CASPER, Wyo. — He flipped off a truck that nearly hit us both. That's how I found him.
After searching for months — under bridges, down alleys, near corners of abandoned buildings — I saw him coming through the Natrona County Public Library's parking lot with his right hand's middle finger in the air. The truck that almost clipped me almost got him, too.
He looked like I'd been told: short, long beard, longer hair. He seemed younger than I guessed. There was bounce in his step. After bringing his finger down, in fact, he fell into a prizefighter-worthy swagger toward a group of men huddled outside the library.
As he shook hands with the men, I parked my pickup and waited. He shared cigarettes and laughs before walking alone to the bus stop at the corner of Second and Beech streets. I followed.
“Excuse me, sir,” I asked. “Are you Mark Pederson?”
“Yeah,” he said as our eyes met.
“Do they call you ...”
“Munch,” he cut in. “They call me Munch.”
After I told him my intention — to tell his story, the story of Casper's most notorious public intoxication arrestee — he glared. Whether he was waiting for a punch line or checking the cut of my jib, I don't know. But he stood, grabbed the backpack between his feet and said, “Sure. Missed my bus anyway.”
As we walked to my truck, he asked how I recognized him. I'd seen his mug shot during visits to the Casper Police Department.
“Yeah,” he said, pulling the seat belt across his body, “they've got a few pictures of me down there.”
Mark Thomas Pederson, a 53-year-old unemployed homeless man known as “Munch,” owes the city of Casper $2,500, according to court officials. (Pederson claims it's $2,300.) The majority of that amount stems from fines he's gathered from public intoxication arrests — which come, ordinarily, at $110 a pop.
Though it would be nearly impossible to determine who holds the record for public intoxication arrests, municipal court records show Pederson, since mid-June, has been arrested 13 times for the offense. Police records indicate he's been picked up for being drunk in public more than 40 times the past few years.
He claims police unfairly target him. Several factors suggest otherwise.
Every time Pederson has appeared at an arraignment for public intoxication, he's admitted to the crime. Asked why, he waved an open hand and said, “Just plead guilty and get it over with.”
Between Dec. 1 and Jan. 20, Casper police made 52 arrests for public intoxication. Of that number, 43 were the result of people calling authorities to report a specific situation.
“That's a common trend,” Capt. Chris Walsh said. “We don't go out to target public intox arrests. They are usually generated by a citizen's call.”
Walsh, who oversees the department's patrol division, said officers try to work with people — find out their destination and situation — before making public intoxication arrests. Jail, he said, is the last option.
Records show a steady increase in arrests for public intoxication from 2004, when there were 370, through 2009, when there were 726. This year's total stands at 506. Walsh said while “revolving door” offenders drain law enforcement resources, the largely citizen-generated calls won't be ignored.
Court officials have set Pederson up on a payment plan — $110 each month until his fines are paid off. I asked how he plans on making payments.
“I ain't going to,” he responded.
'Mind if I get out here?'
Breaking news struck when we left the library. Minutes later, I was steering my pickup toward clouds of black smoke down East Second Street with Pederson — window down, elbow out — gulping Camo Black Ice beer in the passenger seat. After he knocked back about a third of a 24-ounce can, his tongue sharpened.
“Every time they see me, they arrest me,” he said of the police. “Every f— time. It's harassment. That's what it is.”
I parked along Yellowstone Highway, where a cluster of onlookers had parked, and left him in the truck. The smoke was coming from Sinclair Refinery in Evansville. It had been caused by a brief power outage — information that took roughly 40 minutes, three phone calls and one face-to-face interview to gather.
Pacing the highway with a Rocky Mountain Power spokesman on my cell phone, I looked up and saw Pederson steadying himself on the passenger door, urinating toward my truck's front-right tire.
When my business at the refinery was done, I found Pederson asleep, stretched across my cab, his feet on my steering wheel. When I squeezed his boots he roused, then glared again until his eyes focused.
He asked to go to the east Casper Walmart, where we sat in the parking lot. Between my questions and his answers, he gave peace signs to every person who passed. He was clearly intoxicated and, for the first time, agitated. Suddenly, he wanted to go to the west Casper Walmart.
We never made it.
At a stop sign, as I was about to pull onto East Second Street, Pederson asked, “Mind if I get out here?”
Out before I could answer, he tripped on a curb and landed on his back in a patch of grass. He managed to stand and close my truck door before tumbling again.
The last time I saw him that evening, he was face-down on a local business' lawn.
Alcohol crisis center
When Riverton law enforcement officers encounter drunks, they have two options: arrest them and take them to jail, or offer to take them to Fremont County Alcohol Crisis Center.
“It's not perfect and probably not right for everywhere, but it's worked for us,” said Lisa Amos. “It's better than what we had.”
Amos has been director of the FCACC since it opened a decade ago. It's a facility where an intoxicated person is checked in, monitored hourly by medical staff and allowed to leave, no questions asked, once his blood-alcohol content reaches zero. Before departing, patients are encouraged to participate in on-site extended detox and 12-step meetings.
“It's provided a great resource for our police department,” Amos said, noting that the county jail is 30 miles away in Lander and an arrest means time must be spent filling out paperwork. “It allows their officers to spend their time doing real police work.”
The facility — open 24 hours a day with a minimum staff of four — can hold up to 28 people at a time. It is usually full. Roughly 4,000 intakes have come in during the past year. About 3 percent of the clientele is what Amos called “chronic repeats.”
Overnighters aren't charged. Someone who chooses to stay for an extended detox and counseling is charged “a minimal amount based on their income” — usually $10 a day, Amos said.
In Riverton, the FCACC has changed law enforcement's overall outlook on public intoxication cases, Amos said.
Casper's situation warrants a similar facility, Walsh said, and it's something the police department would support. But the infrastructure isn't in place. So public intoxication offenders are arrested, hauled to the Natrona County Detention Center and likely fined.
“These people aren't criminals,” Amos said. “We see that they don't so much need punishment, but help. They have a problem.”
James Samet, family services coordinator at the Salvation Army, estimates there are roughly 500 homeless people in Casper. That number includes “couchers” — people who stay periodically at random homes — and people living in cars.
“A lot of them, they've got a disability or an addiction that keeps them out of what we call a normal place in society,” he said. “For guys like Munch, they've been on alcohol so long, and lost that battle for so long, that it's a lifestyle. He's an alcoholic. But if he's not drunk, he can actually be a fun guy to be around. But he gets a dollar and he buys booze.”
I spent time with Pederson on five occasions during the past month. Sober, he's honest, good-natured, quick to laughter. Drinking, he's nearly unbearable.
He's a small man — 4 feet, 10 inches and 105 pounds — who despite having no teeth, looks a lot like a middle-aged and rakish Dennis Hopper. He wears skullcaps on his head and cheap, wrap-around sunglasses in front of his blue eyes. He has a copper bracelet around his left wrist “to help with the arthritis.” On most mornings he's at the Salvation Army, where Samet said approximately 2,000 free breakfasts are served each month.
Pederson splits his days and nights between his daughter's home in Evansville and the shade of the willow trees by the bridge near Parkway Plaza.
A native of Washington, he is one of five children born to a factory worker and homemaker. When he was 13, his father — who Pederson said was an alcoholic sober since 1987 — introduced him to his life's struggle by way of a half-case of beer.
In the eighth grade, because of his short stature, a classmate said he looked like a Munchkin from “The Wizard of Oz.” The nickname, shortened to “Munch,” stuck.
He dropped out of high school and eventually found employment in tool and die factories in the South. He married and divorced three times. In the early 1990s, he got a job in a Bar Nunn fiberglass factory. Nine months later, he was laid off. He's bounced around Casper's underground since — drinking, sifting through public ashtrays for discarded cigarettes and getting arrested so many times that most guards at the local jail know his name.
On one side of the backpack he usually has with him is a pocket holding a picture of his smiling, blonde-haired, 5-year-old grandson.
“I got two grandkids in Evansville,” he told me one morning. “Let me tell you, they're characters, too. Got bedrooms full of toys.”
When drinking and at his worst, though, he avoids his daughter's home and grandchildren there.
“I drink too much, I know I do,” he said. “I don't know why.”
Later, I asked straight.
“Yes,” he answered. “I'm an alcoholic.”
Back in jail
The morning after I left Pederson near Walmart, horrible scenarios played in my mind. What if he had stumbled into a roadway, been hit by a car?
I rose from bed worried and drove downtown, looked down alleys. I checked the Salvation Army, where a woman said he hadn't shown for breakfast. The scenarios in my head worsened.
Frantically, I drove to the east-side Walmart and asked a man holding a beggar's sign if he had seen what happened to Munch the day before.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “He went to jail.”
Later that day I learned specifics. He was taken in for public intoxication. The arresting officer had good reason to stop him: Pederson flipped him off.
Contact William Browning at email@example.com or 307-266-0534.