“Honest Ambition”




Sheriff John Patrick O’Brien had been elected to office by the people of Genesee County in the fall of ’72, right along with Richard Nixon.

Unlike Nixon, O’Brien was an Irish-Democrat. Their interest in gaining popular favor was, however, quite similar; it being a quality rather universal in most of political bent.

John O ‘Brien was studying law and had a limited military background. He was relatively young and, as with many of Irish blood, could charm the worst with his best. He had obtained UAW endorsement on the Democratic ticket and had won his position by a substantial majority of votes. He had aspirations of higher climbs ahead. For any practical purpose, he was completely inexperienced at law-enforcement. Why let details stand in the way of honest ambition?

The planning had been highly confidential. A “rock concert” was being scheduled on August 4th at a place called “Sherwood Forest” in Davison, well within Genesee County jurisdictional boundaries. Four or five deputy-sheriffs would go “undercover” and dress-up like “hippies”. They would enter the concert area and attempt to purchase drugs. If successful, they would effect an immediate arrest and signal such by radio. John O’ Brien would join the arresting deputies in full-uniform, accompanied by two television news crews eager for terrific footage. Think about the press coverage! Talk about media! What a great idea!!

“Wild Wednesdays” were held in a large fenced-in area behind the main hall at Sherwood Forest. Entrance to the concerts was through two check-points. There was a gate at the park entrance where tickets would be purchased. After cars were parked, ticket-holders would then proceed to the hall entrance where their tickets would be taken and their hands stamped. They would then pass through the hall to a large door which led outside to the concert-grounds. Functionally, the hall acted as an extended vestibule for Wild Wednesday activities. At any given time, it might be occupied by no more than several dozen people in the process of arriving or leaving.

At approximately 6:30 p.m. on August 4th, a long-haired “freak” purchased several “acid hits” from an unknown seller just inside the hall entrance. The “freak” then pulled a gun from his pocket and leveled it at the seller. Several bystanders could not hear the words being spoken, but saw the “freak” with the “gun”. They primarily were focused on the gun and feared the worst. They moved in. The “freak” screamed “move back” and fired four separate shots in the air. He was jumped from behind and disarmed. It all happened in seconds. Several other “freaks” pulled radios from their vests and started yelling.

Suddenly, the intruding bystanders (who thought they were courageously preventing sad misfortune) were set-upon by the “freaks with radios”, pummeled to the ground and hand-cuffed. Sheriff John Patrick O’ Brien suddenly materialized with TV crews taping away. Nothing could have been more incendiary.

Other innocent onlookers, increased in numbers by the commotion, quickly added things up. It was some kind of set-up. Look at those “hippies” with badges! Dig that four-eyed-bastard-Sheriff retreating in obvious fear.  Check out those fuckin’ television cameras. The police were breaking the peace!

Words were thrown in anger and then fists, followed by rocks and bottles. The newly-elected Sheriff had successfully started his and Sherwood Forest’s only riot. Thankfully, it was limited to less than thirty participants and had been concealed by fortune from the crowd of six thousand outside the hall. But not if Sheriff O’ Brien could help it.

He and his deputies ran to their cars and shot up the driveway toward Richfield Road. He stopped at the entrance-gate and ordered it closed. He
“sealed-off” the site and issued an emergency radio call for all available reenforcements to join him in quelling  the “rioting at Sherwood Forest”. He summoned the Michigan State Police and police from surrounding counties. He was going to “march right in and clean-out the whole crowd” as soon as help arrived.

Ed Boyce and I reached the entrance first.

It was hard telling which one of us was more pissed.

Chief Boyce had not been informed of the “drug bust” and the County Sheriff was on Ed’s turf.  Boyce had his own “narcs” floating around, too. They also had guns. That could have been a nice shoot-out!

The Chief also hated “amateurs” and used the word repeatedly in his discussion with the good Sheriff. Theoretically, the Sheriff was the chief law-enforcement officer in the county. He out-ranked Ed. But, if O’Brien was an elected Army General, Chief Boyce was a real, thoroughly disgusted professional who was not taking shit from a “rookie”. Oh, and there was no riot going on, thank you. That had stopped when the Sheriff “ran away”,  Chief Boyce properly and accurately noted.

My turn came. I asked the Sheriff to step away so we could talk privately. I was furious. I told him I was not interested in discussing lawsuits or recall campaigns for the moment, but that he had certainly placed two Irishmen in a precarious situation. I asked him to come back to the hall and walk with me through the “rioting crowd”. He could then inform all that he had personally inspected the grounds and had insured lawful assembly. His alternative would be to wait for the militia and lead a major assault on thousands of peaceful citizens. I suggested there were enough witnesses to assure political suicide, but the choice was his.

He walked with me through the crowd. There were a few shouts of friendly recognition from those who had seen him campaigning on TV, but nothing untoward occurred. The “Wild Wednesday” crowds were used to seeing dozens of uniformed officers in their midst and regarded them with casual indifference. They were “part of the scene”. Several dozen police cars had gathered at the entrance to the park and were awaiting instruction. They were ordered to withdraw. The gates were re-opened. I told Sheriff O’Brien that he had made a wise decision and that I would be in his office the following afternoon with my attorney, Stewart Newblatt. Understandings needed to be reached.

Local television coverage was wide. With “live action” footage, that was guaranteed. The O’Brien version of the day’s events was that he and his deputies had made drug arrests at Sherwood Forest, were set-upon by a portion of the crowd, and had restored order by the time reinforcements had arrived. The radio-alert had been sounded purely as a precaution and any reports of his referencing “wild rioting” on police frequencies was a gross misinterpretation. He had said that “rioting” might get “wild” or something to that effect.  Chief Boyce and I were not contacted for comment.

Stewart Newblatt and I met with Sheriff O’Brien the next day. My overall view was that he had been guilty of gross misconduct and had displayed terrifying incompetence. Most importantly, he could have been singularly responsible for a major catastrophe had he actually attempted to “clean-out the crowd”. It was a frightening thought and it made me sick to think of what might have happened. I also pointed out that a minor concern was the fact he had cost me several thousand dollars in admissions by closing the gate. In the final analysis this was of no lasting importance. I proposed that we start fresh with things clear between us.

There were to be no more “television stagings” at my expense or unpleasant surprises from his department of any nature. I would offer complete cooperation in all law enforcement efforts and would also post a large sign at the park entrance warning that Genesee County Undercover Officers were in the crowd and that “dealers would be dealt”. I was candid in stating that this would provide fair warning to all and offer excellent press for him. I also insisted that he reach accord with Chief Boyce and other township authorities and work with them closely. They were genuinely experienced in crowd control and enjoyed excellent relationship with those attending concerts. Attorney Newblatt explained in great detail why my observations made exceptional legal and political sense. It was the latter which brought an agreement. And a handshake.

I underestimated and did not fully understand and factor genuine animosity and bitter distrust which had long existed within area law enforcement communities. And I believed O’Brien. That ended with our next “Wild Wednesday” three weeks hence.

One Response to ““Honest Ambition””

  1. Ellen Light Says:

    Wow, great story. What a thoroughly scary thing to have happened. Thank you anew for all you did to bring Sherwood Forest to all of us. 🙂

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