Chicago cellphone jammer: Felon or folk hero?

Annoyed by his fellow commuters' loud cell phone conversations, a Chicago resident operated an illegal device for almost two years on his daily train ride to work.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
A Metra commuter train pulls departs the La Salle Street station Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016, in Chicago.

Chicago police arrested commuter Dennis Nicholl last week after the 63-year-old was accused of operating a cell phone jammer on the city’s Red Line for almost two years. 

Using an illegal device he ordered from China, Mr. Nicholl would create his “own personal quiet car” by turning on the jammer, rendering all nearby cell phones useless. 

“He’s disturbed by people talking around him,” Nicholl’s attorney, Charles Lauer, told the judge last week after his client’s bond was set at $10,000. “He might have been selfish in thinking about himself, but he didn’t have any malicious intent.” 

Nicholl takes the Red Line every day to commute from his home in Rogers Park to his job as a financial analyst at the University of Illinois, Chicago. 

Fellow commuters are unsure what to make of the self-proclaimed “cellphone police": Is he a villian or a much-needed hero? 

“If people can blast music from their phone and have loud conversations and not have felony charges brought against them then this guy should be able to jam signals,” Facebook user Andy Gallas commented under DNAinfo’s post of the story

“Let’s free the cell phone jammer right now. Folk hero,” tweeted @AnthonyBialy. 

“I get it. It’s annoying,” Facebook user Shellie Roman commented on the article. “But guess what, you don’t get to control someone else’s behavior just because you disapprove of it. I didn’t know this was a crime, but I can see why it would be.” 

The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Chicago police teamed up to catch Nicholl in action, citing his illegal jamming as a public safety issue. In an emergency, Nicholl’s jammer would prevent commuters from calling 911. The CTA also feared Nicholl’s jammer could prevent communication between train operators. 

Another Red Line rider, Brian Raida tells the Chicago Tribune that he was on his way to work in 2014 when he lost cellphone service. Working in the IT industry, Mr. Raida identified the object on Nicholl’s lap as a cell phone jammer and he took of photo of Nicholl for the police. 

Raida says he went up to Nicholl as he exited the train, saying, “Hey dude, nice jammer.” 

“He kind of looked at me and grinned,” says Raida.  

After months of complaints, an undercover cop tried to use his cell phone while seated near Nicholl on the train at 6 am on Tuesday, and when his call was almost immediately dropped, the officer arrested Nicholl. 

The undercover officer’s report says Nicholl was holding the jammer in his hand at the time of arrest. He was released Wednesday after posting bail.

“I think he liked the feeling of being in control of the car,” Aaron Robinson, a fellow commuter who saw Nicholl in action, tells the Chicago Tribune. “It’s kind of a digital ‘stay off my lawn you young people with your cellphones.’”

According to court records, Nicholl pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge in 2009 for jamming cell phones. After his first jamming stint, Nicholl’s device was destroyed and he was placed under surveillance for a year. 

But this time, with a felony charge, Nicholl could face jail time. 

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