Crime & Courts

Tattooed bicyclist miffed about being pulled over while wearing a thong

There is the mundane side of Larry Keith:

He is a 59-year-old great-grandfather, retired truck driver and survivor of open-heart surgeries who lives in a tidy home in north Wichita.

And there is Keith's expressive side:

He has tattoos from the top of his head to the last digits of his toes and everywhere in between. Everywhere.

Since the 1960s, Keith has been covering his body with up to $35,000 worth of tattoos showing a variety of things, such as American Indian images, sports logos and women in sexual poses.

Before his 59th birthday last May, Keith and his buddies thought it would be funny if he showed off his skin while riding a bicycle past City Hall and the Sedgwick County Courthouse — wearing only a thong.

The material would cover his crotch and a narrow strip on his backside, but much of his tattooed buttocks would show. He thought it was legal to dress that way in public, and apparently he is right.

Still, it didn't keep him from being detained by law enforcement on one of Wichita's busiest streets.

Nearly a year later, he remains peeved about that.

According to Wichita police Deputy Chief Tom Stolz, it is legal for someone to wear a thong in public if it covers the genitals and other body parts regulated by the city's nudity ordinance.

But Sedgwick County sheriff's Sgt. Oscar Thomasson says the reason he pulled Keith over that day is not because he wore a thong but because he unsafely affected the traffic flow by going less than 5 mph on his bicycle on busy Main Street downtown.

Keith, who contends he should not have been stopped and notes that his traffic ticket was dismissed, says he recently decided to speak out about the incident.

With his 60th birthday approaching, he is still stewing over what happened just before his last birthday.

Conflicting views

One sunny weekday last May, while people went about their midmorning business downtown, Keith rode off wearing his thong. He pedaled along for a few minutes until Thomasson pulled him over on Main just past City Hall.

Keith said he was wrongfully stopped and detained for too long while several sheriff's deputies and police officers pulled up in patrol cars and gathered around him, some snapping pictures. He says they wasted taxpayer money.

If what he was wearing was a problem, Keith said, "they should have had me sitting in the (patrol) car in the first 30 seconds." Thomasson ordered him to remain seated on the bicycle by the curb, in public view, Keith said.

Thomasson said that if Keith had been wearing a business suit while riding the bike, he still would have pulled him over because he was endangering himself by going slowly on a bike in busy traffic.

Thomasson said that as he watched Keith ride along, he initially thought Keith might be nude, which is against the law. Still, he said, the stop occurred because of a traffic concern.

"I still had probable cause to stop him for the traffic violation," Thomasson said.

"If given the same circumstances, where I believe that a person riding a bicycle was possibly endangering themselves riding on a busy street, I would stop them."

Keith contends that Thomasson and the officers made a bigger spectacle out of him than he was making of himself, on his way to his two favorite tattoo parlors along Douglas, Hell Bomb and Lucky Devil.

As he sat on his bike while detained that day, some motorists slowed down and drove around the block to get another view.

People stood at windows in the Epic Center and stared down at him, he said.

Thomasson said he didn't move Keith from his spot with the bike because he wasn't arresting him and taking him into custody.

Based on a relative's recording of the stop from across the street, Keith estimates he was detained for about 30 minutes.

Sheriff Bob Hinshaw said records show the traffic stop lasted 23 minutes. According to Hinshaw, Thomasson thought Keith was impeding traffic when he rode in an inner lane of the four-lane street.

Impeding-the-flow is rarely cited, and after review it was decided that the incident technically didn't meet the letter of the law, Hinshaw said.

Still, Hinshaw said, "It was a good-faith stop."

How it unfolded

This is Keith's version, in more detail, of what he says happened that day: It was May 21, and his ride started according to plan.

Relatives followed in two vehicles to record the stunt as he took off from Murdock and Waco. He rolled down a side street past the jail, turned right at Main and moved from the outside lane of the one-way street because of cars stopped ahead of him in front of the courthouse.

He pedaled in traffic past the courthouse and moved back to the outside lane as he rolled past City Hall.

As he passed Third Street, he heard a siren behind him and stopped.

Thomasson walked up and asked Keith what he was doing. The sheriff's sergeant didn't seem to be amused.

Thomasson said he had to check with a supervisor to see how to handle the situation.

Keith stayed on the bicycle, following Thomasson's order.

"I was just as nice as could be," he said.

Thomasson said Keith was showing too much "anal cleavage."

Keith still disagrees. "By law, I had covered whatever I had to have covered," he said.

A police officer walked up to Keith, looked at his tattoos and told him some of the images were offensive and that if he didn't put on clothes, he would be taken to jail.

Keith contends that as long as he was in motion on the bike, none of images was discernible to others.

The video from across the street shows that up to five police or sheriff's cars stopped by Keith.

At one point, a police officer pulled up in a patrol car, rolled down the window and snapped a picture of him with his cell phone, Keith said.

Stolz, the police deputy chief, said that was "inappropriate conduct" by the officer.

Still, Stolz said, a heavily tattooed man in a thong on a busy street "is an unusual circumstance in our city ... and unusual circumstances draw police officers."

Overall, Keith said, the police officers were friendly. At least one officer told him he would have "laughed it off and let me go in my way," but that it was "Oscar's (Thomasson's) collar."

At one point, a police officer read Keith his Miranda rights, he said.

After about 30 minutes, Keith said, Thomasson let him leave so someone could take him to retrieve his clothes.

'Dude ... in a thong'

By the next day, Keith was seeing comments on the Internet that people in the local public safety community had posted about the incident.

One posting said: "My highlight today, dude riding a bike down Main in a thong, and tatoo'd out." Another person posted a picture of Keith on his bike during the stop.

Within about a month of the incident, Keith went to a sheriff's internal affairs office and to the District Attorney's Office and county commissioners offices to argue that he had not broken the law and was wrongfully detained. He also complained that some of the Internet comments revealed information about his case that he thought shouldn't be disclosed.

After Keith complained, the Sheriff's Office checked to see whether the incident involved policy violations, and "appropriate action" was taken regarding sheriff's personnel, Hinshaw said, adding that he could not be more specific.

Looking back at his shortened ride, Keith says, "It was a lot of fun in a way. But in a way, I felt I was held against my will for their entertainment."

He still sees some humor in it.

He had dozens of T-shirts printed with a photo of him in the thong during the stop. He wore one of the T-shirts during an interview for this story.

Each T-shirt displays one word in big letters by his photo: