Baltimore's notorious "dine and dasher," accused of repeatedly faking seizures to get out of paying restaurant tabs, got a hefty bill on Friday from a city judge: five years in prison.
Andrew Palmer, 47, has been eating and drinking for free around town for years. He became known by police and paramedics for feigning medical emergencies when his checks were due, and restaurant owners began posting his picture on their walls.
Police have locked him up and he has been convicted dozens of times, but the maximum penalty for the charge of theft under $100 carries a maximum penalty of a few weeks in jail, which he repeatedly received and served.
But on Friday, on charges that he stole $89 when he refused to pay a bill at the now-closed Oliver Speck's in Harbor East last fall, Palmer received a sentence of five years from District Judge Theodore B. Oshrine.
This time, prosecutors convicted him of a more serious charge using an unusual argument about the magnitude of his crime. Though $89 is under $100, they said, it is also under $1,000 — a designation that qualified Palmer for a much stiffer punishment. Public defenders are appealing the outcome but declined to comment further.
Assistant State's Attorney Scott Richman has been pursuing Palmer for years. In 2010, after flipping through Palmer's 133-page rap sheet, he decided to combine six similar restaurant theft cases into one conspiracy charge that brought a longer sentence of 18 months.
"I said, 'We have to get this guy more than 90 days. That just doesn't faze him,' " Richman told The Baltimore Sun at the time.
But 18 months did not faze him either. After his release in 2011, Palmer, who has been described as homeless in past cases, would be arrested 15 more times on similar accusations.
He was convicted in 13 of those cases, receiving anywhere from 90 days to 18 months, most recently getting a 90-day sentence in March.
As Palmer's reputation grew, restaurant owners made it their business to be prepared for him.
Willy Dely of Fells Point Bars, a restaurant group that includes Kooper's Tavern and Slainte, said area merchants and restaurant owners circulated news accounts and social media postings of Palmer's exploits. His photograph was posted behind the bar at every one of his group's establishments, Dely said, and the management educated the staff about Palmer's methods.
"I had it ingrained in my head what he looked like," said Karin Tiffany, the co-owner of Peter's Inn in Fells Point. "And I showed his picture to everyone here."
The free meal that brought Palmer the lengthy sentence occurred in October 2013, when Palmer went to Oliver Speck's. Owner Jesse Sandlin said he ordered pork chops, macaroni and cheese, soup and several drinks. Believing he had become intoxicated, a bartender cut him off. Then Palmer appeared to pass out.
Medics were called, according to prosecutors, and after determining that his vital signs were stable, they nonetheless took Palmer to a hospital because he remained unresponsive.
On the way to the hospital, Palmer suddenly woke up and stated, "I have no money to pay for my food and beers, so I was faking," prosecutors said.
Police issued Palmer a citation for the crime a few days later, but the charge was dropped in January. The case was refiled in late February, with prosecutor Richman assigned once again. This time, instead of theft under $100, Richman charged him with theft under $1,000.
Of course, $89 is under both $100 and $1,000, but defense attorney and former prosecutor Warren Alperstein, who is not involved with the cases, said there is a principle in the law called "specific over general" that calls for the charges to fit the allegations as closely as possible.
"You have to charge the most specific statute that applies," Alperstein said.
Online court records show that Palmer has been convicted of the more severe theft allegation twice before, though details of those cases — including the alleged damages — were not available Friday. In recent months, prosecutors had tried for the higher charge without success.
At Palmer's February court hearing for stealing $50 by not paying a bill at the Kona Grill, Assistant State's Attorney Wesley Corning added a charge of theft under $1,000, saying prosecutors wanted the charge with the more severe penalty.
Judge George M. Lipman rejected the move, saying theft under $100 was more appropriate.
But on Friday, in front of Oshrine, the charge stuck. And Palmer's guilty plea made three convictions on the charge, which carries a heavier penalty on a third offense. The maximum penalty for a first and second offense on a charge of theft under $1,000 is 18 months.
For a third offense, the maximum jumps to five years in prison.
Oshrine gave Palmer every day of it, to be followed by three years of supervised probation. On a second count of falsely calling an ambulance, he got a five-year suspended sentence that could be imposed if he were to "dine and dash" while on probation, prosecutors said.
Fittingly, Friday was Richman's last day as a prosecutor. The state's attorney's office would not make him available for an interview.
"For years, this individual has preyed on our small businesses, the lifeblood of our city's economy, and tied up vital 911 services under false pretenses. We are therefore gratified with today's outcome and grateful to Assistant State's Attorney Scott Richman for his good work," State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein said.
Sergio Vitale, whose family owns Aldo's in Little Italy and Chazz: A Bronx Original, said he was always on the lookout for Palmer.
On Friday, he grudgingly gave him this: "For a deadbeat, he's got great taste in restaurants."