Jimmy Marks; Fought for Gypsy Rights

Jimmy Marks and his family were the subject of a 2000 PBS documentary,
Jimmy Marks and his family were the subject of a 2000 PBS documentary, "American Gypsy," about a police raid on his home and subsequent lawsuit. (2004 Photo By Colin Mulvany -- The Spokesman-review Via Associated Press)
By Nicholas K. Geranios
Associated Press
Saturday, June 30, 2007

Jimmy Marks, 62, a gypsy civil rights leader and flamboyant gadfly who battled City Hall for decades and placed a curse on Spokane, Wash., died June 27 at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane. He suffered a heart attack at his dentist's office.

Mr. Marks became famous in 1986 when police raided his home and that of his father, Grover Marks, looking for stolen items. They found $1.6 million in cash and $160,000 in jewelry.

Courts later ruled that those raids were illegal because the police searched family members not under investigation, and in 1997 the city agreed to pay the Marks family $1.43 million to settle a civil rights lawsuit.

Mr. Marks and his family became the subject of a 2000 PBS documentary, "American Gypsy," which detailed the legal fight.

For years, Mr. Marks attributed any bad news suffered by the city to his curse. Often he would go to City Council meetings to proclaim that the curse was still active.

"I'm still bitter," he told reporters this month.

Jimmy Marks became the leader of Spokane's Romanian Gypsy community after the death of his father in 1997.

During Grover Marks's funeral procession, his son had the hearse stop at City Hall. Marks opened the door and invited his father's spirit to forever live in City Hall. He said that was part of a "Gypsy curse" he had placed on the city.

A used car salesman, Mr. Marks was a well-known figure around town, often wearing a hat, lots of jewelry and a necktie that advertised Tabasco sauce. The necktie was a reminder of the day he came across a train crash that had left thousands of bottles of the spicy condiment spilled across the ground. He bought every bottle for a penny each, then resold them to restaurants and bars for 15 cents apiece. The money helped launch his used car business.

Romanian Gypsies migrated in large numbers to the United States around the turn of the last century to escape oppression. Many found new oppression here.

When the police raided the homes of Grover and Jimmy Marks in 1986, they searched more than two dozen family members who were at the homes, not just the four who were being investigated.

The Markses claimed that the $1.6 million in cash was being held for Romanian families who did not trust banks, and they sued the city for $59 million.

A Spokane County Superior Court judge ruled the searches were illegal and dismissed felony charges against the Marks. The Washington State Supreme Court later ordered the charges reinstated but said the evidence couldn't be used at trial.

In 1996, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that the police searches were too broad because they included people who weren't targets of the investigation.

The case was settled after secret negotiations.

Afterward, Jimmy Marks said the settlement was a victory for the civil rights of a people who have been oppressed throughout history.

"I remember [Rosa Parks], the woman that said, 'I'm tired of sitting at the end of the bus.' I remember those little things. Jimmy Marks, the crazy Gypsy," he told Jasmine Dellal, who made the PBS documentary.

"I'm tired of hiding out. I'm tired of moving on. My home was built in Spokane, Wash., and I wasn't about to put it on roller skates and roll it down the highway," Mr. Marks said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company