the results of any additional lab tests they conducted; all County Attorney Amy Klobuchar will say is that the victim declined to testify, and her office has decided it doesn't have enough of a case. "We had an uncooperative victim, along with insufficient physical evidence of the assault, and no witnesses," she explains.

The rape charge was dismissed without prejudice--meaning it could be raised again if more evidence is found. At the same hearing, the judge addressed the misdemeanor charges from Wyche's previous arrests, ordering him to stay away from Uptown until his next court date, scheduled for today, March 3.

Regardless of the outcome of that hearing, Wyche says, he's not sure he'd care to go back to Uptown. "It's practical now for me not to go there," he says. "I took that little chance in January, and I got cuffs put on me. It was a regrettable experience."

His time in jail, however, seems to have afforded him a measure of perspective, even allowing him to contemplate the anonymous leafletters' motives. "People might think they're doing the right thing--you know, 'So many people are getting off on serious charges.' But all it takes is one accusation, and if you've got a checkered past, people think you're capable of any crime.

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