The night they busted Albert Isella

MICHAEL OLESKER

December 24, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On the night of Oct. 29, with nothing better to do in their gallant fight against crime, half a dozen Baltimore County police crashed into the house where Albert Isella sat with his wife and daughter and two grandchildren.

With guns drawn and ears ignoring the cries of the frightened children, the police then arrested Isella, who is 78 years old. The charge? Taking bets on two college football games.

Does everybody feel safer now? Is everybody feeling more confident about gunplay and carjackings and narcotics traffic and people getting mugged when they come out of shopping centers?

If we don't, then we'd better start asking ourselves a few fundamental questions around here, to wit:

Why are we sending police out to bust gamblers when there's real crime which is creating a siege mentality in our communities?

And why, in a time of state lotteries and el Gordo and the governor of Maryland attempting to shove keno down our throats, are we still pretending there's something about gambling that compels us to arrest people for it?

Let's be clear about something else here: Al Isella is no choirboy and does not pretend to be. He's been arrested on gambling charges before, and he leads a life that is unlike anything in a chamber of commerce brochure. And so what?

On his best day, Damon Runyon longed for guys like Isella, who talks like a brass band and invents himself as he goes along. You want examples? Try Tuesday in Baltimore County District Court, when the events of Oct. 29 finally arrived before Judge Charles Foos.

What commenced was legalistic Let's Make A Deal. Prosecutor Tom McDowell, minutes before Foos entered the packed courtroom, offered a compromise to Isella: Plead guilty to the charge, and he'd recommend a $50 fine and no other penalty.

"Understand, though," cautioned Isella's attorney, Richard Karceski, "the judge doesn't have to take the recommendation. He could put you in jail. You could be in jail for Christmas."

"So I'll be in jail," said Isella, voice booming across the courtroom. "Big deal. So I'll save money on some Christmas gifts."

In their way, the words were both a reflection of Isella and of the criminal justice system itself. Isella was half-joking: You're not really gonna lock me up over such nonsense, are you? And the system was saying: Of course not, and we'd be just as happy if we had some sensible gambling laws and didn't have to waste our time, and police officers' time, on such piffle.

But now, against all odds, came a slight wrench in the deal. LTC Judge Foos listened to the state's proposal, pronounced Isella guilty, and sentenced him to one year's probation and a $500 fine.

"Judge," said attorney Karceski, not believing his ears, "the facts indicate he bet on a couple of football games. In all fairness, it happens every weekend all over this country. Millions of people betting on ballgames."

"Doesn't make it right," declared Foos.

Isella drummed his fingers on the defense table. Prosecutor McDowell shuffled through his court papers and slumped in his seat. Now Karceski, voice rising in plaintive disbelief, declared: "But the state agreed to a fine of $50."

"I think this is reasonable," said Foos. "It's lenient."

"If this is reasonable," said Karceski, "then there should be about 13 million people brought here on gambling charges, including members of the bench, of the bar, teachers, doctors. . . ."

He was right, of course, but it doesn't seem to matter. He was conservative about the 13 million bettors, but that doesn't matter, either. TV and radio broadcasts offer insights on point spreads, and weekly sporting newsletters are sent perfectly legally through the mails, and newspapers carry odds, and none ofthis matters, either. Sanctimony is all.

"Gambling is a crime," Judge Foos declared. "The place to change it is not in this courtroom, but in the legislature."

He was right about that. But, until somebody changes the laws, we have people like Al Isella sitting in his home with his grandchildren, and the cops coming in with guns in their hands, and this is no way at all for anybody to be spending their time.

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