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Prosecutor clears Phil the groundhog

Handler takes blame for misinterpreting clue to late spring

CINCINNATI – Phil is off the hook. A winter-weary Ohio prosecutor who filed a tongue-in-cheek criminal indictment against the famous Pennsylvania groundhog about his “prediction” of an early spring dropped the charge Tuesday.

Butler County Prosecutor Mike Gmoser said Punxsutawney Phil has a “defense with teeth in it” because the animal’s handler is taking the blame.

The Groundhog Day celebration in Punxsutawney, about 65 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, attracts worldwide attention each year. But when Gmoser filed his indictment last week after snow was forecast to fall after the official start of spring, renewed attention made it feel like Feb. 2 all over again.

Bill Deeley, president of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club’s Inner Circle, said Monday the furry prognosticator had actually predicted six more weeks of winter, but he mistakenly announced an early spring because he failed to correctly interpret Phil’s “groundhog-ese.”

“Now it turns out, Punxsutawney Phil is little more than a scapegoat,” Gmoser wrote in the dismissal.

That’s a sharp contrast to last week, when Gmoser had written: “Punxsutawney Phil did purposely, and with prior calculation and design, cause the people to believe that spring would come early.”

Deeley said Tuesday that going after the groundhog probably gave prosecutors some relief from the challenges they normally face bringing murderers, drug dealers and other criminals to justice.

Meanwhile, Phil seemed unfazed by the charge.

“No, he’s not worried,” Deeley said. “He’s getting three square meals a day, and a lot of rest.”

He also said the community appreciated all the extra publicity, which he said “you couldn’t put a dollar figure on.” Gmoser’s office said he had also received hundreds of calls.

Deeley wanted to be sure Tuesday he wouldn’t be the prosecutor’s next target, but Gmoser said it was time to move on.

“Truly, I have really serious work to do in Butler County,” he said from his office in Hamilton, about 25 miles north of Cincinnati, even as snowflakes dropped from the skies. “Let’s end it on a high note.”

He assured Ohio’s lesser-known fuzzy forecaster, Buckeye Chuck, he won’t face prosecution for his own erroneous prediction. Chuck, it turned out, was granted immunity after agreeing to cooperate with the state.

“I’m kind of done with animal cases,” Gmoser said. “Maybe another prosecutor can go after the Easter Bunny.”

Joe Mandak of the Associated Press in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.

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