The circus bus saga continues

Joel Oliphint
Marisa "Reese" Digati, seated, is detained by police during protests in Downtown Columbus on Sunday, May 31.

After Reese Digati’s converted school bus was stopped by Columbus police during Downtown protests on the evening of Sunday, May 31, officers detained her, along with Digati’s fiance and several of their friends, on the sidewalk. Police searched and impounded the bus (dubbed Buttercup by its owners), then gave Digati a citation for “blocking the road” near the intersection of Broad and Third streets.

There were a few strange things about the citation. For starters, Digati only stopped the bus after being ordered to by police, who then ticketed her for obstructing traffic. The ticket itself was also riddled with errors. It listed Digati as 6 feet tall (she’s barely 5 feet) and misidentified Buttercup’s color as white (it’s painted in trippy rainbow tones). Near the bottom of the ticket, the officer indicated that Digati would need to report to Franklin County Municipal Court at 9 a.m. on July 26 — a Sunday.

Even though the court only handles traffic violations Monday through Friday, Digati showed up to the courthouse on July 26 and took a photo of herself for proof, just in case, then came back the following Monday to see the clerk, who assigned her a legitimate court date — Tuesday, Aug. 4.

Leading up to the day, Digati didn’t know how to prepare to defend herself against the supposed violation because of one other oddity: The city ordinance code listed on the ticket (2141.41A) doesn’t exist. Regardless, at 9 a.m. on Aug. 4, Digati went to the courthouse, where the citation was immediately dismissed. No police officers appeared. The whole thing was over in 10 minutes. (In court documents, the reason for the dismissal is listed as “inconsistent information - traffic.")

“I didn’t get to a judge or anything. The guy that screens everybody to see if they want to plead guilty or not guilty took one look at [the ticket] and kind of giggled and just dismissed it on the spot,” said Digati, speaking on the record for the first time since Alive’s widely read June story about the Buttercup incident. “He was surprised that they impounded [the bus]. … Imagine getting pulled over for a broken tail light or something and they say, ‘Well, you’re blocking the road now and we’re going to impound you.’”

While the citation was a confusing headache, the Columbus Division of Police’s social media posts about the incident caused the most problems for Digati and her fiance, Jonathan “Bearpaw” Crane. On Twitter and Facebook, CPD said the bus occupants were suspected of “supplying riot equipment to rioters” and listed some of the items found on the bus, including “bats, rocks, meat cleavers, axes, clubs and other projectiles.”

In reality, as Alive previously noted, the converted school bus with Vermont plates was a DIY-style RV (known as a “skoolie”) that served as a secondary home for Digati and Bearpaw. The axe was for the wood-burning stove, the cleavers came from a knife block in the kitchen area and the clubs were used for juggling (Digati and her friends are into circus arts, also known as Flow Arts).

But once CPD’s post established the rioting narrative, the story took on a life of its own, with everyone from Mayor Ginther to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio tweeting about the alleged bus full of rioters. During those first few weeks, Digati said her life was turned upside down.

“I wound up having to hide the bus for a little while because of the Facebook post the police made. We wound up parking it on a friend’s property a couple hours outside of town because people were starting to put [out] our location. They were making comments about how they wanted to burn down the bus and hang the driver,” Digati said. “I’ve been anxiety-ridden as hell since this whole thing happened. I can’t watch shows that have cops and jail and stuff in them because it’s got me so paranoid and confused.”

Normally, Digati would take Buttercup on camping adventures, but she’s still nervous someone is going to do something to the bus. She just recently began splitting her time between Buttercup and a Columbus residence again.

Since the incident, the case of the so-called hippie circus bus has been on quite a journey, and not just in the media. In a mid-June request for comment by Alive, a Columbus police spokesperson said the FBI was investigating the incident. In early July, an FBI spokesperson said the matter had been referred to the Franklin County Prosecutor’s office, which responded to Alive via email, writing, “The FBI reviewed the case and determined a lack of federal jurisdiction and referred it back to CPD. To date, we have not received a ‘felony packet,’ which is a summary of an investigation for this office if there is believed to be a state felony offense. We do not handle traffic offenses except for juveniles.”

In late July, CPD said “an investigation is underway” with the division’s Criminal Intelligence Unit. As of this publication, a division spokesperson was unable to confirm whether the investigation remains open or closed following the citation dismissal. (Alive will update this story if and when comment arrives.)

While Digati is glad to have the traffic violation dismissed, she’s still hoping to recover the items CPD confiscated from the impounded bus, including tools, her phone, a friend’s phone and more. Digati said she has called the CPD property room countless times asking to retrieve her things, to no avail. (CPD did not immediately respond to questions regarding the confiscated items, along with questions regarding the reasons for impounding the vehicle.)

“It’s a 40-foot vehicle with a lot of stuff in it. … They took my wood-chopping axe. I got a big metal bar that I use for doing ball joints and things like that, just for leverage. I’m a really short mechanic, so I don’t have a lot of leverage,” Digati said. “They took the kids sports equipment, which was weird — elbow pads and knee pads that are clearly too small to fit on an adult. The knee pads don’t even fit on my elbows. … I can’t imagine what they have that they could even be investigating.”

Digati still doesn’t have answers to many of the questions she directed at police while sitting on the curb on that Sunday evening in May. “I started asking, ‘Why are we being detained? What’s going on?’ I know I very specifically said that I do not consent to anybody entering my vehicle. They went in anyway,” she said. “They handed me a ticket, all nonchalant, and told me that I would be able to go to the impound lot and pick up [the bus] at some point. … I kept asking why they were doing that, and they wouldn't really explain why it was happening. They told us, ‘Curfew is about 20 minutes from now, so you’re all gonna get arrested if you don’t get home by the time curfew happens.’ And it's like, ‘You took my vehicle...’”

Digati fondly remembers the racial justice protests from earlier that day, before police began clearing protesters with projectiles and eye irritants. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is cool. This is the way it should be — people being peaceful and getting their point across,’” she said. “Part of why I was down there, too, is because I’ve been homeless. I’m white, so it’s not on the same level or such a drastic thing, but homelessness definitely takes some of your privilege away. I have been endlessly harassed just for not living a conventional life.”

Columbus police detain Reese Digati and her friends before impounding her converted school bus, Buttercup, during Downtown protests on Sunday, May 31.