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In Detention

Baltimore County Police and FBI Detain an Ellicott City Man for Photocopying a Satirical Newsletter

Christopher Myers
FUNNY PAPER: Bob Pyle says his satirical newsletter, The Muslim News, got him in trouble with police and the FBI.

By Charles Cohen | Posted 2/2/2005

Sitting with a washboard around his neck and a banjo on his knee, Bob Pyle, the cherub-cheeked master of ceremonies for open-mic night at Ellicott City’s Sidestreets Restaurant, doesn’t strike one as a threatening person. Far from it. Pyle, a musician and perpetual jokester, comes off as a time-warped vaudevillian.

On Tuesday, Jan. 25, however, Pyle did appear to be a threat, at least to someone. Pyle was at the Catonsville Kinko’s on Route 40 that day, photocopying issues of a satirical newsletter he calls The Muslim News, when he found himself under interrogation by Baltimore County Police officers and FBI agents.

When a police officer responded at about 2 p.m. to a call reporting a “suspicious person,” he found Pyle working on the newsletter. Pyle says he was collating the copies when he noticed the officer standing over his shoulder.

“He said, ‘Excuse me, what are you doing here?’” Pyle recounts. “I said, ‘Putting together a newsletter.’ He said, ‘This is pretty inflammatory stuff.’”

The banner on the newsletter read “Holy Jihad declared against Jordan’s Steakhouse,” referring to a restaurant in downtown Ellicott City, and officers found a book called Bin Ladin sitting on the counter nearby. The officer took a closer look at the newsletter and found on page four a line that read “Kill Bush!! Bastard!” Soon, Pyle says, two more Baltimore County Police officers were on the scene examining his work as well.

Pyle was asked to explain the premise of his newsletter to each officer, and he tried to explain that the Muslim News wasn’t a real paper. Rather, he says, it was a satirical publication mocking U.S. policy in Iraq and the Bush administration’s ongoing attempts to put a positive spin on it. To back up his story, Pyle showed them old copies of another of his satirical papers, The Main Street Gossip Rag, that were stuffed in his burlap bag. But the officers weren’t satisfied. There was a tense moment, he says, when the officers thought he was wearing a bullet-proof vest, which was actually a back brace he wears as a result of an injury incurred falling from a ladder. He says the police were also suspicious of the washtub-bass musical instrument they found when they searched his car.

The police officers found nothing, Pyle says, and so he thought he would be left alone. Instead, the officers got on their cell phones.

“They were so paranoid that they were going to be the one to let a terrorist go that they just went up the ladder—bip, bip, bip—until they found someone,” he says. The officers told him he would have to wait with them at the Kinko’s for a detective to arrive, and Pyle says that about two hours later, at about 4, two FBI agents and one unidentified man, presumably a law-enforcement officer, brought him to one of the Kinko’s conference rooms (conveniently for rent at $40 per hour) and questioned him again.

Several times, Pyle says, he explained that The Muslim News was a joke, that he meant no harm against the president, that he was a pacifist, that he was lambasting both U.S. policy in Iraq and Islamic fundamentalism.

But the unidentified officer kept returning to page four of the newsletter. “‘You’re saying here, “Kill Bush, the bastard,”’” Pyle says the officer insisted. “‘Is that how you feel? You want to kill him?’”

Pyle says he was detained at Kinko’s for about four hours, during which he got a firsthand look at what it’s like to be a suspected terrorist under the murky powers of the Department of Homeland Security. Pyle was never told he was arrested, he says, but he was detained, questioned, and then closely interrogated before being released at about 6; all of that was followed up by a home visit by a Baltimore County police officer later that evening who had more questions about Pyle’s activities.

Barry Maddox, an FBI spokesman, confirms that FBI agents responded to a call to the Catonsville Kinko’s on Jan. 25, but noted that since no arrest was made and no official documents were filed he could not give specifics about the incident.

The 49-year-old Pyle (whose real last name is Gamse) is infamous among Ellicott City Main Streeters for poking fun, without restraint, at goings-on about town. Though Pyle cleans gutters as his day job, for 25 years he has pursued the spotlight as a musician and a bit of a comedian. (“I’ve modeled my life a little bit like Don Rickles, who brought the insult to a valid form of communication,” Pyle says.) He performs both solo and with the Famous Pyle Brothers, and founded the Baltimore-Washington Songwriters Guild. Last spring he released a CD called Apples and Oranges, a project in which he weaves his strong vegetarian leanings with country lullabies played on violin, mandolin, piano, and French horn.

Pyle also publishes The Main Street Gossip Rag, a newsletter (though calling it a “newsletter” may overstate its production values) that rants about friends, strangers, businesses, local residents—anything, it seems, is fair game. The newsletter got Pyle in trouble last spring when he awarded one of his Ellicott City targets the dishonorable mention of the Rag’s Pedophile of the Week Award. The police were called, the issues of the Rag were removed from circulation, and the newsletter went on a yearlong hiatus.

“Everybody worries about him because you don’t want him to get in trouble, to say something or do something really bad,” says Desmond Volger, part-owner of The Café, one of the few places in Ellicott City that carries Pyle’s newsletter. “Obviously he can push it.”

Clearly, Baltimore County Police and the FBI felt Pyle pushed it when they discovered his Muslim News, despite his insistence that he meant no harm. Pyle says he’s not so much bothered that he was detained for four hours, but that he feels the police overstepped their boundaries in criticizing the content of his publication. Once they determined he was not a threat, he feels he should have been released.

“I never said it was in good taste ,” he says. “In my mind I have certain rights. I have a right to speak out and be sarcastic and possibly to even slander people under certain circumstances—or at least give them a really hard time.”

The FBI’s Maddox refrains from commenting on Pyle’s specific situation, but he defends the Bureau by noting that if no one was arrested no one’s rights were violated. “I think that speaks for itself,” he says. “We still respect the rights of individuals and the freedom of speech. The Constitution is something that we value.”

Pyle still tended to his duties at the Sidestreets open mic the evening of his Kinko’s experience. But he was none too happy when, in the midst of the festivities, a police cruiser pulled up in front of the large front window and idled there for a few minutes.

“I’m being watched and monitored to some degree,” he says. “To what degree I don’t know, but I know I’m not anonymous anymore. And that is sort of a weird feeling.”

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