What started out as a short trip through South Dakota has turned into an extended stay for a Portland man who learned earlier this month that he would be spending three years in prison for threatening the president.

The bizarre tale of Richard Humphreys began in the early hours of March 9, 2001, in a Watertown, S.D., bar. During a lively chat with a truck driver, the former Portland cabbie--who calls himself The Prophet Israel Humphreys--cracked a joke that didn't get the laughs he had anticipated.

"I said that God might speak to the world through a burning Bush," Humphreys, 50, later testified in federal court. "I thought it was funny. It was prophetizing."

Knowing President George W. Bush was scheduled to visit nearby Sioux Falls the next day, a bartender reported Humphreys' comment to local police, claiming that Humphreys alluded to the possibility of someone pouring a flammable liquid on the president and lighting it. Local police took Humphreys into custody at his Sioux Falls motel just hours before Bush arrived.

Unfortunately for Humphreys, the humor was lost on U.S. Attorney Michael Ridgeway. "It wasn't a joke," Ridgeway told the federal jury a year and a half later. "It wasn't funny. Simply put, it was a threat." As evidence, Ridgeway pointed to a transcript from an Internet chat room where Humphreys wrote, "now going to ask Bush for justice, and if I don't get it don't be surprised to see a burning Bush."

The jury agreed with Ridgeway, convicting Humphreys in September 2002 of making threats against the president, a federal offense punishable by up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. On Dec. 6, Humphreys was sentenced to 37 months in prison. He plans to appeal.

Humphreys' conviction is the climax of a series of increasingly dramatic run-ins with the law. In the 10 months leading up to his South Dakota arrest, Humphreys was the subject of 14 Portland police reports, with charges against him ranging from harassment to disturbing the peace to stealing a dog.

One Portland police report, which describes an
altercation between Humphreys and former employer Broadway Cab Co. regarding Humphreys' refusal to return his cab, included a letter in which Humphreys threatened general manager Raye Miles with divine punishment for interfering with a prophet. "You would do wise to leave me alone and listen well to me if you value your skin and your soul," he wrote.

"He was high-strung, very intense and intimidating," says Miles of the 6-foot-6-inch, 250-pound ex-cabbie. "He had a tremendous presence. You rarely meet someone that powerful."

The Rev. Kelly Cohoe told police that Humphreys has been a consistent problem at St. John's Free Methodist Church since he went through a divorce 20 years ago. Over the ensuing years, Humphreys, who was born on Christmas Day in 1951, has strayed further from reality, asserting ever more fervently that he is a prophet of Israel, Cohoe said in a 2001 report.

Despite temporarily being deemed mentally unfit to stand trial, Humphreys acted as his own attorney in Sioux Falls, with occasional assistance from a public defender. In presenting his case, Humphreys read long biblical passages and described the past nine years of his life in detail. After his narrative exceeded 45 minutes, Ridgeway and Judge Lawrence Piersol coaxed him into resting his case.

At his sentencing hearing, Humphreys warned Piersol that South Dakota's drought will worsen if "you mistreat a prophet."

At his Dec. 6 sentencing, Humphreys vowed not to cooperate with the psychiatric treatment and medication mandated in his sentence, promising Piersol that they would meet again. "Neither one of us want that," answered Piersol.