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Thursday, December 02, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Burger joints losing blowup SpongeBob SquarePants

By Arthur Santana
The Washington Post

Lexington Park, Md., Burger King crew member Mike Stewart, right, and Bill Cocimano, the restaurant's general manager, examine the deflated SpongeBob SquarePants.
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WASHINGTON — SpongeBob SquarePants wasn't doing anyone any harm.

A 6-foot blowup version of the cartoon character had been perched on a Burger King in St. Mary's County, Md., for three days, his skinny legs dangling over the edge, his fists triumphantly in the air, smiling that goofy grin.

He was only trying to promote his animated feature film, "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie," and maybe sell a few watches and kid's meals.

Then along came Steven Simon and Conrad "C.J." Mercure Jr., both 18, with no car and no clue what to do with themselves in the early hours of Nov. 19.

Mercure said he wondered aloud, "Hey, what if we were to steal that SpongeBob on top of the Burger King?" Seeking to do what others said couldn't be done, he and Simon set out to kidnap the sponge.

"We were like, 'That's gotta be a first — stealing a giant SpongeBob off of the top of Burger King,' " Simon said.

Actually, it's not.

Burger King officials say stealing the inflatables from atop restaurants in the middle of the night has become something of a nationwide trend. Similar thefts have been reported in 10 states, they say. "And the number is going up every day," said a Burger King spokesman in New York.

Some are returned, but some have turned up on eBay, selling for up to $1,000. In one case, after a SpongeBob was stolen from atop a Burger King in Little Falls, Minn., workers found a ransom note: "We have SpongeBob. Give us 10 crabby patties, fries and milkshakes."

The SpongeBob inflatables started going up Nov. 11, according to Burger King, which said more than 4,700 inflatables were ordered by franchise owners.

Simon said he went with Mercure to the Burger King in Lexington Park about 2 a.m. Nov. 19. He said they went to the restaurant's Dumpster area and used a trash can and several pallets to reach the roof.
Then it was just a matter of unplugging SpongeBob's air valve.

"We flipped him down on his back so no one could see him deflating," Simon said, adding that he and Mercure cut the ropes that held down the inflatable. He said the whole process took about an hour. "I was sitting there smoking a cigarette most of the time," he said. "When we got down, we were like, 'Yeah!' "

Mercure and Simon did what any other people who had just stolen an inflatable cartoon character from atop a Burger King would do: They called a cab.

Even police laughed about it. "They had to pay for three fares, not just two," said Cpl. John Shoemaker of the St. Mary's County Sheriff's Office.

Mercure and Simon — along with a bundled-up SpongeBob — soon were on their way to Mercure's apartment in Lexington Park. "After we got it, we gave it to a friend's sister, and she gave it to her boyfriend ... for his birthday," Simon said.

Bill Cocimano, general manager of the Burger King, said he initially was incensed when he found out about the theft.

He said that the next day, an employee said "somebody is running his mouth at Great Mills High School that he has SpongeBob in his bedroom. I told them, 'You get me a name, I'll give you 20 bucks.' " Mercure's name soon was turned over to police.

Within three hours, police had SpongeBob, Cocimano said. "They said, 'We have one of your employees down here. Come and get him.' " Cocimano said the inflatable was damaged and would not hold air.

Simon and Mercure were arrested Friday and charged with misdemeanor theft of goods worth less than $500 and released pending a Dec. 15 court appearance, authorities said.

While facing up to 18 months in jail and a $500 fine, Simon and Mercure said they're proud of their achievement.

"Once we got caught by the police, we were like, now we can tell everybody," Simon said.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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