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Park stings net range of suspects

Solicitation arrests down from previous years

POSTED: October 20, 2008 5:00 a.m.
Scott Rogers/The Times

Lula Park on Ga. 52 has been the site of recent arrests of people charged with solicitation of sodomy and indecent exposure.

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From all walks of life, they have come to tiny Lula Park.

Men seeking anonymous, casual sexual encounters in the woods repeatedly have propositioned undercover officers there over the course of a six-month sting operation that was prompted by complaints.

Those charged with misdemeanor solicitation of sodomy or public indecency included a furniture store manager, a disabled veteran, an attorney and the head of one of Georgia’s largest labor union chapters.

"It’s not a specific race or class of people," said Lt. Scott Ware, commander of the Multi-Agency Narcotics Squad, which conducts most of Hall County’s vice investigations. "We’ve arrested teachers, law enforcement officers, preachers, doctors and construction workers. It’s all walks of life."

Lula Park, a small U.S. Army Corps of Engineers property off Ga. 52 with a parking lot and boat ramp and little more, has become the new Central Park, authorities say. Hall County’s Central Park, located off Candler Highway near the Interstate 985 exit, was notorious as a public meeting place for men to engage in sex before the property was closed and sold to a commercial developer two years ago.

"Since it was shut down, Lula Park has taken its place," Ware said. "Basically the word has gotten out, and that’s where people show up."

Word also has spread on the Internet that Lula Park is being targeted by law enforcement. One Web site that focuses on the practice known as "cruising" posts state-by-state alerts of areas where arrests are prevalent. Lula Park is one of five locations in Georgia listed on the site.

"They are in a countywide sting in parks with the intention of locking up every gay man they can find," one person wrote anonymously.

Ware said illegal acts of public indecency and solicitation of sodomy are being targeted, not homosexuals.

"I couldn’t care less what people do in the privacy of their own home," Ware said. "But the thought of a child going out to play in one of these parks and seeing something like that ... they deserve better than that. We’re not targeting people because of their sexual orientation. Just stay at home — don’t try to use the parks."

Several of those arrested exposed themselves to an undercover officer in an open, public area, according to arrest warrants. Ware said there are several "red flags" officers look for, including eye contact and certain suggestive banter.

But after 13 people were arrested at Lula park between April and September, the men who frequent it are becoming more cautious, he said.

"People are less apt to use the verbiage that can get them a (criminal) charge," Ware said. "They know you can be arrested for saying the wrong thing."

Steve Lomax, president of the Suwanee-based United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1996, was arrested early on the evening of April 2 for saying the wrong thing at Lula Park. Lomax, whose union chapter has 14,000 members, asked an undercover officer to perform a sex act in woods at the park, according to court documents. Court records show that Lomax, 54, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor solicitation of sodomy on May 5 and was sentenced by State Court Judge B.E. Roberts to 12 months’ probation, fined $500 and ordered to stay away from Hall County’s public parks for a year, a standard sentence for first offenders.

Lomax did not return calls and e-mails to his business seeking comment.

Others caught up in the sting include James Walter Woodall, a 48-year-old manager of an Athens furniture store, 36-year-old Columbus attorney Richard Thomas Tebeau and disabled veteran Samuel Peter Zook. Zook, 57, allegedly performed a lewd act in the woods while partially clothed in front of an undercover officer.

Hall County Solicitor Larry Baldwin, who prosecutes most misdemeanor cases, said solicitation of sodomy and public indecency cases used to be more prevalent.

"Several years ago there were quite a bit more," Baldwin said. "Maybe word got out that the sheriff’s office wasn’t going to put up with it."

At the height of law enforcement operations at Central Park and two I-985 rest stops since shut down by the Georgia Department of Transportation, more than 60 people were charged with seeking sex in public places in a single summer, Ware said.

Hall County Commissioner Steve Gailey, whose district includes Lula, said the creation of the county’s three-person park ranger unit was in large part a response to the problem.

"We had issues with certain parks being a haven for solicitation," Gailey said. Sheriff’s deputies don’t have the manpower to patrol all 24 of Hall County’s parks all the time, Gailey said.

Having a park ranger force patrolling "is extremely vital, with as many parks as we have," Gailey said. "We want our parks to be safe places. We don’t want people to feel eerie."

Not all charges of solicitation of sodomy end in convictions. In neighboring Dawson County, Shannon Wayne Phillips was acquitted by a jury last month after being arrested at Thompson Creek Park on a solicitation of sodomy charge in September 2007. The acquittal made headlines in "Southern Voice," an Atlanta-based alternative lifestyles publication.

Clay Thompson, the attorney for Phillips, said he believes such park stings are inherently biased against gay men. He said his client merely wanted to exchange phone numbers with the undercover officer who approached him.

"It would be interesting if a female had been saying the exact thing as my client, whether she would be prosecuted," Thompson said.

Thompson said he is not condoning sex in public places, however.

"If in fact things are taking place that are inappropriate at public parks, then yes, that needs to be ceased, whether it’s male on male or male on female," Thompson said. "If it’s in public and in front of kids, I’ve got a problem with that."


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