At 8 p.m. one Friday every month, it is Officer Dean Abeyta's solemn duty to administer a form of juvenile justice that has been called everything from "groundbreaking" to "cruel and unusual." Entering the single courtroom of the Fort Lupton municipal building, he sets up rows of chairs, drags a desk in front of the chairs and places on the desk a cheap boom box holding a cassette mix tape. Then he waits for his perpetrators -- mostly teenage boys and the occasional teenage girl, all of whom have been arrested for violating Fort Lupton's strict noise ordinance with their bass-booming car stereos.
This is seriously unlawful behavior in these parts, and Abeyta has developed rules for the Fort Lupton Music Immersion program that match the severity of the crime.
"Number one," Abeyta recites, "no gum. Number two, no smiling. Well, no mocking, you know, like this was a big joke. Also no yawning, sleeping or bathroom breaks. And you gotta sit up straight."
After giving the rules, he turns on the tape, letting it run for one hour. "They hate it," he says, "which is good. The only problem is that I have to listen to it, too."
And that is a problem. Recent selections on the Music Immersion mix tape include:
The Barney Theme ("I love you/ You love me...")
Several Yanni selections
Riders of the Purple Sage in a yodeling number chosen deliberately because the Western combo is singing off-key
John Denver's "Sunshine on My Shoulder"
Bobby Goldsboro's "Honey"
Dean Martin's "Cryin' Time"
A bit of Al Jolson
An opera duet featuring Placido Domingo and Glenn Close
"Plus a lot of that old-time, back-in-the-day music," Abeyta recalls. "Bach, Beethoven and that 1930s stuff. The kids really don't like it. They walk out of the Immersion pissed off."
But, he adds, they do not express their annoyance by playing their music loudly as they drive away. "They know better now," he says, with a sigh of deep satisfaction. "This program works."
It was Fort Lupton's part-time judge, Paul Sacco, who first came up with the idea of showing, rather than telling, perpetrators that being forced to listen to someone else's music can be irritating. He debuted the program a little more than a year ago, and is still giddy over its success.
"We're just trying to put the 'fun' back in 'dysfunctional,'" he quips. "I was particularly proud of having Jim Nabors on the original tape, singing 'How Great Thou Art,' but I took it off after a while, because it was religious in content."
"I get calls from all over the world requesting songs," adds Fort Lupton court clerk Penny Verhoeff. "A lot ask for John Tesh. One person suggested I play 'It's a Small World After All' for an hour, but I didn't think our bailiff could take it."
"I couldn't," Officer Abeyta confirms.
Discussions of bad music and its good effect on bad kids are commonplace during the two mornings each week when Judge Sacco shows up to arraign scofflaws. His cohorts in the Fort Lupton justice system are used to such talk -- and to media interest in the Music Immersion program. In the past year, the Fort Lupton municipal building has hosted, among others, Tom Brokaw, Katie Couric, VH1, the BBC, National Public Radio and the Daily Show.
"I loved that one," Abeyta remembers. "They staged an old lady driving through town playing really loud polka music, and they filmed me pulling her over on camera."
"People have heard about this all over the world," Sacco says. "What's interesting is that only two comments were negative. One person thought the program is humiliating to kids. I disagree. Another thought it would discourage kids from liking opera, which, if you could hear that Glenn Close cut, might be true. It's bizarre to me that this program is so well-liked. For a while there, in the beginning, I really thought they would fire me. But then, I do my best work when I'm not afraid to get fired."
Not only does Sacco maintain a business law office in Greeley, he has extensive real estate investments, so his pay from the Fort Lupton legal system means relatively little. Back in 1993, he decided to take on the judgeship not for money, but partly out of a desire to be a public servant and mostly because he was haunted by more than a hundred cases of child abuse and neglect he'd worked on early in his law career. A majority of Fort Lupton arraignments involve juveniles, and Sacco likes that -- as a father of three, he'd become concerned, in a general way, with the state of American children.
He had no idea how specific his concern would become.
"In July '97, the city council passed a noise ordinance," Sacco recalls. "There had been a lot of complaints about car sound systems, and the ordinance was not uncommon, although it is strict."
"Yeah, if I can hear your boom 25 feet away, I can cite you," Abeyta says.
"In Greeley, it's a hundred feet," Sacco says. "Anyway, as we began enforcing, we learned that these guys have some serious sound equipment. It makes a LOT of noise, and starting in December '98, I was up here hearing arraignments. Basically, I was giving these kids a $90 fine, which, with court costs, comes to more than $100. It didn't feel right to me. My gut feeling was that music is a good thing and that the fine was a little harsh. Also, it didn't fit the crime, really. And I began thinking it really is a manners thing. For the most part, I like the kids and I like their music."
"Like what?" Abeyta asks, leaning forward on the bench.
"Creed, Tool, Sublime," Sacco rattles off. "But they don't listen to it with manners. Manners should be handled at home, before the kids ever get to court, but they're not, so the courts have to assume a parental role, which is awful. But I can't sit back and NOT assume a parenting role, and say 'Go to jail' -- because then the kids would have no respect for the court. The punishment has to fit the crime...the idea being the kid has to learn some empathy."
And now Sacco heats up, having hit on a subject dear to his heart. "Listen," he says. "When I was eight, there were 47 kids on my block and we were all playing outside all the time. Kids don't do that anymore, and that's bad, because when you hang out with someone, empathy happens. You get connected. If I get connected to someone, if I understand that we have similar feelings, it's a little harder for me to take out a gun and blow him away, you know? But there isn't that connection. Kids are isolated, shut in their rooms. Oh, well," he concludes, "I sound like every old codger since time began. It's unsettling, that's all."
Early in his judgeship, Sacco's solutions to the kid problem were less effective than they are now. "For instance," he laughs, "I sentenced them to have lunch with each other and talk. That didn't work. Or I sentenced them to join sports. I clearly don't have the authority to do that, but I did it anyway. I was just trying to get the idea across that it's unfair to impose your music on people. Most kids did not understand how annoying that could be. Well, now they do."
This became crystal clear the first time Sacco watched a roomful of seventeen-year-olds with shaved heads and tattoos squirming as they listened to Gene Autry and Dale Evans singing "Happy Trails to You."
"Like chalk on a blackboard," Sacco remembers. "Thrilling."
Other municipal courts seem to agree. In the year since Sacco introduced Music Immersion, Verhoeff has sent material on the program to more than thirty cities -- in this country and abroad -- that have requested it, as well as a judge in Alabama who then began his own program. "The Germans really got off on it," Sacco remembers. "They tend to like things that impose order."
The English had an equally jingoistic response: Having heard that one of the mix tapes included Irish bagpipe music, they interviewed Sacco with some glee.
"The BBC got a kick out of that because they don't like the Irish, or their music," Sacco says. "We weren't trying to irritate the Irish, just our kids, but they didn't get that. Then the Irish began calling my law office at all hours, to complain of the injustice."
Other calls came from those suggesting ever-more-horrific songs. "There was a certain intensity to these requests," Sacco says. "It was as though everyone has a closet song that's been bothering them for years, and they want desperately to get it off their chest. Billy Joel's 'Piano Man,' let's say."
It was only a matter of time, however, before one man's horrid song turned out to be another's favorite. Judge Sacco, for instance, admits to a fondness for the very John Denver music that makes his bailiff squirm. A middle-aged man arrested for playing Bob Seger at ear-splitting volume came to court furious -- what was wrong with a little "Fire Down Below"? Surely it took precedence over "Cop Killer"? And then, much to their dismay, administrators of the Music Immersion program learned via surveys handed out at the end of each session that a few of the songs designed to irk were actually quite popular with wayward youth.
"The classical, for one thing," Sacco remembers. "Some kids started to like it, which is another unintended good thing. It's like we took them to an art museum and exposed them to a few Monets, and they actually liked it. They also liked Jerry Reed singing 'I Been Framed,' and we had to take it off the tape. And, you know, they liked a song of mine, called 'Sleeping in My Car,' a slow blues I recorded in my basement. I have," he says modestly, "been playing the guitar for 37 years."
In fact, he still works out with a Greeley garage band, which is mostly notable for the fact that its lead guitarist is a Lutheran minister who strongly resembles Eric Clapton.
"Yeah, I love music," Sacco insists. "Music is good. If you come out in the parking lot, I'll show you my new sound system."
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A few minutes later, he pops the trunk of his BMW convertible, revealing a massive power amp. "225 watts," he says proudly. "Everyone should have one. I'm about to drive back to Greeley, and I guess I'll start out with Blondie, then some Toad, and maybe Pink Floyd."
He'll wait to blast his tunes until he reaches the relatively uninhabited stretches of Highway 85, but he's looking forward to the diversion. Although he heard few arraignments, Sacco still had a rough day. Recidivism is quite low among kids who've been through his mix-tape-from-hell program -- 3 to 5 percent is the official figure -- but today he had to deal with one of the program's few repeat offenders.
"He's been through the hour of bad music three times, and he won't stop," Sacco says sadly. "He's a bad guy. I was thinking of cranking it up -- putting together a solid hour of Barry Manilow just for him.
"But that would have been too much," he concludes. "I sent him to jail."