Tough Guy

By David Hill — January 01, 2000 25 min read
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Paul Pflueger decided to have his fate decided in an open forum.

Last February, on a cool Monday evening, high school teacher Paul Pflueger drove from his home in Laguna Beach, a pleasant resort town in southern California, to San Juan Capistrano, about 10 miles south on the Pacific Coast Highway, where his fate was in the hands of seven school board members. One week earlier, Pflueger had been removed from his teaching position at Capistrano Valley High School, in nearby Mission Viejo, where he had taught history for 16 years. He was, according to a letter sent to the teacher by a Capistrano Unified School District administrator, “guilty of unsatisfactory job performance in his instructional presentations and teaching techniques.” School officials had compiled a list of 42 incidents demonstrating why Pflueger should be fired. Now, it was up to the board members to render a verdict.

Normally, such matters are considered behind closed doors, but Pflueger had chosen to have his fate decided in an open forum. His case was already well-publicized, thanks to reports by the news media, including the Orange County Register, the Los Angeles Times, and several television and radio stations. So it was no surprise when hundreds of Pflueger’s supporters showed up for the meeting, held in a stuffy boardroom at the district’s headquarters. Some wore T-shirts bearing the words “Question Authority,” “Save Pflueger,” and “I Think, Therefore I Am Dangerous.”

For the district, the case against the 55-year-old teacher was unequivocal. He had failed too many students. He had humiliated and embarrassed kids. He had yelled at them. He had referred to women as “cookie makers.” He had displayed a poster of the American flag upside down and had refused to require students to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance. He had been “rude and belligerent” toward his principal. He had been “demeaning” toward other teachers. He lectured too much and refused to incorporate other teaching strategies. And so on.

Testimony at the board meeting by a few teachers, parents, and students bolstered these charges. Lacey Csuzdi, a former student, fought back tears as she called the teacher a “sick man” who had caused her so much “mental and physical torture” that she had sought medical treatment. On her first day in his American government class, Csuzdi said, Pflueger called his students “ignorant followers” for standing during the Pledge of Allegiance. If you disagreed with his opinion, she told the board members, “you’d be cut off in mid- sentence, told you were wrong and dumb, and given an F....This man should never teach a class again.”

History teacher Ken Sayles, who described himself as a former friend of Pflueger’s, told of the time a Hispanic student had come to his wife, a Spanish teacher at the high school, in tears because Pflueger had “challenged her to not just be another dumb Mexican.” Former Capistrano Valley assistant principal Ross Velderrain suggested this was not an isolated event; “a significant number” of students had been “intimidated, humiliated, devastated, and offended” by Pflueger.

Pflueger’s supporters, meanwhile, countered these comments with an altogether different portrait of the teacher. In their testimony, dozens of students, parents, and teachers described Pflueger as a brilliant, rigorous teacher who was tough but fair, provocative but inspiring. Some students said he was the best teacher they ever had. Senior Jessica Krause called Pflueger “an incredible teacher” who taught her “to question authority and to stand up for what I believe in.” His classes are difficult, she conceded, but not impossible. “I earned an A,” she said. “I use the word ‘earn,’ because Mr. Pflueger does not give grades. His students actually have to work and earn them. He simply won’t pass kids who won’t do the work. Is this a crime?”

“He’s one of the most influential teachers I’ve ever had,” one boy said. “Mr. Pflueger is not a zero. He is a hero!”

Bob Janko, a math teacher at “Capo Valley” (as the school is known to locals) whose daughter had taken a class from Pflueger in 1991, also praised the teacher. But noting the disparate depictions of Pflueger, he added, “It seems like we’re talking about two different people.”

Indeed, it was hard to believe that the Paul Pflueger accused of “unsatisfactory job performance” was the same Paul Pflueger so praised and admired. Was he Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde? Was he a bully, or was he a paragon of the teaching profession? Pflueger and his supporters argued that the teacher’s methods, while unorthodox, worked: So what if he failed a high percentage of his students? He was simply setting high standards.

“The bill of particulars against Pflueger is strong,” remarked the Los Angeles Times in an unsigned editorial after the board meeting, “but can any independent observer also overlook the testimony of inspired students and satisfied parents?” His case “raises the prospect that one observer’s reform can be another’s witch hunt. One pattern of abuse can be another’s effort to end social promotions and invigorate a secondary school curriculum.”

To the teacher’s critics, however, all the talk about “high standards” and “passion” and “inspiration” was just a lot of smoke obscuring the truth of the matter: Paul Pflueger’s in-your-face style of teaching had harmed lots of students. Some kids fared well in his classes, they conceded, but too many didn’t. “I think that he really believed that he was challenging his students to think,” says Ken Sayles, “but he didn’t see what kind of damage he was doing to so many of them.”

Says Capistrano Superintendent James Fleming, “Paul Pflueger represents the worst that there is in the teaching profession. The more I looked into this, the worse it got.” And so, in the end, there was really only one solution: Pflueger had to go.

Sitting at a small, glass-topped dining room table in his Laguna Beach house, where the divorced teacher lives with his 15-year-old son, Pflueger is a picture of passion and intensity. A tall, thin man with short gray hair, he gets visibly angry-his arms go flying, and his face turns red-when he talks about how his detractors drove him from the job that he loved. He accuses Fleming and Capo Valley principal Dan Burch of caving in to the demands of a small group of Capistrano Valley teachers who couldn’t deal with his abrasive personality. “I’m not a conspiracy theorist,” he says, “but there sure seems to be a lot of evidence pointing in that direction.”

As a teacher, Pflueger says, he tried to make his classes as interesting and provocative as possible to force kids to think for themselves, to open up their minds. “When you teach history,” he says, “you have to make it relevant to the students’ lives.”

So Pflueger, who taught American government, U.S. history, and world history, infused his lessons with talk of controversial contemporary social issues like abortion and gay rights. He would play devil’s advocate, using the Socratic method to spark spirited debate. “I’d usually play the side that was least popular,” he recalls, “and here in Orange County, that was usually the more liberal side.” (His own political views, he admits, are left of center, but he insists he never imposed them on his students.)

Pflueger says he often used the Pledge of Allegiance to stir up a discussion on the meaning of patriotism. “What offended me was how kids would be standing up saying something and not even thinking a darn thing,” he says. “So I’d ask the students, ‘What did saying the pledge make you do? Why do you think that makes you more patriotic?’ And most of them would say, ‘We don’t think about it. We’ve just been doing it since kindergarten.’”

According to district policy, students must stand during the pledge, though they don’t have to recite the words. “But I refused to force that brand of patriotism on any kid,” he says. “If someone didn’t want to stand, I wouldn’t make a big deal out of it.”

When one student objected, Pflueger says he told him, “‘The pledge says, “liberty and justice for all.” Yet you want to take the liberty away from these kids to not say the Pledge of Allegiance.’ And that offended him. I wasn’t being negative toward this kid. I was just trying to force him to think a little bit harder about what he believed.”

Pflueger was considered one of the most demanding teachers at Capo Valley, which serves nearly 3,000 students. “My reputation was way beyond what the reality was,” he says, “but I didn’t mind that. When kids would come to my class, they were ready to do some work.” At the beginning of each semester, Pflueger would hand out a curriculum guide that spelled out his expectations. All students were required to take notes and to turn in homework assignments, which were graded. Tests were given frequently. Course grades were based primarily on the results of a final comprehensive examination. “The final will be almost exclusively essay and short answer,” Pflueger wrote in the guide. “Students are required to think, analyze, explain, and evaluate, not match or choose between true or false. A Scantron test"-a computerized, fill-in-the-blank exam used in many district classes-"will never be administered in this class.” To Pflueger, these curriculum guides were like legally binding contracts, and he required students and their parents to sign and date them.

At the hearing, a student claimed that Pflueger had caused her such ‘mental and physical torture’ that she sought medical treatment.

Some students quickly concluded that Pflueger’s classes were simply too rigorous and transferred to another teacher. Says Pflueger, “One parent told me, ‘I want my daughter to go to a good college, and she’s not the greatest student, but she’ll work hard, and I’d rather have her in another class.’”

According to Ken Sayles, students “would beg and plead” to transfer out of Pflueger’s classes. “He’d have classes with just nine students, while other teachers had 30.” Naturally, this caused friction between Pflueger and some of the other social science teachers. Plus, Sayles says, “Pflueger would ridicule other teachers in his classroom, in front of students. He’d ask a student which teacher they had had for another class, and then he’d say, ‘Oh, I guess you didn’t learn anything.’”

Pflueger admits that he rubbed some of his colleagues the wrong way. “But I’m not at school to win a popularity contest,” he says. “I’m there to teach.” He denies criticizing other teachers in his classes, though he concedes that he allowed students to make disparaging remarks. “It was something I could have controlled,” he allows, adding that he put a stop to it “two years before I got kicked out of school.” It’s clear, however, that Pflueger felt that some of his colleagues were mediocre teachers-an opinion that he didn’t try to hide. “There were some teachers that I argued shouldn’t have been hired,” he says. “A few of them shouldn’t be teaching high school, or at least they need to elevate themselves to where they’re putting more time and energy into it. They’re not very good.”

In May 1997, Sayles and other social science teachers wrote a letter to Burch, who had just been named principal of Capo Valley, complaining about Pflueger. Do something about this man, they pleaded. “Paul essentially destroyed our department,” Sayles says. “Meetings became incredibly uncomfortable because of the way he would humiliate other teachers. People stopped going to them. His behavior was anything but collegial.”

That summer, according to Burch, many parents and students sent letters to the district raising concerns about Pflueger. The teacher contended that his critics in the social science department had mounted a letter- writing campaign, and he asked administrators to talk to other teachers, parents, and students to get a more balanced picture. As a result, the district hired a private investigator to look into the matter. Pflueger says he never saw the investigator’s report until after last February’s board meeting, when his lawyer obtained a copy from the district.

In the report, which runs more than 100 pages, Pflueger is both damned and praised. Most interesting, perhaps, were the contradictory views of two Capo Valley principals. Thomas Anthony, who led the school from 1986 to 1991, conceded that Pflueger’s teaching style didn’t work for everyone. Students who were “aggressive, outgoing, and willing to meet a challenge” did better than those who were more “introverted and shy.”

Still, Anthony pointed out, students in Pflueger’s Advanced Placement history class performed better on the AP exam than students who had other teachers. He noted that Pflueger had once been named “Teacher of the Year” by Capo Valley students. The former principal also believed that students in Pflueger’s classes “received a better education than those who were not assigned to any of his classes.”

Anthony acknowledged that the teacher had “pushed the limits” many times with his colleagues and students but argued that he had “never crossed the line and engaged in illegal conduct.”

But Dan Burch was now running the school-Anthony had been promoted to associate superintendent of schools-and he clearly saw Pflueger as a problem. The teacher, he told the investigator, had a “strained relationship with his colleagues” and was openly critical of them. During a meeting with a parent, he had become “angry and created a hostile situation.”

Burch also found fault with Pflueger’s teaching methods. He contended that Pflueger conducted classes in a “loud and sarcastic tone of voice” that discouraged many students from participating. He noted that the teacher “lectured during his classes and did not follow a textbook.” Moreover, Burch objected to Pflueger’s policy of giving students an F for their final grade if they failed the final examination.

In February 1998, eight months after Sayles and the other social science teachers had aired their complaints to Burch, the principal put Pflueger on a “Personal Improvement Plan.” He had observed some of Pflueger’s classes and concluded that the teacher lectured too much, did not follow a textbook, and failed to use visual material that would be helpful to “kinesthetic” learners. “He very seldom used the board,” Burch says. “And when he did, it was disorganized and didn’t really help the visual learners.”

Pflueger says that, in fact, he hardly ever lectured his students. “It was more of a Socratic method,” he says. “I’d write on the board when it was necessary, but I didn’t spend all my time writing things down just so students could copy them, because that’s not how you teach them to take notes.” Besides, he adds, “My walls were full of posters, political cartoons, things like that.” Nonetheless, Pflueger agreed to try to use more visuals.

The teacher improved some, Burch says, but not enough. According to the charges eventually brought against him, Pflueger failed to incorporate chalkboards, maps, or other visuals aids in his class presentations. His world history and U.S. history classes fell behind the scheduled curriculum, it was noted, and “he did not focus on academic issues which were important to the subject matter.”

School officials also claimed that Pflueger had failed to curb his antagonistic style. The charges state that he “continued to single out students for mistakes” and to dominate class discussions. Furthermore, in a meeting with Burch and others to discuss his progress, he “was argumentative and rude, raising his voice, interrupting and not allowing others to complete their thoughts, and not answering questions directed to him.”

On September 29, 1998, Pflueger was sent an official “Notice of Unsatisfactory Performance and/or Unprofessional Conduct.” That meant the teacher had 90 days to get his act together-or else. He responded by writing a seven-page rebuttal, in which he acknowledged that “there have been problems that my methods, personality, and temperament have caused.” He admitted that his “direct method” of dealing with students “was offensive to some students.” But, he wrote, “I considered this ‘tough love,’ and it was effective with many students.”

At the end of the teacher’s 90-day probation period, the ax fell. From the district’s perspective, Pflueger had failed to change, despite being given ample opportunity. On January 29, in a letter from Associate Superintendent Tony Monetti, Pflueger was told to clean out his desk and go home. The allegations against the teacher would be considered by the board of trustees at its regular meeting on February 8. In the meantime, Pflueger was advised to stay away from Capistrano Valley High School.

‘I could see very easily how, under a different set of circumstances, I could have been Paul Pflueger’s worst enemy,” says Craig Hearne, whose 17-year-old daughter Lindsay is a senior at Capo Valley. “I could have been one of those parents calling for his job.”

Hearne and his wife, Jeremy, and Lindsay are sitting in the family’s well-appointed living room in Mission Viejo, an affluent suburban enclave. Lindsay took Pflueger’s world history class as a sophomore and liked it so much she enrolled in his U.S. history class the following year. At the February board meeting, she wore a “Save Pflueger” T-shirt. Outside, before the meeting started, she held up a sign that said, “Take History, Succeed in History. Take Pflueger’s History, Succeed in Life.”

Her father describes himself as fundamentalist Christian. He’s aware that some of Pflueger’s harshest critics were Christian conservatives who didn’t appreciate the teacher delving into controversial social and religious issues in his classes. But Hearne believes the manner in which Pflueger dealt with those issues was taken out of context. His lessons were “misreported or mischaracterized” by some students. “Quite often, I was not in sympathy with some of the positions Paul took,” Hearne says, “until I understood that he was really taking a devil’s advocate position. That was very much the way he would teach.”

As for Pflueger’s class discussions of the Pledge of Allegiance, Hearne says, “Paul Pflueger is a teacher who challenges students, challenges people to think, challenges people’s preconceived orthodoxies.” He didn’t fit in with other teachers. “He didn’t do the Scantron tests-he did essay tests-and the other teachers resented that. Of course, this created a lot more work for Paul. He did a lot of lecture work. He didn’t keep his subject matter within the direct, narrow confines of the curriculum. He covered everything, but he went beyond it. And the other teachers didn’t do this. And as a result, Paul kind of stood out. And it made him, to some extent, very unpopular.”

From the district’s perspective, Pflueger had failed to change, despite being given ample opportunity.

Hearne points out that some of the best teachers are also the most controversial. “Look at Jaime Escalante,” he says. Indeed, the man lionized by writer Jay Mathews in The Best Teacher in America rankled some of his colleagues at Garfield High School in Los Angeles with his “temper and distaste for compromise,” as Mathews puts it. According to the book, Escalante, who is now retired from teaching, would pick fights with his students over their clothes, their tardiness, “or anything that might engage their anger, and then their interest.” One girl told the teacher, “I hate you, and I’m going to drop the school. You bother me too much.” Escalante’s dry response was typical: “I see, señorita. You certainly are using a lot of makeup today. You have a contract with Dracula?”

To Lindsay, Pflueger had a passion for teaching and kids. “He ignited sparks and fire within his students. A lot of teachers don’t do that.” Asked if she ever witnessed him humiliating any of her classmates, she answers, “No. I never saw him call any students names. If kids forgot their homework-and there were kids that repeatedly did not do homework and did not speak up in classes-he wouldn’t humiliate them, but he would question them why they weren’t participating, why they weren’t giving of themselves. He could be harsh, but not to the point of humiliation. He was never out to get anyone.”

Once, when Lindsay came to class without having done her homework, Pflueger wanted to know why. “And I ran out of his class crying, not because he did something mean to me, but because I was having a bad day,” she says. “He found me later and apologized and asked me if I was OK and said if there was ever anything that was bothering me to let him know.”

For Lindsay’s father, the bottom line is this: “The students have been cheated, families have been cheated, and the community has been cheated,” Hearne says, “because we have had something really outstanding taken away from us. And that’s wrong.”

“I think it’s sad,” his wife says. “He got a raw deal.”

Late in the evening of February 8, at the board meeting, Pflueger- dressed for the occasion in a beige sport jacket, white dress shirt, and bronze tie-took to the podium, to the enthusiastic applause of his supporters. At times angry and confrontational, but also rambling and unfocused, the teacher denied the allegations against him. He accused “a few teachers who don’t like me” of encouraging students to complain to the principal and the superintendent. “I don’t mean to be critical,” he said, “but everybody seems to take things a lot more personally than I do.”

Pflueger assured the board members that he had “made a lot of effort” to address some of the criticisms that had been aired in the past. But, at the same time, he blasted the district for dragging up old allegations, matters that he believed had been resolved years before. “If I’m as bad as some people say I am,” he bellowed, “then you people weren’t doing your job!”

Pflueger’s anger was understandable, but confronting the board members may have been unwise. “I’m not sure that Paul helped his cause when he spoke,” says Bob Janko, one of Pflueger’s supporters. “He came across as arrogant. He wouldn’t concede that he had done anything wrong.”

In the end, it was left to Pflueger’s lawyer, Paul Crost, who had been hired by the California Teachers Association and its local affiliate, the Capistrano Unified Education Association, to make the case for his client. “He clearly is an exceptional teacher,” he told the board. “He’s not a milquetoast. I think there’s got to be a place in public education for a man like Paul Pflueger. There are students who need Paul Pflueger-and there may be some students who don’t need him, or who maybe can’t tolerate him.” Fire him, Crost added, and “we will embark on a very lengthy and costly process,” one that could cost the district “hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

But the board members-most of them, anyway-were unmoved. In a 6-1 vote, they agreed to fire Pflueger, setting the stage, under California law, for a hearing in which a three-person panel would review evidence, hear testimony, and make a final decision about the teacher. Indeed, one board member, Crystal Kochendorfer, said she was voting to terminate Pflueger “because I want all of this information out, under oath, and carefully examined in front of a mediator.”

Later, Pflueger said he welcomed the opportunity to resolve the matter in court, no matter how much it might cost him. He told a reporter, “I feel strongly enough about this case and its bearings on the overall state of education that I would follow it to the limit if I had to mortgage my house.”

It’s clear that Pflueger’s stormy relationship with local union leaders didn’t endear him to either the state or local affiliate.

Pflueger had plenty of support for such a crusade. Dana Parsons, a columnist for the Orange County edition of the Los Angeles Times, attended the board meeting and wrote about it two days later. “Something is out of whack in the Capistrano Unified School District,” he concluded. The meeting, he said, was “one of the more remarkable nights of my newspaper career.”

“What I saw,” he wrote, “was a procession of past and present students describe a teacher of passion, commitment, and principle. What I heard were students, parents, and Pflueger’s colleagues describe a sometimes abrasive maverick teacher who might fly a little too solo but who cares deeply about his students.” Parsons heard the detractors, too. “I didn’t discount those remarks, but neither could I square them with this: How could a teacher that bad inspire the kind of loyalty Pflueger got Monday night?”

Within a few months, however, Pflueger had lost a key ally: the California Teachers Association. After the board meeting, he and Paul Crost began preparing for the evidentiary hearing, scheduled for August. But in June, Crost wrote a letter to Pflueger warning that the case could end up costing more than $100,000. The CTA had authorized about $45,000 for the case, the lawyer wrote, “which is insufficient to take us through the discovery/pre-trial phase of the process.” Pflueger says Crost told him that he would have to raise from $50,000 to $100,000 for the matter to proceed.

The request seemed odd: Did the union really expect a teacher to come up with that kind of money? Nevertheless, Pflueger says he asked some friends for help, and they wrote checks totaling $2,500, which he turned over to Crost. But the teacher insists that the CTA should have backed him all the way, no matter the cost. “That’s why I joined a union,” Pflueger says. “If a bureaucracy with deep pockets comes after me, I need some protection.”

“It’s like they expected him to sell his house,” says Capo Valley history teacher Mike England, who has spoken out in defense of his colleague.

Union officials tell a different story. Priscilla Winslow, a staff attorney with the CTA, says that each union member is guaranteed $16,000 for legal expenses in the event of a dismissal hearing. (She estimates that the CTA handles about 50 such cases each year.) In Pflueger’s case, the union’s chief counsel authorized another $24,000. “We thought it was complex enough to warrant the extra money,” she says. If Pflueger needed additional funding, she adds, he could have requested it. The union’s advisory panel on legal services, composed of 10 to 15 teachers, would have considered the request.

But Pflueger never asked. He says his lawyer “wasn’t very encouraging about doing that. He implied that it wouldn’t happen.”

Pflueger speculates that union officials abandoned him when they concluded the case was unwinnable. But whatever their motivation, it’s clear that Pflueger’s stormy relationship with local union leaders didn’t endear him to either the state or local affiliate. Chris Kirkland, executive director of the Capistrano Unified Education Association, had initially represented the teacher when he was first scrutinized by administrators, but Pflueger later asked the union to assign someone else to his case. “I fired her because she wasn’t doing her job,” Pflueger says. “She was acting like she was on their side.”

Kirkland contests Pflueger’s claim that the union bailed out on him. Despite the letter from Crost-who was hired by the union-suggesting that the CTA’s financial support was nearly over, Kirkland claims that union officials never indicated that they would cut off his funding. In addition to the amount authorized by the CTA, she noted, the CUEA pledged $2,500 outright and $2,500 more if Pflueger matched that amount.

Though Crost confirms that Pflueger passed along the checks from his friends, Kirkland says that as far as she knows, the teacher never raised a cent. “If he had raised just $500,” she says, “that would have been something. But all he did was sit back and criticize the union. He could have done something to help his cause. But we heard he was on the beach playing volleyball.” She adds, “Paul shot himself in the foot.”

In the end, Pflueger faced an expensive legal battle that he couldn’t afford. In July, he agreed to settle with the district and take early retirement. The teacher, who is diabetic, concluded he couldn’t risk losing his health insurance, which would continue under the district’s settlement plan. “He was under the barrel of a gun,” says Crost, who helped negotiate the settlement.

According to the terms of the deal, Pflueger will be on leave, at full salary and benefits, until next June, when his retirement takes effect. “But that’s not going to give me enough to live on,” he says. So he hopes to land another teaching job. So far, no one has called with an offer. “I want to be teaching high school again,” Pflueger says, “but I know that’s going to be difficult, because now my reputation is that I make waves. And a lot of districts are going to say, ‘We don’t want anybody that makes waves.’”

“He’ll be teaching again somewhere,” predicts Craig Hearne, “probably at a junior college. And I wouldn’t be altogether surprised to see him resurface at a high school.” Even Ken Sayles says, “He’s probably better suited to teaching at a college because students aren’t compelled to be there.”

These days, Pflueger is busy catching up on work around his house, which sits on a hillside just up from the Pacific Coast Highway and has a partially obstructed but still impressive ocean view. “There are a million things to keep me busy,” he says. “I play golf occasionally, and I took a two-week fishing vacation in Montana. But what I’m best at is working with kids, young people, educating them. And you hate to have that capacity totally neutralized.”

Pflueger spends part of each day working on a book about his ordeal. Its tentative title: California Teacher: The Socratic Saga of Paul Pflueger, or How Excellence Can Get You Fired.

He’s still astonished by all the former students who came to his defense. He hadn’t seen some of them in years. “It was an amazing experience,” he says, “because what I taught those students was coming to life-that what you think matters. What you think makes a great deal of difference. And here were kids on a school night staying up till 11:30 to get their point made. And it blew me away.”

Meanwhile, at the school, the storm has cleared. “Everyone at Capo Valley is relieved now that it’s over,” says Sayles. Adds Dan Burch, “Nobody talks about it. It’s in the past. I think the overwhelming sentiment is that he had the opportunity to make some changes, he didn’t make them, and now he’s gone.”

But some teachers are still upset that Pflueger never got to present his side of the story in front of a panel of judges. “He didn’t really get his day in court,” says Mike England.

Ironically, Pflueger maintains that schools are too soft when it comes to incompetent teachers. More of them should be fired, he says, but they are “impossible to get rid of.”

He doesn’t say it, but you just know what he’s thinking: This time, they got the wrong man.


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