Best Of 2005

Cleveland's biggest curse isn't the "Quiet Crisis," brain drain, or NAFTA. It's that no one can do business here without being shaken down by the mutts and leeches we elect. Of course, it would be nice if someone in City Hall grabbed the torch of reform. But since no one's willing, that job has been left to the FBI's organized crime and public corruption squad. It may be doing more for Cleveland than all the politicians and business people combined. In the past year, it's thrown the knockout punch at Nate Gray, Ricardo Teamor, and Joe Jones. And the squad, led by Agent Paul Graupmann, is still looking to pick bigger fights, including bouts with Mike White and Forest City's Sam Miller. In the go-along, get-along culture of elite Cleveland, these are the only guys taking names, kicking ass, and actually working on behalf of the people paying their salaries. They may be the only people in town who understand the true meaning of public service.
For the past 14 years, Holland has been the beasts' best friend. He's the special prosecutor for animal-welfare cases in more than a dozen counties, putting animal abusers behind bars for as long as 190 days. In fact, it was Holland who tightened Ohio's animal-welfare laws just two years ago, when he spearheaded a Senate bill that allowed second-time animal-abusers to be tried as felons. When Akron passed a citywide ordinance that marked stray cats for death, Holland was on the case, representing six Akron animal-lovers in a suit against the city. Although the case was ultimately dismissed, his litigation inspired the formation of an official humane committee, which now reviews the city's treatment of animals. And he practices what he preaches: Holland cares for six dogs, five horses, and a menagerie of fish and birds. He's Dr. Dolittle with a law degree.
If you even suspect your spouse is cheating on you, you're probably right, says Mike Lewis, lead investigator and owner of Confidential Investigative Services. In 85 percent of the cases he investigates, someone is skanking around town. Almost always, the other woman (or man) is a co-worker. Since 1997, Lewis has trailed and photographed Cleveland adulterers in their natural habitats - parking garages, hotels, the Metroparks - anywhere someone can grab a little booty on the DL. Recently, he worked a case in Richmond Heights involving a millionaire philanderer who was leading a secret double life with a call girl. Now, his evidence will be used in divorce court. A blue-collar Bruce Wayne, Lewis stocks up on state-of-the-art gadgets to use against evildoers during his nightly stakeouts. He has GPS discs he can slip under a car's bumper and a camera that can capture someone making out in the cab of a truck 500 feet away - in the dark. His services are a bit steep - $600 to start - but that's chump change, when you consider the alimony you'll be getting.
He's more eerie than Elvira and creepier than the Cryptkeeper. He's the Doctor, Cleveland's best horror-show host since the Ghoul. All those other scaremongers are good for snappy dialogue between segments of horror movies - but then they get back to the movie and waste your time on artsy crap like plot and character development. The Doctor, on the other hand, cuts straight to the chase - or, as it were, the hangings and decapitations. The Doctor's Asylum for Shut-Ins ran on East End cable access from 1987 to 1992, featuring his disconcerting chatter between repeating video loops of horror classics' grisliest bits. After the Doctor disappeared into the darkness, videotapes of old episodes became hot commodities on the international horror-festival circuit. Now, like any horror icon worth his salt, he has returned, with two new DVD-only episodes. The bespectacled puppet also lurks online, offering ghoulish new fun at the click of a mouse. Though the Doctor declined repeated requests for his medical or academic credentials, he says, "You are quite sick, my friend. And I have the cure for your madness. Video psychotherapy will guide you through your nightmares."
If you watch local TV, you've seen the commercial: Mikey, a rubber-faced, excitable rube, fans out a gangsta roll of bills and exclaims, "I'm gonna save you a lotttttta money!" The first time you see it, you think, "It's terrible that the owner of this window company is exploiting the retarded." The second time, you think: "Oh. My. God. That is the owner!" "Mikey" is Mike Magden, who runs the company with his two sons, Aaron and Harley. When he's not bling-blinging over new windows, he's actually a pretty buttoned-down guy with a sharp head for business. He's smart enough to know that windows aren't the most exciting product, which means that it takes an enthusiastic pitchman to break through the white noise. Thus was born his infectious catch phrase, which has become as much a part of the local culture as Michael Stanley. One more time, say it with us: "I'm gonna save you a lotttttta money!"
Ordinarily, Bill Murray would be a shoo-in for this category, but this year we're all about Mary Ann Wintkowski. The 57-year-old has been seeing ghosts since she was just a wee lass, like Haley Joel Osment in pigtails. It wasn't until she was seven that she learned that other people weren't seeing the same spectral show. For a while she worked as a pet groomer to pay the bills, then switched over to being a medium full-time. Business is good - customers book her as many as four months in advance, at $100-plus a pop, to communicate with their recently departed relatives or chase away poltergeists. And this year sees her going prime-time. Her work inspired CBS's Ghost Whisperer, a new show starring Jennifer Love Hewitt, who's just a bit younger and svelter than our local spook hunter. You may think you have a party of five, but what about all the people you can't see?
Everybody hates lawyers - until they need one. And if you get popped for a DUI, S. Michael Lear is exactly the man you want on your case. Locally born and bred, this Case Western Reserve law-school grad has been coming to drinkers' rescue for 16 years. If you make the mistake of blowing, Lear will deftly challenge the calibration of the machine. And he's not afraid to stare down a cop on the stand. Beloved by judges in myriad jurisdictions, Lear has a winning attitude that will have you back in the bar in no time. But do us a favor - next time, take a cab.
Recently, Zach Phelps had a cocktail-induced epiphany: He is the male alter ego of Paris Hilton. In retrospect, the comparison was inevitable. A Cleveland hairdresser with a blond mullet and perfect bone structure, Phelps is often spotted pimped-out in gold aviators and a fur-lined coat, schmoozing at rock shows. The only one who can compete with his trashy glitz is his younger, darker-haired brother, Josh - the Nikki to his Paris. Together, the brothers - last seen fronting the band the Phelps Hex - are masters of self-promotion, constantly talking up plans for a new album or fashion line, always more interested in the idea than the execution. So when Zach made his drunken announcement at the Beachland Ballroom last fall, no one dared disagree; instead they bought him shots and begged for him to say, "That's hot!" Now that Paris and Nikki have announced their intention to retire from partying, the Phelps brothers may be candidates to fill the void.
Before a "Ladies of Illusion" show at the gay-friendly Four Seasons restaurant last April, Mahogany Reason studied her reflection in a dressing-room mirror and gave her light-blue eye shadow a last-minute touch-up. As soon as she adjusted the jeweled choker that accented her satin-black gown, the 31-year-old former Miss Gay Cleveland bounded onstage to deliver a searing lip-synching of Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" with the same bravado that impressed the producers of the now-defunct Ricki Lake Show in 2003. After Reason Fed-Ex'd a couple of photos to the talkfest's New York studios, the 7-foot-tall impersonator found herself competing against 11 other contestants from around the country in the "Miss Ricki Lake Pageant." The judges, impressed, named her first runner-up. But it was Lake herself who had the last word. "She said I was the life of the party," recalls Reason. "And because of her, I know I represented Cleveland in a good way."
Fredo LaPonza's like the mob - whenever we think we've escaped him, he pulls us back in. We were introduced to this local contractor during the second season of The Average Joe. His ponytail and goatee became staples of local newscasts, which followed his progress on the show. When he ditched Larissa Meek - the hussy star of the show - on the penultimate episode, it was a victory for scrubs everywhere. LaPonza returned to Cleveland, but didn't leave the spotlight. His wild night with Browns rookie Sterling Harris and a Lorain County groupie at Ross Verba's house made him briefly infamous, but he rebounded deftly, investing in the West Sixth Street venue Flo Café, which opened in March. And in August, LaPonza sued NBC, claiming producers stole his idea for a new reality show called The Average Joes Strike Back. Fredo, we're enthralled. There's nothing average about you.
This former Mentor High cheerleader/Ohio University sorority princess wouldn't settle for a mere 15 minutes of fame. After flirting her way into an engagement on the third season of The Bachelor, the flaxen-haired beauty ditched millionaire Andrew Firestone like an old tire. Appropriately, the split was announced on the celeb-obsessed TV show Extra, where Schefft said that the media spotlight had put pressure on the relationship. She then accepted an invitation to star in The Bachelorette, where she could handpick a more suitable suitor. Us Weekly voted Schefft "The Hottest TV Comeback of 2004" before shooting even began. Then in February, Schefft stunned reality-TV purists by rejecting both Jerry "L.A.-art-gallery-director" Ferris and John Paul "Oklahoma-entrepreneur" Merritt in the final episode. After the taping, she moved to Chicago, where she works as an A-list event planner. But she still makes it home on holidays to visit family in Mentor. Her moxie and marketing skills are sure to get her back on reality TV sometime soon, but let's hope it's for Surreal Life and not Celebrity Fit Club.