Overdue charges

Margie Chestnut doesn't look like your average felon.
With her long, scraggly gray locks smoothed back in a paisley scarf, her soft yellow cotton sweater, and her oversized, owlish glasses, the 63-year-old Chestnut looks more like a grandma than the prototypical grifter. Indeed, as she sits at a plastic-covered table in Barbec's diner, the only clue that the 97-pound Chestnut has just been sprung from jail is her appetite.

"They gave me bologna sandwiches," Chestnut explains, plowing into Monday's chicken-and-rice lunch special. Four feet away, dragging on a Marlboro Light, Chestnut's daughter Audrey Helms listens to her mom spin the tale of her 10-day stay on the taxpayers' tab. Every now and then, though, Helms can't resist jumping in to offer her perspective.

"I didn't know Mom was [in jail] till she called me," Helms interjects. "That judge really threw the book at her."

In fact, Mom might still be dining on bologna, had her court-appointed lawyer, Liz Miller, not persuaded Judge Mark Nancarrow to reduce her $15,000 bail to a more manageable $2,500.

Her crime: failure to return a rented paint sprayer in a timely fashion, causing Chestnut to rack up $1,552 in rental charges she could not pay. According to a little-noticed provision of the Texas Penal Code, this constitutes theft of service, a state jail felony punishable by six months to two years in the pen.

If this seems a bit Dickensian, Georgia Stinson, manager of Dal-Tex Rentals in Mesquite, disagrees. It was Stinson who rented Chestnut the paint sprayer. "It's theft," she insists, by turns friendly and extremely suspicious. "They're stealing money from rental companies. It's a big problem."

Think debtor's prison has gone the way of thumbscrews and the rack? Think again. It exists--especially for people like Margie Chestnut.

The problem, of course, is intent.
Since we like to fancy ourselves humane and enlightened, we don't put poor people in jail for being poor. Neither do we cage the merely negligent, the late-videotape or overdue-library-book renter.

But the difference between being poor and being negligent and being a criminal is sometimes paper-thin. Take the facts of Chestnut's alleged crime, as recounted in a Mesquite police officer's affidavit:

"On 7-16-97 the suspect Margie Chestnut (aka Helms) rented an electric airless spray rig from Dal-Tex Rentals located at 910 N. Beltline. The rental fee for one day was to be $58.00...One days [sic] rental, tax, ins. and a $40 deposit was paid by suspect. When property was not returned the suspect advised [Ms.] Stinson (mgr.) that they would return equipment in four weeks."

Chestnut, who says she's been a painting, roofing, and repair contractor since 1960, claims she rented the rig for a painting job. "The heat was so bad, we couldn't work the whole day," she explains. "So we called them back and asked if we could change to a weekly rate. A few days later, we changed to monthly. The rental was going to be $640.

"I had gotten sick after the second week," Chestnut continues. "It just kept getting worse and worse." Chestnut says she has been in bad health for some time, suffering from a variety of ailments: ulcers, debilitating migraines, various colds, and infections. But since she is indigent and without health insurance, she says, she relies on the county hospital and over-the-counter medications. "I lost 30 pounds last summer," says the fragile-looking Chestnut, blue eyes blinking through huge frames.

The way Chestnut tells it, if it weren't for bad luck she'd have no luck at all. She's had pneumonia. She's been evicted from two different apartments. She's without transportation, having had her Chevy van repossessed. And that's just since the beginning of this year.

According to Dallas County records, she's been star-crossed for some time. She's floated a few bad checks. She's been sued civilly a few times, for debts and misrepresentations. And in 1994, she was charged with theft over $200 and under $750 after she allegedly took some paint and a $500 check to paint a dentist's office and then failed to appear. According to the affidavit in that one, "detective S.M. Haines of the Dallas Police Department...called the suspect. The suspect gave some excuse as to why she had kept the complainant's property...[and] gave Detective Haines a false date of birth. Detective Haines ran the driver's license the suspect used to cash the check...It was discovered the suspect had been arrested several years ago in Tampa, Florida, and was currently wanted by Dallas Sheriff's Office and the Arlington Police Department." (It is unclear what the Florida arrest was about, although Chestnut says she was set up. The Arlington warrant concerned an alleged theft.)

In 1996 Chestnut was found not guilty in the Dallas theft rap--the one from the dentist's complaint. She wasn't so lucky in the Arlington theft case, for which she's currently on probation.

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Christine Biederman