Punxsutawney Phil to beat fraud rap and death penalty?

Handler Bill Deeley holding Punxsutawney Phil on Groundhog Day 2006.
Handler Bill Deeley holding Punxsutawney Phil on Groundhog Day 2006.

Ohio prosecutor reconsidering charges against Pennsylvania's most famous groundhog.

Posted: March 27, 2013

It's no secret that Punxsutawney Phil is a shadowy underworld figure.

And yet it now looks like the dirty rat-cousin could burrow his way out of a possible death sentence in Ohio.

A supposed higher-up in the Gobbler's Knob mob has stepped forward to be the fall (or winter and still-not-spring) guy.

Police in Maryland, however, have yet to withdraw their "Suspect Wanted for Fraud" proclamation.

Being a famous groundhog in Pennsylvania isn't such a warm and fuzzy deal anymore.

Last winter, Gus the Groundhog got fired by the Pennsylvania Lottery, which saved some scratch by axing the annoying puppet's "Keep on scratching campaign."

Last week, Butler County, Ohio, prosecutor Mike Gmoser, filed an indictment against Punxsutawney Phil for "MISREPRESENTATION OF EARLY SPRING, a Unclassified Felony" and recommended "the death penalty to be implemented to the defendant."

"My God, there must be a crime there somewhere," Gmoser told Cincinnati's ABC9. "... I think the prosecution's defense is going to be that Punxsutawney Phil doesn't know his rear end from a hole in the ground."

Police in Montgomery County, Md., also declared, in a tweet, their intent to hunt down the low-down varmint, whose last known address was Gobbler's Knob, in Punxsutawney, Pa., an hour or so northeast of Pittsburgh.

Gmoser, of course, was kidding.

"It's a little bit of humor ... to lighten people's spirits," he said after his allegations spurred media attention around the world.

Quickly taking advantage, er, umbrage via a cease-and-desist letter were Plymouth Meeting attorneys Todd Nurick and Brian Andris, who alleged that the charges were "without factual support," that death for a wrong forecast would be cruel and unusual punishment, and an Ohio prosecutor has zero authority in Pennsylvania.

Monday, one of Phil's handlers, Bill Deeley, said it was all a misunderstanding - his.

He's the one who thought Phil failed to see his shadow, prognosticating an early spring.

"I'm the guy that did it. ... It's not Phil's fault," the president of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club's Inner Circle told the Associated Press.

So Gmoser might pardon Phil.

"Frankly, he is a cute little rascal, a cute little thing," Gmoser said. "And if somebody is willing to step up to the plate and take the rap, I'm willing to listen."

Deeley doesn't know what went wrong that fateful Feb. 2.

Maybe the stageful of publicity hogs blocked the sun.

Maybe Phil stayed up late watching Finding Bigfoot on Animal Planet.

Maybe Super Bowl weekend had Phil's signals all kerflooey.

Come to think of it, wasn't there a sighting of Phil with Gus' ex, Gabby, the day before at Wing Bowl?

Can't blame her for dumping Gus.

At least Phil has a job.

One wonders, though: For how long?

Contact staff writer Peter Mucha at 215-854-4342 or pmucha@phillynews.com.