Who Do You Believe?

The cop vs. the coffee-house owner: An unlikely brawl in Collinwood.

John Bausone
The fight began over a parking ticket outside John Bausone's Arabica. - Walter  Novak
The fight began over a parking ticket outside John Bausone's Arabica.
John Bausone was the proud father of a baby daughter. It was his first kid, his wife's first day home from the hospital, and he was riding an impossible high. So four days after Thanksgiving, he stopped by the Arabica he owns on East 185th Street and grabbed a cup of coffee, eager to crow to his friends.

Bausone looks at home with the lattes and scones he serves. He speaks the tongue of the overcaffeinated, words tumbling out quickly, impatiently, as he jiggles his knee under the table. Dark, slightly rumpled hair frames the pale skin and tired eyes of a man who must wake at 5 a.m. and be cheerful.

He tends to analyze rather than feel his way around problems, speaking the careful words of one who's considered running for office. Since opening the coffeehouse a year ago, he has befriended his councilman, joined the neighborhood association board, made a habit of giving discounts to police officers. At 29, he is a man in search of higher things.

But he's also built like a freshman on the high school wrestling team, with a compact chest and an adolescent's arms. It's hard to envision any man, much less a cop, pegging Bausone as a threat.

Yet that's what Sergeant Christopher Graham saw that night as he wrote Bausone a parking ticket. According to the police report, Bausone confronted the officer. You mean to tell me that you don't have anything better to do than write tickets?

At just over six feet and 185 pounds, Graham isn't all that menacing either, but he was in no mood to hear the little shopkeeper's complaints. As he tells it, he ordered Bausone to move out of the street. Bausone wouldn't budge. Instead, he allegedly shoved the ticket in the cop's face and kept complaining.

Graham says he tried twice to guide Bausone to the curb. When he put his arm out a third time, the shop owner knocked it away and cocked his fist, according to the police report. Graham grabbed Bausone by the shirt and tried to cuff him.

From the sidewalk, the sergeant heard someone yelling: "Stop fighting him! Don't hit him." The cop feared he would soon be facing "multiple suspects."

Bausone allegedly swung at Graham and struggled to escape. Graham tried to tackle him, but Bausone wriggled out of his shirt and ran back to Arabica. The cop tried to take him down, but Bausone opened the shop door, knocking Graham off his feet.

Inside, Bausone ran to the back of the store, screaming. Graham tackled him --dishes breaking, customers gawking. Finally, Graham wrestled the smaller man to the floor. Bausone pumped his legs as Graham tried to pin him. The sergeant ordered him to put his hands behind his back, but Bausone kept fighting. Graham hit him twice with his flashlight. At last, Bausone surrendered.

If this were another part of town or a suspect with a rap sheet, that might have been the end of the story. But on this corner, at this coffeehouse, people were stunned.

Bausone's store is a beacon of Starbucks-style civilization on a street more suited to 7-Elevens and used-car lots. Its front window offers wraps and paninis in bubbly pastel script, contrasting sharply with the drab brown and dirty yellow brick of its surroundings.

Inside, latte drinkers tap away at their laptops to a background beat of elevator-brand jazz. No one in search of pricey mochas expects to witness a bloody brawl.

When Councilman Mike Polensek heard about it, he knew there was more to the story than Graham was letting on. "For someone to wind up in the hospital . . . over a parking ticket, I think is outrageous," Polensek says. "That in itself, to me, is highly suspicious."

Parking tickets on East 185th have long frustrated Bausone. At a recent merchants' meeting, he complained that too many of his customers were getting ticketed. Since he ran the only brand-name store on a street badly in need of commercial blood, he figured the cops should cut him some slack. Besides, the surrounding neighborhood isn't Hunting Valley. There are more than enough drug dealers and bad guys to keep police busy.

"We can't buy a cop in those locations," Polensek says. "I don't get it."

It's easy to imagine Bausone arguing this point with a cop. He's outspoken at neighborhood meetings, passionate about his ideas and reluctant to back down. But employees also describe him as a friendly, easygoing boss who treats them and the customers like family. Besides, men the size of jockeys learn early on they weren't born to fight. It doesn't fit Bausone's MO.

"He's very levelheaded," says Brian Friedman, executive director of the Northeast Shores Development Corp. "He debates his point, but I've never seen him ever get physically involved."

According to Bausone, he was simply defending himself. "One minute we're having a conversation, the next minute he's telling me that I'm assaulting him," he says.

Bausone says he wasn't yelling and he certainly wasn't threatening Graham. He doesn't even remember being asked to move out of the street. But when the cop tried to cuff him, he freaked out. "I'm thinking, Oh my God, this guy is going to kill me."

He ran inside the store, yelling for someone to call 911. Behind the counter, Ann Aker heard a crash. She saw Graham try to tackle Bausone by the door and saw blood on the floor. She watched Graham grab Bausone's hair and try to choke him.

Bausone struggled. He remembers being thrown to the ground and beaten four or five times on the head with a flashlight. He felt like he was being strangled.

When it was over, his wife had to get his car so it wouldn't be towed. Inside the ambulance, he could hear her crying. He was rushed to Euclid Hospital, where he needed staples in his head.

Aker and the others were left to clean up bloodstains and broken mugs. Even now, weeks later, Aker's throat closes up when she sees a cop.

Only later did she learn that other cops don't like Graham either. Some believe he has a history of picking on people smaller than himself.

Kelli Shook lived with Graham for several years and knows how easily he can lose his temper. "He would come home and not know how to relieve his stress other than yelling and screaming and smashing things," she says.

One night two years ago, when they were dating but no longer living together, Graham blew up. They argued, and he yelled at her to leave. At one point, she says, he shoved her so hard that she almost fell down the stairs. Then he called the cops. When Shook refused to leave, she was arrested for criminal trespassing.

Shook spent the night in jail. But her case was later dismissed when none of the arresting officers showed up for the trial. Now she's suing Graham, the officers who arrested her, and the City of Cleveland for false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, and a violation of her civil rights, among other charges.

Graham still insists that he did nothing wrong. In court documents, his lawyer argues that Shook, a nursing student who smiled in her booking photo, broke the law by refusing to leave his house. Shook says she never filed an abuse complaint against Graham because she knew it could cost him his job. But his next girlfriend wasn't so concerned.

Gina Golak called the police in November 2004, after Graham grabbed her arm and literally threw her out of his house. He ripped her shirt, injured her head, and left visible bruises on her arm, according to an affidavit she signed. The police report says he also took her two-year-old son outside and left him in the cold. Internal affairs investigated, but found "insufficient evidence" to press charges against Graham.

Graham, meanwhile, filed his own complaint against the 24-year-old Golak, claiming he was trying to "escort" her out the back door when she turned and pushed him into the wall. She was never prosecuted.

Outsiders may never know what happened that night between Graham and Bausone.

As a cop, Graham has received mostly positive job reviews. Supervisors write that he is a highly motivated, diligent officer who, in 2001, was one of the top issuers of parking tickets. He even managed to ticket people "without much citizen complaints." But two years later, another boss noted that Graham needed to "use more discretion" as a traffic supervisor and gave him his lowest scores for dealing with residents. There is no explanation for the comments. This year, his score improved.

Over the last three years, reports show that Graham has used "non-deadly" force to arrest three suspects besides Bausone. One was a woman who allegedly hit another officer with her car and drove away. The others were men who fought with him over traffic violations (one man had a previous domestic-violence conviction; the other tried to run away when Graham pulled him over).

According to a 1999 lawsuit, Graham admitted to beating a suspect with a flashlight once before. But the suspect lost his federal lawsuit against Graham and a group of other officers, and was convicted of assaulting four cops.

So far, Graham's allegations against Bausone aren't holding up. In December, a grand jury decided there wasn't enough evidence to indict Bausone for assaulting the officer.

And if the cops who frequent the neighborhood are any indication, Graham doesn't have their support. Outside Fanny's restaurant, one calls Graham an "asshole" when he doesn't know a reporter is listening.

Meanwhile, Bausone keeps offering half-price discounts to the parade of officers who drink coffee at his shop every day. He says four or five have already apologized to him.

On a recent afternoon, as he sits telling his story, an officer stops by and rests his hands on Bausone's shoulders. "You're not mad at me, are you?" he asks.

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