Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Side Streets: Court lets Wagon Man walk free this time

By Bill Vogrin Published: February 19, 2014 0

The Wagon Man walked!

After a bizarre 90-minute trial, Phillip Cargile avoided conviction on four tickets for being a pedestrian illegally in the street and possible fines exceeding $400 in Manitou Springs Municipal Court on Tuesday.

But Judge J. Martin Thrasher warned him to stay on the sidewalks or he may not be able to sidestep conviction in the future.

Cargile, 56, is known as the Wagon Man for pulling a caravan of three small wagons around the region while wearing a sign urging everyone to "Be Positive." He considers it his ministry to save people by spreading a positive message.

For more than a year, he has been a common sight on the streets and highways of the Pikes Peak region dragging his wagon train, with its stuffed cartoon doll and large U.S. flag.

In December, he caught the attention of Manitou Springs Police Chief Joe Ribeiro, who wanted to get him off icy and snowpacked roads fearing he was going to get hit by a car or cause a wreck. After warning him a couple of times to get his caravan on the sidewalk, Ribeiro started writing Cargile tickets. The first came on the afternoon of Dec. 8, followed by a second one the evening of Dec. 9.

"I explained to him the roadway was dangerous for him," Ribeiro testified Tuesday. "It's dangerous for him and for motorists."

Ribeiro encountered Cargile on Dec. 24 and showed Thrasher video of that incident.

Cargile could be seen with his caravan slowly walking up Manitou Avenue as cars drove past, moving into the middle of the road to avoid him.

Ribeiro pulled him over and wrote him a ticket.

"He was argumentative and agitated and again insisted that it's illegal for him to be on the sidewalk," Ribeiro said. "He said, 'I'm going to do what I need to do.' I told him that's fine as long as he stays on the sidewalk."

But the video showed Cargile walking right back out into the street.

"I stopped him again and issued him another citation," Ribeiro said.

Cargile sat at the defense table, his trademark "BE POSITIVE" sign hanging around his neck and wearing his patchwork quilt coveralls and a colorful cloth poncho and a straw hat. He mumbled and commented during Ribeiro's testimony and had to be hushed by Thrasher, who warned him to wait his turn.

On cross examination, Cargile demanded to know why Ribeiro didn't ticket a man seen jaywalking in the video. And he tried to argue that it was unsafe for him to walk on the sidewalk because of snow piled up against the curbs.

He even accused Ribeiro of "telling the court a lie" about the circumstances, prompting an objection from prosecutor Debra Eiland.

Cargile was clearly frustrated as he tried to argue his case and insisted: "I got in the middle lane to save my life, not out of stupidity."

After Eiland rested her case, Cargile presented his "Heelys" defense, claiming he was wearing a type of shoe with wheels in the sole, thereby qualifying him as a vehicle that is illegal on the sidewalk.

Then his wife, Cheryl, the Wagon Lady clad in her own sign "A Happy Heart Is Like Medicine" and straw hat, testified about their belief the law gives pedestrians the right to walk in the road and that his wagon train and flag would be an illegal obstruction on the sidewalk.

Cargile repeatedly professed his innocence and insisted he was being harassed even as Thrasher and Eiland debated at length the intent of the Colorado General Assembly when it wrote laws related to pedestrians in the roadway. (Manitou's City Council basically adopted state law as its own ordinance for pedestrians.)

"Nowhere in the law does it say: 'If there's a sidewalk, you must use it,'?" Thrasher said. "Why didn't they just write that if that's what they meant?"

Eiland said the law presumes that if sidewalks exist, pedestrians must use them.

"It's implied," she said. "When sidewalks are provided, you need to be using them."

But Thrasher disagreed, saying state law and municipal ordinances were silent.

"It never comes close to saying that," he said as he read various related statutes. "I'm very troubled by this."

Cargile, meanwhile, seemed oblivious to the loophole that seemed to offer him a escape even when Thrasher asked him directly if he wanted to make the argument.

"Why am I being prosecuted?" Cargile asked repeatedly, getting emotional as times. "I've done nothing wrong. I came here as a community-builder. My wife and I came to lift this community. I've been walking 14 years, and I've never caused a wreck and I've never hurt anybody. I can't take any more abuse."

After more debate between Thrasher and Eiland, there were brief closing arguments.

Eiland said it's common sense that lawmakers want pedestrians to use sidewalks where they exist and that includes Wagon Man, his wagons and flag. However, she conceded the law lacked specific language ordering pedestrians onto sidewalks.

Cargile again invoked his Heelys defense and said he needs to be out in the street lifting souls, not sitting in a courtroom listening to what he called "bogus" testimony.

Then Thrasher issued his ruling, starting with a strong admonishment to Cargile to avoid future confrontations by simply using the sidewalks.

"Mr. Cargile, what you are trying to do with your life and for this community is commendable," Thrasher said, patiently asking Cargile to refrain from interrupting. "But you are creating a hazard in this community to yourself and others. The city has the obligation to look out for the safety of everyone. People are having to swerve around you in the roadway. You can solve this whole problem by walking on the sidewalks. It's a good solution to this."

Cargile protested, but the judge continued.

Refusing to join the ranks of judges who write law, Thrasher said he was forced to find Cargile not guilty of illegally walking in the streets because the law is vague.

"I have to look at what the law says and apply it," he said. "You are not going to be found guilty."

Even as Cargile tried to argue, Thrasher again admonished him to stay out of the streets.

"I recommend you use your power to reach a solution that is good for you and this community," he said.

Outside the courtroom, Ribeiro stopped Cargile and told him the Manitou Springs City Council had anticipated the loophole might lead to an acquittal and voted at its last meeting to require pedestrians to use sidewalks where they exist.

"The council closed the loophole," Ribeiro told Cargile as he walked away waving his hands at the police chief. "The law applies to you. You need to walk on the sidewalk."

The news didn't seem to sway Cargile who was defiant and insisted he would continue to walk in the street.

"Have you ever heard of a 'grandfather clause' in the law?" Cargile asked me? "I'm grandfathered in."

But his wife clearly grasped the significance of the ordinance change.

"Stay on the sidewalk, Wagon Man," she said repeatedly as he prepared to walk away from the courthouse. "We can't afford any tickets. I'll have us out of here as fast as I can. We can't stay here."

Cargile has one more ticket facing him, written before the ordinance change. Ribeiro said Cargile must return to court next month to resolve that case, nodding that it's reasonable to think it will be dismissed.

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Read my blog updates at blogs.gazette.com/sidestreets.

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