Sunday, February 25, 1996
Vercellotti still waits for justice

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Not guilty. Case closed. The justice system is finished with Claudia Yvonne Vercellotti.

Well, not exactly. She still owes her attorneys about $75,000. And her life is kind of a mess.

One month ago, the former police officer was cleared of charges that began with the arrest of Bengals fullback Derrick Fenner. A lot of people remember it as ''that bribery case.''

She was never accused of taking a bribe. Prosecutors said she concealed a bribery attempt. They said George Beatty, who managed the West End bar where Mr. Fenner was arrested, offered Ms. Vercellotti and her partner, Andre Eddings, $10,000 to reduce charges against the athlete. Mr. Beatty testified that Mr. Eddings solicited money from him.

Plea bargaining

Eventually, all three men bargained away felony charges against them, pleading guilty to lesser charges.

Claudia Vercellotti refused to plead guilty to anything and was prosecuted on three felony charges. ''The prosecutors should not feel like they've lost,'' she said when she was cleared. ''They've taken a year of my life, they've taken my job, they've taken my integrity and my faith.''

Now what?

I asked her to meet me for breakfast. I, of course, ordered up the Clogged Artery Special, with a side of cholesterol and plenty of caffeine. She had oatmeal. Plain. She has, she says, acid stomach. ''When all this started, I wish I'd bought stock in Tagamet.''

Suspended without pay from the Cincinnati Police Division on Dec. 23, 1994, she was fired in February. ''You want to do something that really makes you feel low . . . unwrap Christmas presents and take them all back,'' she says.

She had no choice. ''I was just out of college. I didn't have much money saved.'' A Toledo native, she got a degree in criminal justice from the University of Cincinnati. She had been with the Cincinnati Police Division since November 1993.

She owes her attorney, Marc Mezibov, ''three times what it cost me to go to college,'' she says. ''But then I also owe him my life and my freedom, so it's doesn't seem too out of line.''

Making enemies

She is, she says, still reeling. ''Every day, I used to think about being indicted. Now, I think: What's next?'' She's pretty sure she'll try to get her job back and maybe back pay. She sounds unenthusiastic about a civil suit. ''You need money to do that, too. Plus, it's a matter of gearing up to fight, and I don't know how much fight I have left.''

She says her troubles began during her police academy days, when she accused a fellow recruit of sexual harassment. Recruit Grady Fenton was later convicted of assault and criminal trespass charges. She says she was warned at the time by friends - and others - that ratting out a fellow officer was a sure way to make permanent enemies.

As usual, Claudia Vercellotti decided to hang tough. ''My parents never raised me to sit in the back of the bus,'' she says.

She's also earthy - ''When did I pee in that judge's Cheerios?'' And outspoken - ''This court case was about ensuring that I would never be a police officer.'' And funny - ''Yeah, I got tired of hearing about my weight. You'd have thought they had to stitch two uniforms together to put me on the street.''

Ms. Vercellotti, now 26, lives in Toledo and works as a research assistant for a Bowling Green State University project. This won't last, and she's not sure what she'll do next. ''The first thing anybody asks you is where you've worked. I have to say I was fired.''

Well, I have a lot of trouble believing in a conspiracy between police and the prosecutor's office to keep her off the street. They don't seem that well organized to me. And I don't know whether she was a good police officer.

Here's what I do believe: Claudia Vercellotti was prosecuted with enormous zeal while everybody else in the case was slapped on the wrist. She's mouthy, stubborn and a woman.

As far as I know - and I would know - that's still not illegal.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. Call 768-8393 or fax to 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU-FM (91.7 MHz), and as a regular commentator on NPR's Morning Edition.