*In December a deer hunter in upscale Nantucket, Massachusetts stumbled across the hatch that leads to the eight-by-eight-by-seven-foot-deep underground squatter's apartment of Thomas Johnson, age 38. Johnson said he built the place ten years ago when he was on the lam from drug charges in Italy. His apartment features cedar paneling, a Belgian stone floor, walls lined with books and tapes, a makeshift shower and toilet, a queen-size bed, a stove, a refrigerator and, according to local authorities, several building code violations. Johnson, a painter-carpenter by trade, says he shuttles between his Nantucket digs and similar residences in four other states.
*Researchers at a large Russian biological and medical center told New Scientist magazine in December they had begun work on breeding a combination of bacteria that will decompose the human waste accumulated on space shuttles as well as the cosmonauts' cotton underwear, thereby producing enough methane to help power the spacecraft. One of the space station Mir's 1997 catastrophes was caused by the additional weight of dirty laundry aboard the capsule.
Least Competent People
*Quadriplegic Louis Berrios, age 32, filed a lawsuit in December in New York City against Our Lady of Mercy Hospital for a June incident in which doctors turned him over to police because they thought his X-ray showed bags of heroin in his stomach. In truth the X-ray showed bladder stones. And Vermont social activist George Singleton, age 49, with hip-length dreadlocks, was acquitted in October of DUI in Vinita, Oklahoma, where he had been arrested when police found a suspicious bag of herbs in his car. Rather than charge him with careless driving, police kept him in jail for fifteen days even after two blood tests showed him to be clean and the laboratory found the herb to be rosemary.
*A man whose name was not published was denied a gun permit by the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections, according to an October report in the Philadelphia Inquirer. He told a department panel that he needed the gun to protect himself from "dwarf drug dealers" who are "beaming radio waves" to him via satellite and thus reading his mind. (The man had an earlier permit revoked when he showed up at a hospital covered in aluminum foil, complaining about pain from the radio waves.) The man's lawyer, George E. Walker, argued vigorously for the permit: "There's been no evidence adduced before this panel that (my client) in any way is not of sound mind."
*Timothy Dale Crockett, age 34, was arrested in Spartanburg, South Carolina, in September and charged with holding up the Palmetto Bank. Crockett said in court that he did the job because he had just been charged $600 in overdraft fees because of a mix-up with his student loans. Crockett's bank, however, is the First Federal Bank; he said he wanted to rob First Federal in retaliation, but Palmetto was the only bank open on Saturday.
*In November a federal judge tossed out a Georgia law prohibiting casket sales by anyone other than a funeral home, calling the law a blatant restraint of trade. Among the government's arguments to the judge to retain the law was that having independent casket dealers in a price war would "promote the criminal element," in that murder would be encouraged by the easy availability of caskets.
-- By Chuck Shepherd