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Food fight: How Alaska Taco Bell hoax landed in court

YouTube user AlaskaPunkash

When national fast food chain Taco Bell decided to take pity on a remote Alaska town and swoop in for a day with tacos in tow, local and national media ate it up. What's not to love about a harmless joke that brought a day of taco-mania to Bethel, a regional hub on Alaska's western coast?

A lot, says the man who was the target of the joke. He has a long list of reasons for why the prank wasn't as funny or lighthearted as some might like it to be. In fact, Doug Tony's irritation over the whole affair has him seeking help in court to make sure it doesn't happen again.

"I wish it was a little kid, and no malcontent, and everybody got tacos," said Tony, a corrections sergeant in Bethel, last week. "It wasn't just a hoax. It's a crime. It's a malicious crime meant to harass and embarrass me."

The hoax involved fliers distributed around town that announced a Taco Bell was opening and looking for workers. Prospective employees were given a phone number to call. The same number was given as the place to call in advance taco orders for opening day.

Tony's sister first saw the flier at the hospital where she works, recognized the phone number, and called her brother to find out if he was getting into the restaurant biz.

The flier listed Doug Tony's home phone number. He assumed it was a typo, and he and his kids toughed it out as they began fielding a steady stream of phone calls: "Hey are you opening a Taco Bell?" ... "I'm interested in placing an order" ... "I'm interested in a job ..."

But then his daughter found a flier at a local grocery store for a jump-rope contest that also listed the family's home phone number. One flier with his home number Tony could chalk up to a mistake. But two? No way.

"The first person that came to mind was this guy that I used to work with here at the jail," Tony said.

Tony got to work trying to prove the whodunit. He got video from the grocery store of a person putting up a flier -- someone he's convinced is the culprit. He called the police. He called the mayor. And he sought and successfully got a temporary restraining order against the guy he suspected, a man named Eli Jacobson.

Jacobson currently works as a government specialist for Alaska's Division of Community and Regional Affairs. He has not responded to interview requests.

To date, no charges have been filed in the case, and it's not clear that any will be.

Taco joke or criminal mischief?

Tony recognizes that the fliers may seem like a harmless joke, but said it's his history with this man that makes him fear the hoax is the beginning of something more serious. He believes people who've gotten crosswise with Jacobson seem to become victims of mysterious, unsolved vandalisms: flat tires, ruined gas tanks, fuel lines to homes cut during the cold of winter. Jacobson has no criminal record, according to the State of Alaska's online court records.

"I am kind of laughing at it, because if that was all that had happened (the hoax with the fliers) and he was a friend of mine I would have thought it was really funny. But I think this guy is dangerous and that's why I filed a protective order," Tony said.

At a court hearing Thursday about the protective order, Jacobson didn't deny manufacturing or distributing the fliers. He also didn't admit it. But his attorney's arguments against a protective order seem to suggest Tony accurately honed in on the culprit. Instead of making a claim that Tony had the wrong man and that his client wasn't the instigator, lawyer Myron Angstman argued that it was laughable a man who works inside a prison would need protection from paper fliers and non-threatening phone calls.

"It is not a crime in this state to say words that would annoy somebody. If it were, I know I would be in jail," Angstman said. "A harassing call is not a crime in this state if it does not have some kind of threat with it. No one could construe the events described in (Tony's) position as a threat to anybody's safety."

The controversy isn't over. Tony hadn't known Jacobson hired an attorney and had shown up at court without one of his own. The judge delayed the hearing until August to give Tony time to get one, and in the meantime kept the existing protective order in place. The men are not to have contact with each other, and Jacobson must stay away from the jail, Tony's place of employment.

Taco Bell's Operation Alaska may have launched a "doozy of a story" and have been "heaven on earth" for Alaskans hungry for a taco fix. But for Tony and Jacobson, it appears to have caused a truckload of heartburn.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com