MAN ABOUT TOWN
MARK CROMER takes a closer look at the Mayor of Montclair’s $30 misunderstanding
[First published by Low Magazine and the LA Weekly in 1995, this story led to the resignation of Mayor Larry Rhinehart, a suit and tie public servant of a Southern California suburb who reigned until his penchant for taking his maroon Thunderbird adorned with license plates reading ‘MAYORLR’ on late night cruises along Holt Avenue and Mission Boulevard in the adjoining cities of Ontario and Pomona looking for some street action—the kind of which he wanted out of Montclair—finally caught up with him. Of the nearly 20-plus other ‘Johns’ that were hooked, booked and prosecuted in the street-walker sting operation that also netted Rhinehart, well, San Bernardino County District Attorney Dennis Stout declined to prosecute only a single suspect: the good mayor. But Rhinehart arguably ultimately paid a higher price than those working stiffs who had to put their hands behind their backs, as after this article was published an angry civic populace drove him from office and his wife left him.]
What was going through the mind of Larry Rhinehart as he stood in his living room facing officers from the Ontario Police Department on that particular morning in mid-January isn’t exactly clear. It’s hard to say what a man might focus on in such situations, considering this was no ordinary police courtesy call. He may have been silently praying. Or perhaps he blanked out and went on mental autopilot. He could have been wracking his brain for a good lawyer to call.
But as the police officers asked his wife to leave the room and then told him that they had made this house call because he was a suspect who allegedly solicited an undercover cop for sex, chances are the reek of shit began to drift high in the air at the Rhinehart house. And chances are it was a stench that came directly from Larry’s pants.
Politics may be a dirty business, especially at the local level, but being a prime suspect in a prostitution sting hasn’t been known to do wonders for the careers of most mayors around the country – thus they avoid it whenever possible. But for Larry Rhinehart, the three-term sitting mayor of Montclair, steering clear of such awkward circumstances was now out of the question. The other shoe had dropped. The shit had hit the fan. It was all unraveling right before his very eyes and it didn’t look good.
The cops were at his house. They were reading him his Miranda rights. They were bringing in photographers to take pictures of his maroon-colored Thunderbird. They were asking him questions, wanting to know what he had been doing on Mission Boulevard. They wanted to know what he had said to that woman who had been standing on the sidewalk, the one he had pulled over to talk with.
Unable to keep a poker-face, Larry began to show signs of stress.
“During the conversation, I noted that Rhinehart was acting very nervous as his arms were crossed in front of his chest and he was making fists with his hands very quickly and moving his fingers about,” one officer wrote in his report. “I also noticed that Rhinehart was perspiring slightly as we were standing in the front living room area. I also noticed that he was moving slightly about, being unable to stand in one position.”
But if he looked nervous, perhaps it was because the police seemed slightly unmoved by his explanation of the events that had unfolded on Mission Boulevard only hours before. Rhinehart’s accounting of what transpired that night on Mission Boulevard was duly noted by one of the officers in his police report.
According to that report, Rhinehart told police that he in fact had been driving his maroon Ford T-Bird – the car that boasts the personalized license plate number “MAYORLR” – along Mission Boulevard, having taken a slight detour on his way home from a retirement party in Upland. And he confirmed that he had pulled over to talk with a woman standing on the sidewalk in front of the Sands Motel.
In what was perhaps a gamble, Rhinehart took the plunge and admitted to the officers that he thought he had been talking to a whore.
“I asked Rhinehart if he believed the female he was talking to was a police officer,” the officer noted in his report. “Rhinehart told me he didn’t believe so, he thought she was a prostitute.”
But Rhinehart did indeed have a tidy explanation for the whole episode, one that reads as if he had just thought it up at that instant, while he was shifting back and forth in front of the cops, wiping away the sweat that was beading on his shiny forehead.
“Rhinehart said that being a public official, he was curious to see how prostitutes worked, either by themselves or in groups,” the officer noted in his report. Rhinehart told the police that he couldn’t exactly remember what it was he had said to the woman standing in front of the Sands Motel, but he told the cops standing in his living room that he wheeled his T-Bird into the parking lot of the Sands to see if the woman had any accomplices.
When an officer pressed him on whether or not he had made any statements to the woman about specific sexual acts in exchange for money, Rhinehart said he couldn’t remember. He could not be sure about that. He did not, as they say, recall.
Later on, as the officers prepared to leave his house, the report notes that Rhinehart asked one of the cops what was going to happen. The officer explained that the police reports would be sent to the District Attorney’s office for review. It would be up to the DA whether Rhinehart would be prosecuted for solicitation.
Perhaps it was at that moment, when he learned that his fate would rest with his friend Dennis Stout, that Rhinehart saw his first glimmer of hope. Stout, the former mayor of nearby Rancho Cucamonga, had just been elected the District Attorney for San Bernardino County.
Still, Rhinehart must have been far from relieved as the Ontario cops drove away. His wife was no doubt waiting for an explanation. And if the newspapers got wind of what happened and ran a story, the public’s hunger for details might be tough to quench.
It’s a late Saturday afternoon and the sun is starting its final descent into a horizon filled with a rusty haze. Traffic is thin along this stretch of Mission Boulevard, just west of Mountain Avenue, and the cars hum by at speeds of 50 mph and faster.
Three woman and a black man congregate at the mouth of the driveway at the Sands Motel, a cheap looking collection of single-story bunkers that have been slapped with a coat of baby blue paint.
Traffic drones out whatever it is the Latina is yelling at an older white woman with hair that looks like she dyed it with a coat of platinum spray paint, but whatever the Latina says, the words spark a retaliatory verbal volley from the white woman. The Latina steps away and begins to turn, as if she’s decided to walk away from the confrontation.
But in a split second, she wheels back and in one fluid motion buries her fist into the white woman’s face. As the white woman attempts to stumble out of range, the Latina grabs her blouse with a free hand as she continues to pummel her face with the other.
The black man stands nearby watching the fight along with the other woman. He nods his head gleefully and jabbers “Oh yeahhhhh, ohhh sheeeet! I told ya! I told ya! Ohhhh sheet yeah!”
The white woman regains her senses and balance long enough to mount a frenzied counter attack of punches and scratches to the Latina’s face. It’s a vicious cat fight between two whores on Mission Boulevard, but traffic isn’t slowing much and no one seems in a big hurry to break it up or call the cops. After all, this is a rough part of town. Such sights are to be expected down here, perhaps even enjoyed, as the black man is from his ring-side seat. It’s a mean part of town to hang out in, dangerous perhaps to even cruise through. Especially if you are a family man from Montclair.
One might wonder why Rhinehart chose the Sands Motel that night, if in fact he was mounting a personal investigation into the valley’s working girls. The rot along Mission Boulevard is a long stretch, a freeflow of (sub)urban decay that runs almost uninterrupted from Ontario International Airport in the east to the old General Dynamics plant that’s tucked into the shadow of Elephant Hill to the west.
Miles and miles of grit that grinds through the guts of Ontario, Montclair and Pomona, as well as unincorporated portions of San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties.
There are a lot of places Rhinehart could have cruised on the boulevard that night, some of them much closer to home, and presumably with a blessing if not an escort from Montclair PD and other local law enforcement agencies.
The Always Inn motel, which looks like it was uprooted from Tijuana and planted in the shadow of the Déjà Vu nude dance bar at Central Avenue and Mission Boulevard, would have been a good start. He could have driven west from there, stopping perhaps at the Mud Flap Inn for a beer before dropping a few quarters right next door in the arcade at the Lucky Lady adult bookstore.
Down the road he would hit what used to be called the Golden Peacock Inn, a run down motel that once teemed with dozens of poor families trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty. It was a place where children once played among needles and used condoms on the ground and an open sewer ditch that ran behind the office.
As he drove west, approaching Los Angeles County and Pomona, Rhinehart would discover the Welcome Inn, a roadside motel nestled where Pipeline empties on to Mission Boulevard. It’s the kind of place where sheets hang in the windows and 15-year-old drop carpets cover parts of the floor.
Had Rhinehart driven by the Welcome Inn that Friday night he was cruising, he may have found Lisa leaning up against one of the phone booths that stand in front of the motel. A tall, 31-year-old black woman from Pomona, Lisa lingers on this weekend night in front of the Welcome Inn, walking back and forth between the motel’s driveway and, if a police or sheriff’s cruiser approaches, back to the phone booth where she picks up the receiver and starts talking.
She says that she’s not working the streets anymore, tonight she’s on the boulevard just waiting for a friend. But she says she’s no stranger to hooking, telling a reporter she’s been doing it off and on since she got out of high school.
Most of the time she did it to feed her crack habit. Other times she was a little short on the $30 that a room would cost her at one of the numerous motels she lived at along Holt Avenue in Pomona. It would only take a couple of blow jobs to cover the day’s rent, she says. But that glass pipe, now that was another story. That glass pipe could drain her money faster than she could drain the men who paid her as little as $20 for sex.
She thinks about it for a moment when asked what kind of men approached her for sex. She saw all kinds, she says, but they were mostly white, older and married.
“Most of the time I’d just cry,” she says, watching the cars slow and pull over to another girl that’s working a stretch of sidewalk not far away. “It was so fucked up. They wanted to fuck and suck me and they didn’t even know me. It just made me cry.”
But Lisa says the street could have been much worse to her. She insists that despite years of hooking she never ended up in jail and she never had a pimp, so she never took a beating. “You got to be kind of crazy to have a pimp if you’re doing this to feed your habit,” she says. “That pimp is just going to take your money.”
To save money, Lisa says she worked more out of cars than motel rooms. Most of the johns had no problem pulling around the corner and receiving her services from the front seat. “Most of these guys are scared shitless about walking into a motel room anyway,” she said. “A lot of them have already been jacked.”
As she talks, a police cruiser pulls up and shines one of the radio car’s spotlights on Lisa and the reporter. She smiles as she’s bathed in the harsh glow of the light. The reporter holds up a press credential and the cop waves and drives away.
A few minutes later, a San Bernardino County Sheriff’s car pulls into the parking lot of the old McCoy’s western ware store on the south side of the boulevard. The deputy watches Lisa intently. A German shepherd sits behind him, punctuating the night with an occasional bark. She seems unsurprised by the deputy’s cat and mouse antics, just a little wary.
“Ohhh man, I hope he don’t fuck with me,” she says in an exasperated tone, looking over her shoulder toward the deputy. “I really don’t need that kind of fucking tonight.”
It was January 13, another Friday night on Mission Boulevard, at about 9:45 p.m., that undercover Ontario Police Officer Rose Noriega stood in front of the Sands Motel, sporting black Levis, a black denim jacket and a white long sleeve blouse with black polka dots.
To the men who cruise the boulevard looking to score a cheap date for sex, Noriega must of looked like a vision when she appeared in their headlights. These are guys who are used to having sex with wafer-thin crack addicts. They are men who can get hard for women who try to cover the sores on their face with cheap makeup. Noriega should have looked too good to be true.
According to the report Noriega filed on the incident, Rhinehart’s maroon T-Bird circled the block once before pulling over. But the car, with its customized plates and C-phone antenna, caught her attention the first time it passed. The second time around the block the car pulled up to the curb in front of the motel.
Noriega states in her report that Rhinehart waved her over to the car. As she approached, he leaned over and unlocked the passenger door for her. “As soon as I opened the passenger door and the light turned on inside the vehicle, [Rhinehart] told me ‘Get in, let’s get out of the light.’” Noriega stated in the report.
As is common practice in such stings, Noriega declined Rhinehart’s invitation to get in the car, instead telling him she had room #127 at the Sands. Rhinehart nodded his head up and down. Just to make sure there wasn’t any misunderstanding, Noriega then asked Rhinehart what it was he wanted.
“I want to fuck,” came his reply.
“Forty dollars,” Noriega said.
“Thirty dollars,” Rhinehart shot back, apparently not a novice at cutting a curb-side bargain.
Noriega agreed to the price and Rhinehart swung his T-Bird back onto Mission Boulevard, where he made a U-turn and pulled into the parking lot of the Sands Motel. But by this time another john had spotted Noriega and propositioned her, even as Rhinehart was pulling into the parking lot. Apparently unnerved by the appearance of another customer, Rhinehart pulled out of the parking lot and headed for home.
The man who beat Larry to room #127 was arrested for solicitation.
But Larry’s close call with he handcuffs was far from over. The Ontario Police Department’s vice squad had a suspect vehicle, a positive identification of the driver – which Noriega made down at the Montclair police station later that night – and they had a clear cut crime that had been committed in their presence. He wanted to fuck and he was willing to pay her to do it.
In police work, this is sometimes called having a suspect “dead bang.”
About the only thing they didn’t have from Larry Rhinehart was a sperm sample.
It seemed like an open and shut case, until it got to the District Attorney’s office.
Ontario PD turned their case against Larry Rhinehart over to the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s office on Tuesday, January 17th. What exactly went on during the following two days inside the DA’s office is far from certain. But on Friday, January 20, just one week after Ontario Police Officer Rose Noriega stated that Rhinehart had swooped his maroon T-Bird alongside her on Mission Boulevard and asked to fuck her for thirty dollars, the DA’s office had an announcement to make.
Larry Rhinehart would not be charged.
In making the announcement, Chief Deputy District Attorney Richard Maxwell told a reporter for the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin that he was “confident” that Rhinehart had not committed any crime. “What actually happened and what can be proved in court are usually two different things,” Maxwell said.
While Maxwell insisted that he was confident no crime had been committed by Rhinehart, he refused to release any details surrounding the case.
For his part, Rhinehart told the newspaper “No comment, I have nothing to say.”
As quickly as he had stepped into the shit, it seemed Rhinehart was managing to rather deftly extricate himself from it. No charges filed and police reports sealed. It may have seemed the storm was beginning to clear.
In the wake of the DA’s announcement, Low Magazine, with the help of the California First Amendment Coalition and attorney Sharon Waters, filed a request under the California Public Records Act to obtain access to the police reports. Waters was no stranger to cases involving public officials getting caught in compromising positions. She had successfully represented the Riverside Press-Enterprise in a court battle the newspaper waged to obtain reports and other information from the Corona Police Department. It seems Coronoa (sic) police officers had stumbled across a congressman who was parked alongside the road with a hooker in his car. Like Rhinehart, the congressman was never arrested or charged with a crime. Based on that fact, Corona police tried to withhold the reports from the newspaper. But the newspaper prevailed in court and a judge ordered the police to allow reports access to the material.
Shortly after Low filed its request, the Ontario Police Department asked the DA’s office to reconsider its decision to not file charges against Rhinehart. If the decision was seriously reevaluated, it didn’t take long for prosecutors to reach the same decision. The DA’s office again announced that it would not prosecute Rhinehart.
Two weeks later, Ontario police released its reports on the case.
In a recent telephone interview, Assistant District Attorney Dan Lough said that Stout assembled his top three deputies to mull over facts surrounding the case and make a recommendation to him on whether to prosecute.
Lough said that there was never any doubt that Rhinehart had indeed solicited Noriega for sex. Despite that, Lough said all three senior prosecutors concluded that Rhinehart could not be successfully prosecuted in a jury trial.
“The case had ‘loser’ written all over it,” Lough said.
The official hitch seemed to rest in why Rhinehart had asked Noriega for a thirty dollar roll in the hay. “The question is intent,” Lough said. “He does have an explanation as to why he was out there.” Yet chances are, the other 15 sorry sods who had handcuffs slapped on them for solicitation that night on Mission Boulevard also had explanations.
Lough was quick to add that he and his colleagues weren’t completely buying the story that Rhinehart had given the cops that day they were standing in his living room. “I think it’s suspect,” Lough said, adding “Though the explanation may be suspect, we’ve got to convince 12 people he’s not telling the truth.”
Lough said prosecutors expected Rhinehart to call in a string of character witnesses had the case gone to trial. “He would have hauled in a dozen citizens talking about what an outstanding person he is,” Lough said.
The senior prosecutor dismissed the notion of prosecuting Rhinehart if only to let the jury decide the facts in open court. “That would have been the coward’s way out,” he said.
But he adamantly denied that Rhinehart received any special treatment from prosecutors as a public official. “I recognize that it looks like Rhinehart received preferential treatment,” Lough said. “But the best I can tell you is he did not.”
If the officers in Ontario Police Department’s vice squad believe they had a righteous bust rejected as a result of political favoritism, they aren’t talking about it publicly. But rank and file cops rarely go public with such complaints. They have to work with the DA’s office everyday. You win some, you lose some.
While the department would not comment on Rhinehart’s case specifically, Captain Ron Yokley, who directs the narcotics and vice bureau, agreed to talk about the prostitution problem that has long plagued Ontario – and Montclair and Pomona for that matter – along Mission Boulevard.
The hookers who frequent the area are a fairly mobile lot, Yokley said. Often times they are women who live in Los Angeles and come east to work the streets for a few days at a time, before heading home again.
Yokley speculated that, as Lisa had attested, most of the women hooking on the streets of the Pomona Valley were doing it to support a drug habit. Accordingly, desperate women will submit to desperate means to satisfy that hunger.
“We’re talking about going around the corner for some quick oral sex in the front seat of a car and then back out on the street again,” Yokley said. While Lisa explained that a pimp would merely siphon off precious money a hooker would need for dope, Yokley said that most of the street walkers working the Ontario area had some kind of male “security system” behind them.
Still, the streets in Ontario are far less competitive for the women than some of the better known locations in Los Angeles. “It’s not like L.A., where it’s ‘Hey, get off my corner,” Yokley said.
Over the years, police have employed several standard tactics in trying to control if not utterly stop prostitution in Ontario, with a limited amount of success. When the cops come down hard on the street walkers and start hauling them in, the women generally move along to calmer waters.
“They’ll move over to Pomona for the night or stay inside,” Yokley said. But eventually, the allure of Mission Boulevard – with its motels, massage parlors and deserted lots – beckons and the hookers return. And so do the johns.
It’s late March now and the storm for Larry Rhinehart has passed.
In the rich tradition of Washington D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, who was videotaped sucking a crack pipe like a toddler nursing a bottle, Rhinehart has survived. He didn’t even have to step down and stage a comeback, like Barry did.
No, Rhinehart has managed to remain virtually silent in the face of a withering storm of public outrage. He has offered no public explanation of what he was doing down at the Sands Motel that night, apparently not having faith that the public would buy the same story he unloaded on the cops. In an effort to blunt the complaints of some residents who continued to press him on the matter at city council meetings, Rhinehart issued a semi-apology.
“I regret having put myself in a position that has, in any way, diminished the great reputation of our city,” he said. But in the next sentence he asked residents to let the issue drop and “Get on with the business of moving our city forward.”
Beyond that brief statement, Rhinehart has consistently refused to comment to both television and newspaper reporters. He has Dodged the Bullet.
Still, behind his wall of silence, the good mayor of Montclair must surely know that the common folk will always remember him in both lore and legend as their own little man about town. The Mayor on the Move in his maroon Thunderbird, cruising Holt and Mission on his own private investigations.
His words will forever thunder across the valley….
“I want to fuck.”