Wednesday, November 15, 2000

City leaders at funeral tinged with bitterness

By Kristina Goetz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The anger and suspicion swirling through the city after the suffocation death of a College Hill man in police custody a week ago subsided just long enough Tuesday for his family and friends to pack a church for his farewell.

[photo] Mourners console each other at Roger Owensby Jr.'s funeral Tuesday.
(Glenn Hartong photos)
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        Almost 1,000 people came to The Church in College Hill from as far away as Germany and Japan — and as close as Cincinnati City Hall — to celebrate the life of Roger Owensby Jr., 29, a father and military man.

        “He was a good boy,” said his father, Roger Sr. “He was my firstborn, my heart.”

        Deliberating not on the many unanswered questions about Mr. Owensby's death Nov. 7, his mourners turned to God for strength and peace.

        “Wounds have been created because of this tragedy,” said the Rev. Lymon Gaines Jr. But, “Your being here says he had a great impact on a lot of lives.”

        Relatives reminisced about Mr. Owensby's high school days as an athlete and how he followed in his father's footsteps to join the Army. Others joked about Mr. Owensby's many nicknames.

        “Thank you for being there for me,” said cousin Brian Gaines. “I love you, cuz, and I'm going to miss you.”

[photo] Mayor Charlie Luken was among six City Council members at the funeral.
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        There were flashes of anger. Wiping tears from his face, Mr. Gaines asked the same question community leaders have been asking for a week:

        How did this 29-year-old man suffocate in police custody?

        “If this is how they serve us,” Mr. Gaines said of police, “who will protect us?”

        He, like many Cincinnati City Council members who attended Mr. Owensby's visitation and funeral, wanted to know why the man was stopped and the details of his death. Was it a choke hold gone wrong or did the officers pile on? A coroner's initial report says either might have happened.

        The details of Mr. Owensby's death may be a long time coming because the five officers who arrested him have refused to answer questions.

        Police have said they recognized the man as “L.A.,” the street nickname he went by, and arrested him because he assaulted a police officer and escaped arrest several days before.

        T-shirts worn at the funeral showed Mr. Owensby's friends knew him by the same nickname: “We love you, L.A. 'Dre,'” the shirts read.

[photo] Brian Gaines.
        The frustration many family members showed Tuesday is the same kind City Council members have voiced the last few days as they try to contend with the five police officers who refuse to answer questions.

        Several city officials attended the funeral, including Mayor Charlie Luken and Council members Todd Portune, Alicia Reece, Pat DeWine and Minette Cooper. Councilman Charlie Winburn officiated.

        Mr. Portune said he thought it was important that city officials be present to offer condolences.

        “That's really the message for today,” he said.

        Mr. Luken shared his sympathy with the Owensby family.

        “I called the mother and the father and we shared our grief together,” he said.

        Family members say they are grateful for the numerous cards and phone calls they've received from city officials.

        “They've been very supportive, very helpful,” Mr. Owensby said.

        But, “Those are only words until something else is accomplished.”

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