ORLANDO – For the second time, Circuit Court Judge Jose Rodriguez refused to dismiss the defamation lawsuit brought by Winter Garden businessman Richard Mask against radio talk show host Doug Guetzloe. But the judge also refused to issue a ruling in favor of Mask’s lawsuit.
“I think now more than ever it becomes a question of fact for the jury,” Rodrigues said.
Whether the case can go to the jury today will get challenged. Guetzloe said after the trial that his attorney, Fred O’Neal, would request a mistrial today, based on the fact that the judge had asked Guetzloe’s wife and son to leave the courtroom.
“I have directed Mr. O’Neal to request a mistrial,” Guetzloe said outside the court. “I think it’s a reversible error.”
Around 1:30 p.m. on Monday when court reconvened, the judge motioned for a court officer to approach the bench. A moment later, the officer asked Guetzloe’s wife and son to leave the courtroom.
Guetzloe said this was a double standard since Mask’s wife had been present in court throughout the entire trial, and he said it prejudiced the jury to see his own family being ordered to leave the courtroom.
“He (the judge) certainly could have asked the jury to leave the room before he did that,” Guetzloe said. “My wife wasn’t allowed to stay in there for five minutes.”
After a recess around 3 p.m., Guetzloe complained to the judge about that decision, and Rodrigues defended his actions.
“You’re certainly entitled to your opinion,” the judge said. “I’m here to protect you from yourself.”
Mask’s attorney, Howard Marks, and O’Neal rested their cases today. Mask has charged that Guetzloe implied that he was a pedophile during a radio show in January 2006. Guetzloe has denied that and said he was questioning whether Mask was looking for code violations in a mobile home park for residents over 55.
After the two sides rested on Monday afternoon, Marks asked the judge to issue a directed verdict in favor of his client on the issue of liability, saying Guetzloe’s comments were “defamation per se,” since the host of The Guetzloe Report had asked if Mask was trolling for young boys and then urged the people of the mobile home park, Trailer City, to report Mask to the local police department.
“There is no evidence to support any of the comments Mr. Guetzloe made on his radio show,” Marks said. “They are completely false.”
Based on that, “I think Mr. Mask is entitled to a directed verdict.”
But the judge disagreed, saying the defense offered a very different interpretation of Guetzloe’s comments.
“I have before me two different sides arguing that the words mean something totally different,” Rodrigues said. “Mine is a realm of the law. I have to defer to the jury.”
The jury, he said, was perfectly capable of deciding the case, since it came down to “an issue of the believability of witnesses.”
Marks also asked the judge to issue a ruling in favor of Mask’s lawsuit against Guetzloe for abuse of process. Guetzloe had filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Mask and two others, alleging they illegally taped his radio program. That lawsuit was ultimately dismissed, and Marks has argued that the suit was brought to harass Mask into dropping his defamation case.
“I think the evidence is very clear,” Marks said. “Mr. Guetzloe brought the lawsuit to get Mr. Mask to dismiss the defamation case.”
O’Neal countered that in order to win a lawsuit claiming abuse of power, Mask would need to demonstrate that the sole purpose of Guetzloe’s lawsuit was abusive. Mask and his attorney, O’Neal said, failed to make that case.
Again, Judge Rodrigues said he would let the jury make the final decision on that issue.
“If motive and intent are cousins, those need to go to the jury,” he said. “It’s clearly, clearly a jury matter.”
Guetzloe took the stand on the final day of testimony. The case dates back to 2005, when the city of Winter Garden became embroiled in a political battle over Trailer City, a mobile home park on picturesque Lake Apopka that dates back to the 1930s.
The Winter Garden City Commission voted in 2005 to close the park. Commissioners cited fire safety concerns, while residents charged that the closing was intended to turn the property over to wealthy developers at a time when the real estate market was booming.
Guetzloe sided with the residents of Trailer City and led a successful recall effort against one of the commissioners who favored closing the park, while helping to defeat a second commissioner who also wanted it closed. As a result of that election, the commission later reversed its decision and voted to keep the park open.
On Jan. 10, 2006, Guetzloe made his comments about Mask during a radio program, questioning why the former member of the city’s zoning board was seen talking to young boys in Trailer City. Mask has charged that Guetzloe’s comments made him sound like a pedophile looking to sexually abuse children, while Guetzloe has claimed he was simply questioning whether Mask was looking for code violations to get the park shut down.
O’Neal asked Guetzloe if he had ever been compensated for the work he had done on behalf of the residents of Trailer City. Guetzloe said he had.
“I was compensated for my efforts,” Guetzloe said. “I received an apple pie that was baked by the ladies of Trailer City.”
At the conclusion of his testimony, a juror brought up the issue again when the judge asked if they had any questions. The judge read the question aloud: “What compensation have or did you receive from your support of Winter Garden candidates?”
Guetzloe responded, “I received no financial compensation from any candidate in Winter Garden. I did receive an apple pie. It had some value to me.”
Marks asked Guetzloe if his consulting firm had received $470,000 from Winter Garden, and Guetzloe said yes, but that was for public research into a possible shopping mall in the community.
At that point, the judge dismissed the jurors for the day, saying “At the end of the evidence, I’m going to have some pretty weighty issues to decide.”
Earlier, when Guetzloe first took the stand, O’Neal asked about his political views.
“Do you sometimes take both sides of a political issue,” O’Neal asked.
“No,” Guetzloe responded.
“Mr. Guetzloe, did you call Mr. Mask a pedophile in your January 10 broadcast,” O’Neal asked.
“No, I did not,” Guetzloe said.
O’Neal noted Guetzloe’s comment that Mask had been trolling for young boys, and asked, “Did you intend that word to have a sexual connotation?”
“No,” Guetzloe responded. “That word does not have a sexual connotation.”
Asked by O’Neal what he felt Mask was trolling for, Guetzloe said he made the comments after getting a letter from a Winter Garden commissioner, Carol Nichols, who opposed closing down Trailer City. Nichols has written that she’d heard from residents that Mask had been seen driving in the park talking to children. The residents had questioned whether Mask was looking for code violations in the adults-only park, Guetzloe said,
“Based on what I’d read, I thought he was trying to find some kind of code violations or trouble he could make for the people of Trailer City,” Guetzloe said.
O’Neal also asked, “Is Mr. Mask a pedophile,” and Guetzloe responded, “I don’t know. I would have no way of knowing that.”
“Do you know Mr. Mask personally?” O’Neal asked, and Guetzloe responded that he did not.
“Do you have any personal disagreements with Mr. Mask,” O’Neal asked.
“None whatsoever,” Guetzloe said.
In his cross examination, Marks asked Guetzloe about the way he had characterized Mask’s behavior on his radio show.
“You testified that it’s inappropriate for adults to talk to juveniles if they don’t know them,” Marks asked. “Where does it say (in Nichols’ letter) Mr. Mask didn’t know the juveniles he was talking to.” Mask had earlier testified that the only young boys he would have talked to in Trailer City would have been his own young son and the boy’s friends.
Guetzloe again referred to Nichol’s letter and said, “That is the implication I got from the letter,” prompting Marks to counter, “You had really no evidence in this letter that Mr. Mask was speaking to juveniles he didn’t know.”
The testimony got so heated at times that Judge Rodrigues gave the jurors a break, then advised the two lawyers that “This is not a field of battle other than it is a marketplace of ideas, and those ideas have to come to the jury in a manner that does not have anarchy over it. This is not a free for all.”
The constant back and forth by both attorneys, Rodrigues said, is “wearing thin on me.”
Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.