Monday, December 03, 2001

Customer shot dead at Sunoco mart

By Tom O'Neill
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COLERAIN TOWNSHIP — Richard Hightower left the same loving foster family behind — twice.

Security camera image of gunman entering the Sunoco Food Mart.
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        The first time was as a child three decades ago, when he returned to Illinois to live with his birth mother. The second time was Saturday night, when he was shot and killed just two months after returning to Cincinnati.

        Mr. Hightower, 47, was living with a niece from his foster family when he was shot and killed by a masked gunman who confronted him inside a Colerain Township gas station.

        Mr. Hightower, who frequented the Sunoco Food Mart on Struble Road near his Colerain Township home to smoke cigarettes and scratch lottery tickets, was shot once in the chest. He died at Mercy Franciscan Hospital in Mount Airy.

        Nothing was stolen. No one else, including the clerks, were injured.

        The Hamilton County sheriff's department on Sunday released security videotape of the suspect, and said there was no indication Mr. Hightower knew his killer, who remains at large.

        Mr. Hightower's niece, Vicki, said she was glad to take in “Uncle Rich” while he was looking for a new job and a bit of his old life. Mr. Hightower was raised by Vicki's grandmother for most of his childhood.

        “I knew it would make my grandmother so happy,” Vicki said. She requested her last name not be used be cause she fears for her family's safety.

        Police say the gunman walked into the Sunoco at about 8 p.m. armed with a black semi-automatic handgun. As a clerk hid behind the counter, the gunman pushed Mr. Hightower to the ground and fired, hitting him twice.

        The suspect fled west toward Struble Road, police said.

        He was described as black, age 17-25, 5-feet-10 to 6 feet tall, weighing 150 to 160 pounds. He was wearing a black hooded sweat shirt and a blue scarf-type mask over the lower portion of his face, police said.

        The Sunoco on Sunday was closed, but the owner, Carl Fromm, opened the door to say he sends his condolences to Mr. Hightower's family. He declined further comment.

        It was the third fatal shooting in Greater Cincinnati within a week, following the unsolved shooting of a Northside man, Zontae Irby, 31, at his home Thursday and the police shooting of an armed suspect, William Duncan, 42, Wednesday in Walnut Hills.

        On Sunday, relatives gathered in tears at Vicki's home, where Uncle Rich's photo on the wall is the first thing you see at the front door.

        The phone rang constantly. One caller didn't know what happened. Vicki fought tears as she told him the news. Her voice gave out.

        Mr. Hightower is survived by an adult son and daughter, and four grandchildren, in Illinois. He also left behind an extended family here, with whom he never lost contact even after his birth mother took him and his younger sister, Jody, back to Chicago. He was nearly a teen-ager then.

        He kept in touch with his foster family here, “and as soon as he could drive,” Vicki said, “we were always really excited when we heard Rich was coming in.”

        Mr. Hightower worked at a greeting-card company for a time, then began a successful career as a construction foreman. He married, had two children, and later got divorced. He got laid off his construction job, and with his kids grown, thought about returning to Cincinnati.

        Vicki has a busy home with a husband and two young boys, but it was a fairly easy decision.

        “He made friends easy, and we had the room,” she said. “My husband and I talked about it.”

        In September, he moved in. He struggled through temporary jobs and got to know the workers at the Sunoco, where scratch-off lottery tickets gave him a split-second hope of financial riches.

        Last week, he accepted a job at Kroger, stocking shelves on the overnight shift. It was a far cry from being a construction foreman, but Vicki said her Uncle Rich was looking forward to it.

        Today would have been his first day.

        Anyone with information is asked to call the Hamilton County sheriff's department at 851-6000 or Crime Stoppers at 352-3040. Callers may remain anonymous.


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