Thursday, May 15, 2003

Northside unsafe, activist says

He defends carrying his gun into bar

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Junker's Tavern is the bar in which Hal McKinney shot a masked robber.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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The anti-crime activist getting national attention for shooting a masked robber in a bar last week plans to defend himself by saying Northside has become so unsafe he had to carry a gun.

Hal McKinney doesn't want to besmirch the reputation of his historic city neighborhood, where he has spent countless hours walking the streets as a volunteer with Citizens on Patrol.

But as he faces charges of carrying a gun into a liquor establishment and felonious assault, it's time to tell it like it is, said his lawyer, Mark Naegel.

"It's an example," he said, "of just living in an unsafe community."

Just the fact that a group like Citizens on Patrol exists, Naegel said, is "some testimony that there's a reason for it."


Northside's serious crime, as in most city neighborhoods, has escalated over the past several years. As of March, the neighborhood ranked ninth - out of 54 neighborhoods and other reporting areas tracked by police - in crimes like assault, robbery, burglary and murder.

Northside's Citizens on Patrol group is one of 21 in the city. Members watch for crime and are supposed to report what they see to police.

McKinney, 54, wasn't on patrol duty the night of May 8 when two men barged into Junker's Tavern with guns drawn and started taking the change customers had lying in front of them on the bar. He'd only stopped in for a few minutes - to try to persuade the bartender and patrons to join Citizens on Patrol.

Since his arrest, calls and e-mails continue to pour in from supporters across the country who have heard what happened. They want to hold him up as a hero and a lightning rod in the push to pass a concealed-carry gun law in Ohio. Many other states, including Kentucky and Indiana, have such a law.

Donations to McKinney's legal defense fund at Northside Bank continue to add up. Don Beimesche, bank vice president and cashier, couldn't give a specific figure, but said 15 to 20 donations had already come in as of Wednesday afternoon, barely 48 hours since the fund was opened.

That money is in addition to the more than $2,500 neighbors and friends already raised to get McKinney out of jail Monday.

Ohio's law that prohibits carrying a gun into a liquor establishment allows for a defense in which a defendant admits he committed the crime, but for a reason. Those reasons include that the gun was kept "ready at hand for defensive purposes'' by a prudent person with "reasonable cause to fear a criminal attack.''

[IMAGE] Junker's Tavern is a block from Chase and Fergus avenues, problem crime spots.
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Naegel wouldn't permit McKinney to be interviewed for this story. The attorney is hoping, when the grand jury considers the case Monday, that jurors will empathize with McKinney's overriding feeling that he needed the semiautomatic pistol to protect himself and his 7-year-old daughter."I solely believe in my mind I'm here (today) because of Hal,'' said Rick Wiggins, who was in the bar when McKinney fired the shot. The man McKinney shot, 18-year-old Joseph Person of Walnut Hills, was in serious condition Wednesday at University Hospital. His alleged accomplice, DeMeico Hester, also 18 and of Walnut Hills, was still in jail in lieu of posting $300,000 bond. Both were charged with aggravated robbery.

You'd think the bad characterization of Northside might offend those who live there, people like Stefanie Sunderland, but it doesn't. She's probably the neighborhood's most recognized activist, appearing at City Hall regularly to ask for more help from police. She says it's true that drug dealing and other crime is on the rise.

Junker's is an unlikely place to become the center of a national debate. Little boxes of Tide are for sale behind the bar in the corner hole-in-the-wall gathering place - along with lighters, Blistex and small bags of snacks. Most of the customers are regulars and patrons' birthdays are tracked on a wall calendar.

McKinney brought his little girl to the bar recently so she could meet some of his friends. She stood just outside the door in her new Easter dress.

But Junker's is a block from Chase and Fergus avenues, one of the neighborhood's most complained-about crime spots, and a block the other way from the sportswear store where a chase in February ended with a police officer killing a suspected burglar.

"What's really sad," said Todman Emmons, another bar customer who believes McKinney saved his life that night, "is that half the people in here would probably have loaned the robbers the money."


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