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San Francisco Chronicle Deserves a Pulitzer for Its Bad Elmo Series

Scott Lucas | March 6, 2014 | Lifestyle Story City Life

The Washington Post on Watergate. The New York Times's "Snowfall." The San Francisco Chronicle's Bad Elmo investigation. All stories that informed us. Moved us. Made us see the world differently. Two out of these three journalistic landmarks have won Pulitzer Prizes. The last one hasn't—yet. But it should.

Over at the Chronicle, reporter Vivian Ho has been doing the Lord's work in a series of stories about Bad Elmo—a notorious street performer named Dan Sandler who dresses up as the beloved (tolerated?) Sesame Street character and hustles families for tips at Fisherman's Wharf. He's kind of creepy, sure, but it's his penchant for launching into profanity-laced anti-Semitic rants (like this one in Central Park) that's earned him the moniker Bad Elmo. But wait. There's more. He also served time in jail for trying to extort the Girl Scouts (bad), and used to run a porn website from Cambodia called "Welcome to Rape Camp" (soul-crushingly worse).

Yesterday, Ho detailed how Sandler, after bouncing from SF to LA to Honolulu and New York, has returned to our city, where he has set up shop at Fisherman's Wharf. The merchants there want him gone—he hurts business. Many of the retail workers don't feel safe with him around. Families are getting hassled. A group of self-identified street punks have taken it upon themselves to drive Bad Elmo out of town—goading him into fights and following him with signs that read "Rape-O."

That story alone was a fantastic piece of reporting—but it was today's follow-up that pushed it into award-nomination territory. Ho actually made us feel sorry for the Bad Elmo. He's not an anti-Semite, he says. In fact, he's Jewish. (Jewish!) Sure he used to run a pornographic web site in Cambodia, but he says he did it for the women, for whom porn was safer than prostitution. He says he's the victim of a well-orchestrated conspiracy by pharmaceutical companies and junk bond trader Michael Milken.

"I just want people to leave me alone," the Chronicle quotes him as saying. "I just want to do my Elmo stuff."

It's a story that starts out funny and ends up heartbreakingly serious. And, seriously, it deserves all the Pulitzers.

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