TORONTO - Beware of being a citizen crime fighter when there lurks the danger of mistaken identity.
Naveen Polapady, heralded in the media as the vigilante Spiceman, went on trial Friday for taking the law into his own hands and allegedly beating a suspected thief with a two-foot broom handle and spraying him with his famous masala chili powder.
But it appears the restaurateur was targetting the wrong man.
A bike-riding robber had broken into Polapady's car four days before and had stolen his GPS and computer. When he spotted a similar man riding up to the rear parking lot of his Maroli Indian Kerala Cuisine on Bloor St. W., Polapady assumed the thief was back and the confrontation ensued.
But the cyclist behind his property that day was Manuel Belo -- not Jason Mitchell, the actual thief caught on Polapady's surveillance video on Aug. 17 and who later pleaded guilty to stealing electronics out of the restaurateur's car.
At his judge-alone trial before Justice Peter Harris, Polapady pleaded not guilty to assault causing bodily harm and assault with a weapon. A charge of administering a noxious substance -- the chili powder -- had already been withdrawn by the prosecution.
The Crown opened its case with a 911 recording where a winded Polapady reported following a bike-riding thief who he believed had previously broken into his car.
"He was caught stealing on the camera, GPS and laptop and all these things from the car, and today I caught him red-handed," Polapady told the 911 operator as he chased Belo in his Mitsubishi Outlander. "He hit me with his hand. I tried to put chili powder on him and he hit me."
"Why did you put chili powder on him," she asked.
"Because he was trying to hit me," he replied. "On the hand and chest and he tried to strangle me."
He described the man as white, about 55 with a backpack but no weapons.
Polapady declined an ambulance. Belo, on the other hand, had to go to the hospital where he needed six stitches to close a gash on his head.
Belo was originally charged with attempted theft but after viewing security video from outside the restaurant and seeing the man's serious injuries in the hospital, the police concluded that the wrong man was under arrest.
"We began to view Mr. Belo as the victim in this matter and Mr. Polapady as the person responsible for his injuries," testified Det.-Const. James Thompson
Surveillance video of the fight was played for the court. But the footage begins at 7:32 a.m., well into the pair scuffling and Polapady wielding the broom stick. It then ends as Belo takes off on his bike while Polapady follows him in his SUV.
Det. Chris Chilvers told the judge that he still believes there is a missing portion of the security video that was never handed over by Polapady that would have shown how the altercation began.
By the late afternoon, the detectives released Belo and told Polapady to turn himself in at 14 Division, which he did.
Polapady would become a cause celebre and compared to Chinatown grocer David Chen who made headlines in 2009 when he captured a repeat shoplifter, only to find himself arrested and charged.
Chilvers said the surprised restaurant owner insisted he had caught the right thief.
Chilvers told him the video footage showed that the man he'd fought with that morning was not the same one captured on tape rifling through his car four days earlier. He then asked him if he had anything to say regarding the incident.
"Mr. Polapady stated it was self-defence, that the male, Mr. Belo, had a stick."
The trial continues April 18.