In a photograph taken at a northern Michigan police station last year, the Petoskey Batman, arms outstretched, displays his cape. He is delightfully unembarrassed; the fact that he is a grown man, dressed as Batman, surrounded by cops who think he is out of his mind, does not seem to faze him in the least. Underneath his pointy-eared mask is a wry smile, accented by several-day-old stubble. The suit is a little tight and resembles a child’s costume, but the man wearing it appears wholly aware of the silliness of the situation. For someone who says he is the town of Petoskey’s very own superhero, Mark Wayne Williams, 33, doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously.
That was last year, when Williams was arrested on charges of obstruction. His uniform, as he calls it, was confiscated and he was placed on probation, during which he was not allowed to be Batman. After his most recent arrest, again on charges of obstruction, things are a bit heavier for Williams. According to police, he was on the scene when officers were using a K9 unit to track down a driver who fled the scene of an accident. Police say Williams refused to leave and that the dog was distracted by his presence. The charge against him is a felony which carries a possible sentence of two years, and because he’s a habitual offender – this is his fourth arrest – prosecutors are seeking 15 years. Despite this looming threat, Williams seemed upbeat and unwavering in his mission as the Petoskey Batman when I spoke with him on the phone.
On the night of September 29, Williams said, he and his partner were on their way home from looking at houses for sale. Ready to go on patrol, which he does every weekend night from about 10:30 to 3 a.m., Williams was already suited up when he saw something he thought to be suspicious moving in the trees. Not knowing what it was, he asked his partner, who moonlights as the Petoskey Batgirl, to pull over. He got out to investigate, and after about 10 minutes, his partner called him to tell him that police were in the area searching for a suspect. Williams asked her to call 911 and let the police know that he was there, so that they did not mistake him for their guy. After another 5 minutes, his partner called him back to tell him that the officers were requesting he leave. By that point, he was in a wooded area and would need some time to get back to the main road, so he called 911 again to tell the police he was on his way out. When he made it to a clearing, which was, he says, at least a football field length away from where the police were searching, a state trooper came and arrested him. Williams maintains that police never told him to leave in person, only over the phone. Furthermore, Williams said the dogs did not show up to the scene until 45 minutes after he was already in jail. The Emmet county K9 unit, he said, was unavailable, so the dogs had to be brought in from a different county. His friends, tuned in to their police scanners, heard chatter of the dogs arrival long after Williams was already behind bars.
So the police say one thing, Williams says another, and now that he has pleaded not guilty, his future is in the hands of a jury. When asked if he thinks he’s going to prison, Williams was optimistic: “I would hope not. I’ve kind of had some dealings with the court system before, and know some people that have, and honestly I think that tacking on the habitual offender thing is a way for them to scare me into taking a plea bargain. But honestly, I don’t feel that I committed any crime.” Still, he’s not anti-police. His first two arrests came before his Batman days, products of teenage recklessness. A desire to make up for his prior mistakes, Williams says, is part of the reason he does what he does. This arrest is the first one he feels was unjustified.
On his patrols, Williams says he walks around Petoskey’s downtown area, keeping an eye on things. He says his mission is to promote a public sense of responsibility when it comes to preventing and reporting crimes. “A lot of times people see stuff happening and they assume that the police are going to magically take care of it, but if you’re not getting involved and reporting things to police, nothing is going to happen,” he said. Williams does not consider himself a vigilante who takes the law into his own hands — he’s called incidents in to police on multiple occasions. He does believe that some situations are best diffused without police intervention: “The police, they have a job to do. And their job is to arrest people who break the law. I feel that there is a gap between justice and the law, and a lot of the time things can be resolved without sending somebody to jail.”
When I asked him if his Batman uniform distracts from his message, Williams explained that the opposite is true: “If I was out there doing it in jeans and a t-shirt, nobody would really pay attention. The whole point of me being out there doing this is to get people’s attention, and to get them to realize that it’s up to everybody to take care of the community and make it better. [The uniform] gives me a chance to explain what I’m doing out there.” When it comes to intervening in tense situations while suited up as Batman, Williams says it helps: “Somebody else in regular clothes sticking their nose in just makes things worse. But I’ve noticed that the shock of seeing someone come up to you in a Batman costume telling you to knock off what you’re doing kind of shocks them a little bit out of that anger. It’s something they don’t see every day, so it kind of de-escalates the tension.”
Williams doesn’t brag when talking about his work. Instead, he’s humble, citing a recent case which he describes as “rewarding.” “This girl was walking through the park and she was being followed by this guy,” Williams said. “She kept telling him to leave her alone and everything, and this guy finally walked up and put her in a bear hug and was basically holding her in place. The girl was in pain, she couldn’t breathe. It was my first night back out after my probation for the last [arrest] and my partner and I, we were able to go in there and not only get him to get away from her, but also give his description to the police and hopefully get her out of that situation all together. It’s an incident where someone was in need, and we were able to help them out and maybe change their life a little bit.”
If Williams does end up in prison, he has no qualms about telling other inmates about what he did. His mission is one of helping people — he also wears his uniform to charity food drives — and he feels that he shouldn’t have to hide who he is. If the whole thing blows over, the Petoskey Batman has no plans to stop doing what he does: “I will absolutely continue. Actually, I’m planning to go on patrol tonight.”