Sunday, May 18, 2003

Justified shooting by a 'guardian angel'

Even on a bright day, the inside of Junker's Tavern is comfortably dim, lit by a red neon Coor's sign in the window and a half-glass of daylight that sneaks past the smoke-filmed windows. The bar top is polished by the restless hands of Northside regulars who have made this their quiet refuge since the first keg was tapped at the end of Prohibition.Now there's a puckered plaster bullet-hole in the nicotine-yellow walls, where one of the neighbors shot a robber during a holdup on the night of May 8.

"Woof" was sitting at the bar near the door that night. His mailbox, a few blocks away, says Rick Wiggins. At Junker's, he's "Woof."

"I heard someone yell, 'Nobody move. Don't move, or I will shoot you,' " he said. "We thought it was a joke."

Two masked robbers, waving guns, pointed one at the bartender and threatened to kill her, Wiggins said. "The next thing that comes to my mind, there was a POP, then things started to scramble."

He lifted the bartender to safety, then tackled one robber and pinned him to the floor. "We were covered in blood. He was fightin' me hard. It was only 10 minutes until the police came, but it seemed like hours."

The wounded suspect, Joseph Person, 18, was taken to the hospital; DeMeico Hester, 18, was caught hiding in a Laundromat next door.

'Really agitated'

"I could say for an absolute fact, these guys were really agitated," Wiggins said. "If Hal hadn't been here, one of us would have been seriously hurt if not killed."

Hal McKinney also lives around the corner from Junker's. Friends say he went out for milk at the local UDF and stopped in to recruit people for Citizens on Patrol. The robbers burst in, and McKinney drew a pistol and shot one, police say.

On Friday, a grand jury refused to indict McKinney for felonious assault and possession of a firearm in a liquor establishment. The robbers, both from Walnut Hills, have been charged with aggravated robbery.

Junker's owner, Tony Coyne, says McKinney never should have been charged. "I thank God, Hal McKinney was here," he said. "I think he was a guardian angel sent to save my customers and employees."

Many Northsiders agree. They raised $2,500 to post McKinney's bail, said Stefanie Sunderland, a member of the Northside Community Council.

"They think it's perfectly justifiable," she said of the shooting.

McKinney's lawyer, Mark Naegel, said, "The neighborhood is very dangerous around where Mr. McKinney resides, as well as around the tavern."

If McKinney feared for his life, he had a good reason to carry a gun, Naegel said.

The neighbors have no doubt about that.

"I spend half my time chasing criminals off my property," Coyne said. "Drug dealers threaten me, and they did the same to Hal McKinney."

Mrs. Sunderland said McKinney told her that drug dealers threatened him and his 6-year-old daughter because he fights crime with Citizens on Patrol and has tried to reclaim a children's park taken over by pushers.

"He was very stressed about the safety of the neighborhood," she said. "I fear for his safety. The drug boys on the corner are not fond of him."

The "family" in Junker's doesn't feel so safe since crime burst through the door. They nodded when Coyne said crime is getting steadily worse - "but better and worse at the same time," thanks to people who are fighting back.

Like Hal McKinney. He didn't start the crime in Northside. He stopped one.

E-mail or call 768-8301.

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