Troubling stint in jail sets Utahn on crusade
Correction: A report in Friday's Tribune incorrectly identified Gregg Revell, of Bountiful, and the Association of New Jersey Rifle and Pistol Clubs as co-defendants in a lawsuit filed against the New York and New Jersey Port Authority. They are the plaintiffs.
BOUNTIFUL - When Gregg Revell packed his bags for a trip to Pennsylvania last April, he had no idea how far he'd be traveling.
Before the week was out, the 57-year-old suburban real estate agent and grandfather would be arrested, thrown into one of the country's most notorious jails, strip searched and inoculated against his will. The soft-spoken Utah native would be on his way to becoming a poster child for the National Rifle Association in a $3 million lawsuit.
During a nearly five-day stay in a Newark, N.J., jail, he would meet a terrifying side of America that most Utahns see only on television and briefly would become a jailhouse mentor to drug dealers and violent criminals.
It started as a trip to pick up a BMW in Allentown, Pa., for a relaxing road trip back to Utah.
"I fix them up and sell them," Revell says. "Sometimes I make a profit. It's something I do for fun."
Revell, who has a Utah concealed weapon permit, usually takes a handgun with him for protection on his car trips.
Transporting a firearm in your luggage across country on an airline is not illegal, but involves some paperwork. Revell who has made a couple dozen such car-buying trips, knows the process. He fills out the Federal Aviation Administration paperwork, packs his .45 caliber pistol in a locked case, his hollow-point ammunition in another locked case and puts both in his checked luggage. He declares the gun to the ticketing agents.
"Sometimes I get a look, but it's never been a problem," he says.
Unfortunately, for Revell, his Allentown trip required a change of planes in Newark, N.J.
His plane was late arriving in Newark Liberty Airport and he missed his connection. Five hours later, he found himself boarding an airline chartered bus for Allentown, 90 miles away.
Revell also discovered his luggage had not made the connection. Northwest Airline agents apologized that his bags had been mismarked to stop in Newark. By the time he tracked the bags down, his bus had left and he was stuck overnight in New Jersey.
When he returned to the airport the next morning, April Fools' Day, and rechecked his bags - again declaring his handgun and ammunition - he was stopped by security officers of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
"I wasn't the least bit nervous," Revell says. "I was only nervous about missing another flight."
Despite his explanations, Utah concealed weapon permit and his FAA document, Revell missed the flight because he was arrested and handcuffed: "I have never been arrested before. I have never felt anything degrading like that in my life."
"You don't have a permit to carry a gun in New Jersey," a Port Authority officer told him, according to Revell. "And you don't have a permit to carry hollow-point ammunition."
"I asked an officer if this had something to do with April Fool's Day," Revell remembers. "He said it most certainly did not."
In 1986, Congress passed the Firearm Owners Protection Act (FOPA) for citizens who are transporting firearms through various jurisdictions.
"Law abiding citizens who happened to wander into anti-gun jurisdictions could wind up being harassed and imprisoned," says Scott Bach, a New York-based attorney and member of the NRA board of directors. "FOPA was passed to end abuses."
Under the law, a citizen can transport an unloaded gun between two jurisdictions that don't prohibit it - as long as it is locked in a hard case with the ammunition locked in a separate hard case, "regardless of what local law says," explains Bach.
The law is routinely violated in "anti-gun" jurisdictions, Bach says, notably New York, Los Angeles and New Jersey.
Revell soon found himself in Newark's Essex County Jail.
"It is the lowest, it is the worst and it has the most hardened criminals of any correctional facility in the nation," says Bach. "It is horrific."
Revell, who would spend nearly four days in the jail, agrees.
"The jailers asked me, 'What the heck did you do to be in here?' They felt bad for me. But there was nothing they could do."
A judge set his bail at $15,000 and required the amount be paid in cash, not through the usual bail-bond arrangement.
"It's tough to come up with $15,000 on a weekend," Revell says.
While his family back in Utah got the money together, he spent nearly five days in jail, sometimes in holding cells crowded with 28 other prisoners.
"People were passed out on the floor in their own vomit," he says.
Prisoners were strip-searched in an a public room.
"For the only person with a white butt in a jail with 1,000 people, it was not a good situation," he says. "I could have given some people some ideas."
Revell figured that for survival, "I'd better make friends as fast as I could."
He listened to the hard luck stories of his cell mates.
"I would give them encouragement because a lot of them weren't very happy to be there. Because I was older than everybody, I was known as 'Pop.' ''
Everyone knew he was in on a gun charge, and some prisoners assumed it was for a violent crime.
"They all talked jive. It was hard for me to understand," Revell says. Until one of them asked him, "How many people did you waste?"
After a heart-to-heart with the prisoner, the man asked Revell if he would get him guns. "He would give me a great price."
Several prisoners befriended Revell despite the suburbanite's many faux pas, such as asking about their tattoos.
"There are some tattoos you just don't ask about," he says. "But some people would stand up for me if there was a problem."
His jail savvy friends told him they were in a tuberculosis quarantine for a few days, but after testing would join the rest of the jail.
"We can't protect you when we get in with the general population," his friends warned Revell.
"That scared me."
Hours before being transferred into the general prison population, a bail bonds employee finally showed up with the bail money. Ultimately, the bail was lowered, but by the time he had met the bail bond company's requirement that he pay in advance for a bounty hunter to track him back to Utah if necessary, Revell was out $20,000.
He was also 10 pounds lighter and had a blister on his arm from a tuberculosis inoculation. But he was free.
"I took the best shower of my life."
Within two months, prosecutors dismissed the charges against him. New York and New Jersey Port Authority officials did not respond to requests for an interview.
But the Utahn's story had come to the NRA's attention. The NRA is funding the $3 million lawsuit filed in January in federal court in New Jersey against the Port Authority. Revell and the Association of New Jersey Rifle and Pistol Clubs are plaintiffs.
Though he had grown up in a hunting family and had a concealed weapon permit, Revell had never been a guns-rights activist or even a member of the NRA.
"I am now," he says. "As is my wife."
The $3 million damage figure was set to make sure the case gets the attention of airports across the country, says Bach, who is president of the New Jersey gun clubs association.
"Unfortunately, that's the way things work," Revell says. "We want to get the laws adhered to or get new laws made if we need to do that. If I should win, a fair amount of the settlement will go to the NRA as a donation."
Revell never got his .45 back; Essex County never responded to his lawyers' requests.
But he did drive the BMW home from Allentown despite his traumatic experience.
"My family offered to fly me home," Revell says. "But I told them I needed a few days to clear my head. It was good to have a little thinking time."