Life of crime standing up for peace has landed 'Father Louie' in many jails


I meet a lot of criminals in this business, but Father Louis Vitale is my favorite.

He's not as notorious as some, and lacks the hard edge and cold eyes of others. In fact, his ways are gentle. His eyes sparkle with wisdom and humor.

His street name, "Father Louie," can't hold a prison shank to the monikers Tough Tony, Charlie Moose, and Fat Herbie. But, at 76, Vitale has been arrested more times than Scarface Al and his gang combined.

Vitale politely says he lost count some time after his 200th lockup, but it wouldn't surprise him to learn he's been taken into custody more than 300 times. Although he reels off the names of others who have suffered more and served far more jail time, he has served months-long prison stints for trespassing on military facilities.

The government nabbed Capone for taxes, but being a Franciscan, Father Louie has never had IRS worries. Crime doesn't pay, and there isn't much money in civil disobedience, either. Franciscans follow the path of Jesus and St. Francis of Assisi, who gave up his partying ways to lead a simple life devoted to helping the poor and standing up for peace.

Father Louie has been standing up a long time.

Willow slim, Vitale was fasting on the Wednesday morning we spoke. Although he makes his home in the Bay Area, he has a long association with Southern Nevada.

We've known each other since before he was a criminal. I first met Father Louie as a kid attending mass at St. James Catholic Church on H Street. Vitale and Father Ben Franzinelli were in residence, leading a congregation that gathered mostly from that poor Westside neighborhood.

By 1971, Vitale was arrested with Southern Nevada welfare mothers during a protest on the Strip. Through the years, he spent so much time at anti-nuclear protests at the Nevada Test Site he could have qualified for a government pension.

In late 2002, at age 70, he served a three-month sentence at Nellis Prison Camp for trespassing onto the Army's School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga., long linked by human rights organizations to the training of Central American soldiers who committed atrocities, including the murders of nuns and priests.

Fewer than three years later, Vitale served five months for trespass after a protest outside Fort Huachuca, Ariz., a center for military intelligence training.

Months after his release, Vitale was back at it, this time at the gates of Vandenberg Air Force Base.

The message has never varied. Through his sly smile and steadfast pacifism, he reminds the world there are options to war.

Although he is apt to quote Jesus, Gandhi, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in our short time together he recalled the words of another King, Rodney.

"Didn't he say, 'Can't we all just get along?'" Vitale asked. "When it all comes down to it, isn't that what everyone says, thinks, and feels?

"Americans are really populist, and not really elitist people. It means something to us that everyone should be able to live. We're all in this together. I think it's our job to help people realize that."

This past week, the friar and his many friends with the Nevada Desert Experience made their annual walk toward the Nevada Test Site, but this year Vitale's focus is on the military activity in Indian Springs at Creech Air Force Base, home of the Predator unmanned aircraft.

Vitale believes the young military personnel at Creech are bound to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder despite their great distance from the battlefield.

The irony is that, back in the 1950s, a gung-ho Vitale was a fast-living, high-flying Air Force navigator. After helping to nearly shoot down a Russian airliner misidentified as an enemy bomber, he began to change his worldview.

Vitale's hard-working father believed in the power of the American Dream and was known as the "lox king of the West." He wanted Louie to inherit the lucrative family processed fish business, but the son turned away from the promise of material comfort.

"When I told him I was going to join the Franciscans, he got very upset," Vitale said with a smile, perhaps imagining what his old man would think of having a son who has been arrested more than 300 times.

Father Louie Vitale disappointed his earthly father, but I'm guessing he's pleasing his heavenly one.

John L. Smith's column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

 

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