Back in the 1970s, fancying himself a photographer, Lonnie Snelling purchased a Polaroid from an acquaintance and began shooting portraits and party photos. On one of his early assignments, though, the camera went on the blink. And, some suggest, so did Snelling.
"Tough titty," Snelling recalls as the camera seller's insolent response when he demanded his money back. "I said, 'Wait a minute! Tough titty? I'm supposed to be able to use this to make some money. It don't work, and it makes me look silly.'"
In a snit, Snelling filed a small-claims suit in St. Louis Circuit Court and managed to win a small sum less than $100.
Since then, Snelling has worked as a process server, a landlord and the owner of a small private-investigation agency. But the 62-year-old north St. Louis man never worked up as much passion for any job as he has for dragging people into court.
Snelling has earned a checkered reputation in the halls of justice for his exploits. St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Mike Calvin refers to him as "the infamous Lonnie Snelling."
For 23 years, judges have seen Snelling sue the city of St. Louis, the state of Missouri, numerous public agencies, private citizens and businesses. He's gone after minors, a few judges who've heard his cases even a quadriplegic, who supposedly broke windows and kicked in doors at Snelling's home.
A fixture for decades at Washington University and Saint Louis University law libraries, Snelling is also well-known to courthouse bailiffs and clerks, not to mention file-room employees and cashiers.
"Oh, Lord Jesus!" exclaims one bailiff at the mere mention of Snelling's name.
All told, from contract breaches to negligence to nuisance claims, the number of civil lawsuits Snelling has filed in St. Louis courts now stands at 147 and counting.
"That's unbelievable," remarks Judge Calvin, letting out a whistle. Snelling averages six lawsuits a year. In 1989, a banner year, he filed sixteen.
"Jesus Christmas!" blurts St. Louis City Circuit Court Clerk, Mariano Favazza, while perusing Snelling's slew of suits filed.
Snelling has little to say as to what makes him so litigious. His terse explanation: "I've had a string of idiots getting in my life. I'm a magnet. I draw fools out of the woods."
Snelling, unmarried and with no children, went so far years ago as to try to obtain restraining orders to stop kids from playing in the street and schoolyard near his Fairground Park home.
He also sought to recover more than $25,000 in damages from a group of teenagers he accused of stealing his fireplace mantels and brass door locks. In that same case, court papers show, Snelling filed charges against a man who supposedly hit him with his car, claiming he was struck in retaliation for watching the man commit a sex act in a car parked on Snelling's property.
In judicial circles, some view Snelling as a schemer who files meritless suits.
"I think he begs that question," posits Circuit Judge Calvin. "I haven't reviewed all his lawsuits, so I can't say if any or all are frivolous. But you'd think somebody with so many cases would hire an attorney."
Asked why he doesn't retain counsel, Snelling answers only, "Too expensive."
Circuit Court Judge Elizabeth Hogan three months ago ordered Snelling to pay $32,439 for filing a frivolous lawsuit against WPC Corporation, a St. Louis property-management company.
Snelling, who plans to appeal the judgment, sued WPC in 2001, claiming the company knowingly leased apartments to drug users and, perhaps even more injurious, to tenants who deliberately blocked his driveway. Snelling argued that WPC placed his life and property "in peril." But WPC's St. Charles attorney Phil Morse convinced Judge Hogan that the charges were nonsense.
"Holy smokes!" yells Favazza after learning the size of the judgment.
"He did not show up for trial, even though he was in the courthouse that very same morning," marvels Morse. "Hogan is very fair. She gave us the judgment."
Adds Morse: "I have never in my 30 years practicing run across a person who just files suits all the time. Never. That's a fact."
Favazza offers another take: "How unlucky can this guy be, 'cause you'd have to be pretty unlucky to be suing so often. Either that or you make a living at it."
Not everyone thinks Snelling abuses the legal system.
"I think he's a principled type of person," says John Medler, general counsel for SBC Missouri. "By God, if this guy thinks he's right, and if the fight is over a penny or a million dollars, he'll carry on with it."
Medler recently prevailed over Snelling following a seven-year court battle stemming from Snelling's charges that the phone company failed to protect his home from a burglary. According to Snelling, SBC delayed installing a telephone line that was linked to his alarm system. When his home was burglarized, he blamed the phone company.
Snelling brought his first suit against SBC in 1998. He lost and appealed to the Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District, which upheld the decision against him. Snelling filed a nearly identical lawsuit against SBC four years later. In June, the Court of Appeals ruled again in SBC's favor.
Undeterred, Snelling says he plans to petition the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.
Court records show that Snelling has won judgments of at least $23,067. The court's database, however, does not include many of his cases, and Snelling says he doesn't keep track of his win-loss record.
Describing himself as "self-made," Snelling has no other form of employment but denies that lawsuits make up his livelihood.
"A judgment and getting money is two different things," he contends. "I ain't got a penny. These people do their little dirt [to me], and then they try to run off and hide."
So why does Lonnie Snelling persist?
"Because I'm not a quitter," says Snelling. "I hope that somewhere down the line these rights I'm supposed to have will be granted."
With that, Snelling must dash off to a car-repair shop, claiming that the evening before a young man with a pellet gun shattered one of his windows.
"I don't bother anyone," he concludes. "But when someone bothers me, they don't get out of it easily."