The million dollar picture

stingwebIn September, 1989, I shot a picture that would generate a lot of reaction and significant national play. “Reaction,” this time, being amusement and laughter. Not unlike any other city, Bakersfield has its share of wanted criminals roaming about with outstanding arrest warrants. Not the hard core types, the ones that law enforcement spends most of its time going after, but criminals nonetheless. It’s difficult for agencies to go after these folks, so the cops in Bakersfield came up with a plan: let’s have them come to us. The Bakersfield Police Department set up a sting operation. They rented a storefront in downtown Bakersfield and sent letters out to anyone with an outstanding warrant congratulating them on winning “the lottery” and instructing them to come on down and pick up their prize: 100 California Lottery tickets and – this kills me – Los Angeles Lakers season tickets! And “come on down” they did. For several days, a steady stream of wanted criminals entered the front door thinking they were suddenly millionaires, and left out the the back door in handcuffs.

Here’s how it worked. The “winners” would enter and show the letter they received and their driver’s license to the pretty, smiling receptionists at the front desk, who of course, were police women. The women would type the names into a computer to “make sure they were in the system,” which actually meant they were confirming the outstanding warrant. Essentially, the suspects were processing themselves! Once confirmed, they were told that there was a big party ready for them in the back room, and to present their winning letter to the “lottery officials” at the end of the reception line. They walked into the back room, where a double line of “lottery workers,” all cops, cheered, whistled and applauded as they headed toward the man at the end of the line who would present them their winnings.

I shot this photo of this poor guy presenting his winning letter, still completely unaware that he is in the process of being arrested by police detective Bill Maxwell.

There would be a bit of controversy over the sting operation. If you look at the letter in the photo carefully, you can see that the logo looked almost identical to the California Lottery logo. The real lottery people were not happy, and we had to report on that a little. The picture would play all around the country and be named the Associated Press photo of the month. Here is the original cutline from the back of the photo. At the time, we were shooting color negative film and making color prints.Bustedback

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