Child Sex Abuser Profits by Suing 1,000 Firms Under Disability Act
ILLUSTRATION BY FRED NOLAND
In 2012, Jon Carpenter filed 257 lawsuits in L.A. County — more lawsuits than there were court days — under the Americans With Disabilities Act, a civil rights law intended to give disabled people the same access to places that everyone has.
The spree left small businesses all over the Southland scratching their heads. What was this law? And who was Carpenter?
A basic records search by L.A. Weekly shows that 2012 was a prolific but not atypical year — the 47-year-old quadriplegic has filed nearly 1,000 lawsuits in L.A. County alone, and is believed to have reaped a sizable but unknown amount of cash.
But now, lawyers representing businesses sued by Carpenter have unearthed the man's sordid past: He is a convicted child molester from Utah, who was set free after serving less than two days of a one- to- 15-year sentence.
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How he got out of jail made the lawyers' skin prickle.
Stephen Abraham, a defense attorney representing restaurants and others Carpenter sues, says, "He's a destructive contradiction. This is someone for whom the law only goes one way — his way."
Documents obtained by the Weekly show that in the 1980s, Carpenter was arrested on multiple counts of aggravated sexual abuse and charged with molesting two 8-year-old girls. His victims tell the Weekly that Carpenter, then 24, was a Sunday school teacher at a Mormon church in Provo County.
"He had sexually abused several kids," Sharon Davis of Salt Lake City alleges. "I do know [about] other kids. It happened to me."
"It's horrific to me, that he's under the radar," Beth Roskelley says. She was a little girl when she was sexually abused by Carpenter — the crime for which he was convicted.
Carpenter pled guilty to a second-degree felony for sexual abuse of a child and was sentenced to up to 15 years, with a chance to enter a sex-offender treatment center.
But the day after he was sentenced in 1989, according to jail reports, Carpenter stood atop his bunk bed and dove head-first into the concrete floor. When a guard later asked if he'd jumped intentionally, Carpenter replied, "Yes, I did, it's better than being in this place for six months."
Two days later, the state of Utah informed Judge George E. Ballif that Carpenter was a permanent quadriplegic and asked that Ballif "suspend execution of the sentence until such time as the defendant has achieved medical stability," arguing that "further incarceration or therapy in this matter would serve little purpose and in any event is not appropriate at the present time."
Ballif appeared to suggest that Carpenter would return to jail, saying his imprisonment would be reconsidered "at such time as the defendant achieves medical stability and further reviews are appropriate."
Deputy Utah County Attorney Cort Griffin, who was not around then, says, "Why and what happened here, I can't say."
But Roskelley says, "I think they just assumed that he would be a vegetable for his entire life."
Abraham, the attorney fighting Carpenter's ADA suits, says, "He was released only because they didn't want to provide a guard at the hospital, and because of the nature of his injuries they didn't think he was going anywhere. They just dropped the ball."
Carpenter eventually moved to L.A., records show, settling near USC and an elementary school. Although he's a convicted child molester, Carpenter doesn't appear on the public sex-offender registry.
He slid into the serial-lawsuit business without raising red alerts with Los Angeles County Superior Court judges, yet he certainly stood out.
According to David Peters, who heads Lawyers Against Lawsuit Abuse, Carpenter has sued 94 pharmacies for everything from steep ramps and failure to remodel access areas to lack of Braille or hearing-assistance technology for the blind and deaf.
Carpenter's hearing and vision, Peters says, were perfectly fine.
California is a rare state that lets people who allege an ADA violation personally win pots of cash in court — $4,000 minimum per violation, plus attorney's fees, which can reach tens of thousands of dollars.
Small businesses can be sued if the paper towel dispenser in the bathroom is too high; the customer counter is too tall; aisles are too narrow; or the grade of their wheelchair ramp is steeper than 3 percent.
But in California, defense attorney James Link says, those regulations run about 435 pages. "I had one case where the coat hook in the men's accessible stall at a P.F. Chang's was too high."
Legislators have tried to fix the state law that enables serial litigants, passing Senate Bill 1186 in 2012 and cutting the number of ADA lawsuits roughly in half.
But Carpenter thrives.
"California is the only jurisdiction on the planet that has minimum financial damages for claims of this nature," Peters says, referring to the $4,000 floor. He estimates that 42 percent or more of the nation's ADA lawsuits are filed in California. "There are lawyers who have moved from other states just to file these lawsuits here," he says. "It's more profitable than [selling] narcotics."
According to Link, more than 3,000 ADA lawsuits were filed in L.A. County in the last three years — more than 1,700 of them by attorneys Morse Mehrban of L.A. and Mark Potter of San Diego's Center for Disability Access.
"I stand by every case," Potter says via email. "This is an important federal civil right that we are talking about."
Link scoffs. "If you're trying to clean up the stores and restaurants that you frequent, that's one thing. But if you are going to 1,000 different businesses ... that's just trolling." (Mehrban, who didn't respond to the Weekly's calls, this year told ABC 7 News, "Isn't every lawsuit technically extortion?")
Disabled plaintiffs routinely ask L.A. Superior Court judges to grant them "fee waivers" to get out of paying the $435 court filing fee. Taxpayers pick up the costs, even for convicted felon Jon Carpenter.
"I have judges who tell me ... 'We just cut 40 departments,' " Peters says. "And some judges are telling me they're spending 80 percent of their time on mega-filers who are filing fee waivers."
Other mega-filers include Alexander Johnson, a hearing-impaired man with a service dog named Snoopy. According to multiple defense attorneys, Johnson's approach is to walk into businesses and get the clerk to object to Snoopy's presence.
Then there's Alfredo Garcia, who testified that he became a paraplegic when he fell out of a tree while high on cocaine. Garcia, who targeted 24 laundromats, has filed more than 600 ADA lawsuits; ABC 7 news reporter Marc Brown exposed him in 2011 and again in 2013. (Neither Johnson or Garcia could be located by the Weekly.)
But nobody tops Jon Carpenter, aka John Rick Carpenter.
"I'm just one of many that are trying to make things more accessible for everyone that has to use a wheelchair," Carpenter emailed the Weekly.
Carpenter and his current attorney, Potter, almost always target mini-malls or small businesses, which must create parking spots for special vans like the one he drives. They also must provide parking lot space for a wheelchair to be lowered, and special signage. Get a detail wrong — even the color of the sign — and Carpenter can sue for $4,000 and up.
"We didn't know that we needed a parking spot for a van," says Avi Hadid, owner of a mini-mall at Western Avenue and Washington Boulevard. He settled with the convicted child abuser for $10,000 — cheaper than hiring a lawyer. A friend of Hadid's, who owns a gas station, also was sued by Carpenter. "They say they're going to pay," Hadid says. "I'm sure he made so much money from that, this guy."
Attorney Abraham is defending a restaurant owner who has been sued three times for ADA violations, most recently by Carpenter. Abraham, a former army intelligence officer deployed in Operation Desert Storm after 9/11, once worked to assess the legal status of detainees at Guantánamo Bay.
"I see someone like Carpenter essentially using the judicial system but without truth at its center," Abraham says, "and that's a perversion of justice."
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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