|By Jeff Weiner, The Orlando Sentinel,
Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Dec. 10, 2011--Employees of tourist-zone pizza shops are going to jail for delivering to hotels -- not delivering pizzas, as you might expect, but paper fliers that advertise the price of a slice.
It's part a long-standing feud between hotels near Central Florida's theme parks and restaurants that surreptitiously slip their advertising under the doors of travelers' rooms.
Police and deputies have made more than 150 arrests since January 2009 in Orange County, and the Osceola County Sheriff's Office made nearly 100 arrests just last year.
Ask law enforcement, and its members say those passing out the handbills -- many of whom have criminal or drug histories -- are unwelcome solicitors at best, and a menace to tourism at worst.
Officers say the pizza-flier men have been linked to crime, including burglaries and credit-card fraud. Skeptics say the crime threat is overblown, and that it's silly to send someone to jail over a slip of paper.
Pizza push or tourist scam?
In March, Orange County deputies working a handbill-distribution detail arrested Kevin Nardelli, his pocket packed with fliers. Nardelli, 24, jerked the locked rear entrance at the Residence Inn on Westwood Boulevard hard enough to force it open, according to his arrest report.
Months earlier, Yeaman Ottis Janes, 30, was arrested at an International Drive hotel after he was caught with a flier leaning inside the door of a hotel room -- which happened to house the hotel's security director.
Deputies and police say they see often see pizza-flier pushers testing the locks to hotel rooms or car doors, seeking to swipe a laptop or some jewelry.
Capt. Al Rodrigues, head of the Orange County Sheriff's Office sector that polices the resort area, said break-ins and burglaries are the most common crimes associated with the handbill activity -- but aren't his only concerns. Sometimes, he says, fliers are distributed for restaurants that don't exist.
"You give them your credit card, and you never hear from them again," Rodrigues said.
One of the skeptics is defense attorney Richard Hornsby, who has represented clients on the handbill-distribution charge. He says officers typically end up arresting young people looking to make money.
Hornsby argues the arrests have less to do with protecting tourists than with limiting competition for eateries favored by the hotels. Hauling people to jail for a nonviolent misdemeanor is unnecessary, he says.
"A teenager passed out a flier, and now we're looking at several hundred dollars in law-enforcement costs," said Hornsby, adding he hasn't seen the link between fliers and burglaries described by police.
Indeed, Orange County records show that of the dozens of arrests relating to handbill distribution made this year, only a handful included more-serious charges. What's more, the arrests rarely result in jail time.
However, Rodrigues argues handbill arrests are preventing other crimes: By arresting people for handbill distribution, cops are stopping burglaries before they can occur.
Protecting Central Florida's brand
Lobbyists for the Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association and Walt Disney World have been pushing for stricter regulation of handbill distribution for years.
This year, the state Legislature passed the "Tourist Safety Act of 2011," which stiffened penalties for the practice and empowered police to make arrests without seeing the crime firsthand, which is usually required for a misdemeanor arrest.
The bill was sponsored by Rep. Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, who cited an attempted rape and beating of a security guard at a Daytona Beach hotel last year that has been linked to pizza fliers.
Rich Maladecki, president and CEO of the Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association, said the legislation and arrests help protect the brand of a region that relies on the tourism industry.
Customers, Maladecki said, hold hotels accountable for bad experiences -- making it essential that hotels have the ability to regulate who has access to those customers.
"What happens if a client's eating a pizza and discovers a fork in it or a dead rat?" asked Maladecki, who questions the legitimacy of the pizza shops in question.
The businesses that use fliers often don't put an address on them and use generic names, sometimes using several names for only one phone number and location.
Some have also attracted scathing reviews from tourists online, for long delivery times, cold food and poor service, among other gripes.
Owners pay employees' bail
When Orlando police Officer Christopher Realin spotted 19-year-old Edwin Martinez passing out fliers at an I-Drive Days Inn on April 30, he recognized him immediately.
Realin had booted Martinez and his fliers for Roma's Pizza from the adjacent Hampton Inn the day before with a trespass warning, according to police reports.
Martinez was jailed and released on bond the same day. On July 4, about two months later, he was arrested again by Orange County deputies at a Radisson, also on International Drive.
In both instances, records show, a man named Mohamed Sayah arranged the bail. Records show a man with the same name is co-owner of Roma's Pizza on Americana Boulevard.
The law that makes it illegal to distribute handbills also makes it illegal to direct a person to distribute them. But those arrests are rare, because it's hard to prove that those caught passing fliers were told to do so.
However, Sayah, 35, and co-owner Walid Ezzine, 32, are listed in state business records for several local pizza businesses whose fliers have arrived unwanted at area hotels and their names also appear frequently on the bond paperwork of those arrested.
Ezzine was convicted of directing handbill distribution in 2009, and Sayah has a case pending in Orange County. Deputies said they caught him dropping off employees with fliers at a Rosen Inn in August.
Sayah's attorney, Tracey Kagan, said her client runs a legitimate business but is trying to sell his pizza shop. She said handbill violations would be better handled with municipal citations, rather than by arrests.
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