Lakeside’s favorite cop doesn’t write tickets. He doesn’t work major holidays or during a heavy snow. But according to many residents and local law enforcement officials, he’s the best thing to happen to traffic in the Flathead Lake hamlet in the last year.
Not bad for a guy made of paper mache. Meet Lakeside decoy Omar Sharif, named for his resemblance to the famed Egyptian actor. Since his appearance as a speeding deterrent in May 2008, Sharif’s slowed traffic on residential stretches of U.S. Highway 93 to a crawl.
“He’s got a following of his own in the community,” says Sharif’s creator, Jeremy Newell. “Some of the girls ask me, ‘What’s Omar doing tonight?’”
I first met Sharif driving (okay, speeding) through Somers on my way to a ski weekend in Whitefish. The sight of a Crown Victoria and that red-and-blue light bar triggered a braking instinct in the line of cars ahead of me. By the time any of us realized the mustachioed man with aviator sunglasses was a dummy, we’d slowed to well below the speed limit.
That’s exactly what Newell and his wife, Deborah, hope for.
“The whole purpose of the whole thing is awareness,” he says. “Heck, we wish we had a second car in town.”
Speeding is a serious problem on the western banks of Flathead Lake. Highway 93 snakes through a string of small towns, with speed limits dropping from 70 to 35 miles per hour with little warning. The Montana Department of Transportation reports five fatal crashes between Lakeside and the intersection north of Somers since 2004. Newell remembers a young boy hit in Somers in 2007, and a man in his 80s killed by an RV in Lakeside years ago.
“I think in the last year, we’ve seen more sheriffs and more highway patrol cars in the area,” Newell says. “But it was unbelievable just the average speed driving through town—a lot of truckers coming down that hill. It’s dangerous to be in town here.”
The Newells noticed motorists tearing through crosswalks when remodeling their Lakeside Mercantile storefront four years ago. They hatched the idea for a dummy, but needed a convincing car to complete the setup. In 2008, Martin Tetachuk, a real estate agent and reserve deputy sheriff for Lake County, found the vehicle: a used Crown Victoria from the Lake County Sheriff’s Department. Lake County Sheriff Lucky Larson was happy to donate the car, which the Newells dubbed “Lucky” in his honor.
Deborah Newell then built Sharif and outfitted him in army thrift clothes. The Newells approached Flathead County Sheriff Mike Meehan with the idea, and Meehan discussed the situation with the county attorney. Both officials gave the green light, asking only that Sharif be home by dark to avoid any vandalism.
“They’ve licensed it, they’ve insured it, they park it in different spots throughout the course of the day and take it home at night,” Meehan says. “It’s just there to slow down traffic, and it’s really effective.”
Sharif proves less intimidating when not seen through the windshield of a speeding car. He sports a sheriff’s hat from Sitka, Alaska, a naval officer’s nameplate and a hodgepodge of patches.
A custom-made star emblem on the car’s door says “Lakeside Decoy.” It’s an unconvincing ruse, unless you’re passing by at 50 mph.
“It’s very obvious if you just sit for five minutes during rush hour and see the brake lights come on,” says Ed Kerley, who sometimes borrows Sharif for speed traps in Somers. “Everybody slows down, even the local people that know that he’s a decoy. It’s the mere fact that, ‘Hey, it’s a patrol car, I need to slow down and check my speed.’ It’s been fantastic.”
Kerley says community support of Sharif has been overwhelming. The Lakeside Community Club has held a number of fundraisers to collect money for the car’s insurance and registration. The latest, a joint fundraiser with nearby Tamarack Brewing Company, is tentatively set for May.
“It’s an ongoing expense with tires and batteries and oil changes and insurance,” Kerley says.
Lucky and Sharif have become a favorite photo stop for motorists, and Newell mentions few problems with vandalism. He knows of one rock thrown at the car and points out marks on the hood that he suspects are the result of late-night breakdancing.
“And somebody put a citation on it,” adds Newell. “It looked like they took the back of a cigarette packet and wrote, ‘You are in violation of the parking ordinance and must be fined.’ It was hilarious.”
Lounging on a wicker couch in the now-shuttered Lakeside Mercantile, Newell can’t help basking in the glow of Sharif’s success. He nods across the street, calling the decoy his hobby. As traffic peters by, drivers do double takes.
“You can almost see who’s in the car, instead of these blurs,” Newell says. He adds a minute later: “I’m getting a kick, just sitting here watching the people go by. They’re behaving so well.”
To prove a point, Newell parks the car around back. Within 10 minutes traffic speeds up noticeably.
“If I had one goal, I’d like to get a radar transmitter,” Newell says, hoping to further fool speeders with radar signal detectors. “It’s not in our budget, but it’s on our bucket list.”