French Tourist Who Climbed Brooklyn Bridge Gets 240 Hours Scrubbing New York Toilets

Yonathan Souid in France in happier times
Yonathan Souid in France in happier times
Courtesy Yonathan Souid

The Brooklyn District Attorney's office was not thrilled with Yonathan Souid when he became the fourth person to climb the Brooklyn Bridge in the span of a few months.

On November 16, the French tourist had managed to climb up the bridge's heavily policed support structures in broad daylight to snap a few photos.

He was taken into custody and charged with a slew of serious crimes: second-degree reckless endangerment, third-degree criminal trespass, disorderly conduct, and a violation of the city's administrative code, designed to stop BASE jumpers. On December 9 he was sentenced to serve 240 hours of community service -- he'll be scrubbing toilets in "the Tombs," the jail at the Manhattan courthouse.

But that sentence was not what DA Ken Thompson originally had in mind. In a press release just after the arrest, Thompson said that the defendant's "foolish and unlawful conduct is a breach of security and a danger to himself and others. It will not be tolerated. This is not a game and we will be seeking jail time." He also invoked 9-11, of course, to justify his hard line. A spokesperson announced they would be asking for 60 days behind bars.

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Thompson sought a similar sentence for a a previous bridge climber, Russian tourist Yaroslav Kolchin. And he sounded none too happy about the fact that Kolchin managed to get off with just 92 hours of community service. It was a decision granted by a judge "over [Thompson's] objections."

Souid is exceedingly polite, and apologized no fewer than three times "to the city" in a conversation with the Voice on December 11. He also thanked his family and friends for helping him through what has been a pretty surreal few weeks.

Souid, who is a professional photographer in France, was just trying to catch a beautiful photograph on his last day in the city, he says. "I was alone for three days making pictures, all night and day. Waking up at five in the morning, making pictures of the sunrise." He says he didn't think it would be a big deal to pop up on the bridge for a minute, on a dramatically overcast day, and capture the clouds over the Manhattan skyline. He notes quickly that "that's not an excuse."

When he was initially approached by police, and an officer told him he was probably "going to jail" for the stunt he had just pulled, he didn't think the cop was serious.

"In my head, when he said me that, I thought OK, it's intimidation," said Souid, who gamely chatted with the Voice in English. "He's trying to say to me that he's the boss between us." (The cop also invoked 9-11, he adds.)

Souid was supposed to catch a flight home about four hours after being stopped by the officer, which he thought might help his situation. Soon he would cease to be the NYPD's problem, he figured; no harm, no foul.

But after some phone calls back and forth between officers and what Souid took to be supervisors -- and a total of four officers securing the scene -- the cuffs were eventually applied, and Souid was carted off to the clink.

Since then he's been essentially stranded in New York City. Working eight hours a day, he'll be scrubbing toilets stateside for about another month. He says he's been staying in hotels and with friends for most of the time, but his expenses are mounting. His parents are helping -- he wants everyone to know that he's very thankful to them and sorry for making them worry -- and he's taken up an online collection to help him survive while he's here.

James Medows, Souid's attorney, says that while he has "the utmost respect for the judge, Michael Gerstein," he thought the sentence was excessive. He argued that Souid should have gotten what Kolchin got, 92 hours. He feels that's more than enough for an innocent photo-op.

"He apologizes to the city," Medows says of Souid. "He certainly didn't want to cause any uproar."

But is Souid bitter? Hardly. He pauses for a moment to look up a word, and finds just the right one.

"I'm relieved," Souid says. "I'm happy not to be in jail. And cleaning the jail will remind me that this is better."


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