Sunday, September 14, 2003

Truth set him free; freedom broke his heart

In prison 10 years for a crime he didn't commit, Johnny Reeves dreamed of reuniting his brothers and sisters. But they had other ideas.

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Johnny Reeves was released from prison in 1999 after he was cleared of a rape charge.
(Enquirer file photos)
Johnny Reeves stepped into the dining room of the old house and took a good look around.

The room was empty, but Johnny saw potential. He imagined a dinner table at least six feet long, big enough for a dozen plates piled high with turkey, mashed potatoes and buttermilk biscuits.

He pictured his brothers and sisters - all 10 of them - gathered around the table for their first reunion in decades, talking and laughing as if the years apart didn't matter.

Johnny smiled at the thought of it. He leaned close to his fiancee, Cathie Suruda, and told her he'd buy the house on the spot if he could afford it. This, he said, is where his broken family might finally come together.

"It would be great," he whispered, "to have everybody here."

As he stood in that dining room nine months ago, Johnny Reeves clung stubbornly to the dream that he could restore a family separated by years of hardship and acrimony.

It's a dream that had helped sustain the 55-year-old Hamilton man through alcoholism, depression and the decade he spent in prison for a crime he did not commit.

It's a dream he would chase until the day he died.

"He talked about it all the time," Cathie says. "He wanted to bring everyone together."

That was the goal Johnny set in August 1999, when he was freed from prison after the girl who had accused him of rape admitted her father was the real assailant.

The case made Johnny a local celebrity for a few days. His picture was on TV and in the newspapers, but he didn't have much to say to reporters.

All he wanted was to tell his brothers and sisters how much he'd changed in prison. He had quit drinking, earned a college degree and was eligible for a $380,000 wrongful imprisonment settlement from the state.

[IMAGE] Cathie Suruda holds a photo of Johnny Reeves.
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He thought he was ready to be the big brother he should have been all along, ready to reunite a family that had been drifting apart since his mother's death 40 years earlier.

But by the time he was house hunting with Cathie last January, Johnny must have known his plans for a storybook reunion were beginning to crumble.

His efforts to restore his family had left him frustrated, broke and in failing health. He was working the grill at Waffle House and could barely pay his bills, let alone the mortgage on a house like the one with the big dining room.

Still, he held out hope.

If he saved his money, he told Cathie, he could have that reunion dinner at his stepmother's house, or even at his apartment. Maybe the big table and dining room wouldn't matter.

Maybe everyone would come just so they could be together.

Broken family ties

The idea for a reunion came to Johnny when he was in prison, serving a 15- to 50-year sentence.

He was writing letters to friends and family, telling them he was innocent, begging them for help, when it occurred to him that he barely knew some of his own brothers and sisters.

That's the way the Reeves family had been for as long as Johnny could remember. He had never thought much about it before. But in prison, alone in his cell, he found himself thinking about little else.

[IMAGE] After leaving prison in 1999, Reeves went directly to a bar, Ted's Place, and ordered Coca-Cola. His resolve to stay away from alcohol didn't last.
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"Being locked up for 10 years, a lot of stuff happens," Cathie says. "It made him think a lot about family."

It seemed to Johnny that his family troubles began when his father left his mother in the early 1960s. His mom, Mary, killed herself a few months later. Johnny found her body next to a bottle of prescription pills when he got home from school that day.

He was only 15, but he was the oldest child. So when his father remarried and started having more children, Johnny was asked to help cook meals and run the household.

He wasn't ready for the responsibility. He warned his siblings not to drink alcohol, yet he drank heavily. He lectured them about getting an education, yet he dropped out of high school.

"It just wasn't a good family situation," says Ricky Reeves, who was born when Johnny was 18. "Johnny helped take care of us kids, but you could tell it was more of a job than out of love."

Years later, in his letters from prison, Johnny promised to do better if he got another chance. He said he missed his brothers and sisters. He said he'd like them to visit if they could find the time.

A few wrote back, but not many.

'We'll call it Brothers'

When Johnny was released from the Chillicothe Correctional Institution, his hopes for a reunion had grown into something more. "His dream was to open his own restaurant," says Kevin Brewer, Johnny's lawyer.

It would be a diner specializing in home-cooked meals. Hamburgers and BLTs, scrambled eggs and biscuits with gravy. The way Johnny saw it, the whole family would pitch in.

Johnny Reeves' case is a rarity in Ohio.

Although more than 25,000 inmates are freed from the state's prisons each year, only a few are released because their convictions have been proven false.

No agency tracks how many inmates are wrongfully convicted. But state statistics show that about 20 inmates a year are freed after their sentences are dropped, after the original judge or an appeals court determines the conviction was flawed because of a lack of evidence or mistakes during the trial. Like Reeves, some former inmates seek a wrongful imprisonment monetary settlement from the Ohio Court of Claims.

Four former inmates have won settlements since 2001, and 41 have done so since the court of claims began tracking the cases in 1975.

The settlement amount is based on a formula that takes into account the former inmate's skills, earning power, family status and other factors. Awards of $25,000 per year of imprisonment are typical.

Dan Horn

One night after his release, Johnny told his younger brother, Tim, about his plan. He puffed on a cigarette and talked excitedly while describing his diner's decor, table settings and menu.

In his mind, Johnny could see the place just as it should be.

"We can staff the kitchen with family," Johnny told Tim. "Everyone will share the profits so everyone will work hard for it."

Tim just nodded, a little stunned. He had a hard time believing his brother was talking about the same Reeves family that he knew. Brothers and sisters were now scattered across half the country.

Some had been nursing grudges against their siblings for years. They argued about everything, from money to lifestyles to why Johnny's parents split up.

Most had no interest in speaking to each other, let alone in going into business together.

But Johnny believed that if he had worked harder to keep his family together, things would be different now. He believed there still was time.

"We'll take turns cooking," Johnny told Tim, going on about his restaurant. "And whoever cooks that day can have his own special of the day."

Tim asked what he would name his diner.

"Brothers," Johnny said. "We'll call it Brothers."

Booze and shopping sprees

Johnny received his $380,000 check from the Ohio Court of Claims about a year later, in the spring of 2001.

He had never had money, certainly not that kind of money, and he was nervous. This was a far cry from the few dollars he'd managed in his prison commissary account.

"Just the idea of having a bank account made him nervous," Brewer says.

So after the check arrived, he took Johnny straight to the bank and introduced him to a manager. When Brewer left him that day, Johnny was setting up a retirement account and talking about saving money for his diner.

"He seemed pretty happy," Brewer recalls.

In the months that followed, Johnny continued to talk about opening his restaurant and bringing his family together.

But the money became a distraction.

He started drinking again, made frequent trips to the casino boats and went on shopping sprees at Wal-Mart and Kmart. He filled his closets with suits he would never wear and household goods he would never use.

Cathie had known him for 20 years, since they met in Florida in 1985, and she'd never seen him act this way before.

"He didn't think anything of dropping $1,000 or $2,000," Cathie says. "He was like a kid in a candy store."

Open hand, empty wallet

After his settlement check arrived, Johnny's family seemed more enthusiastic about his reunion idea.

He started getting phone calls from friends and relatives he hadn't seen in years. Sure, they'd say. We'd love to get together. Many of those conversations ended with Johnny promising to send some money.

His checkbook is a testament to his generosity.

In a three-week span in July 2001, Johnny wrote at least 13 checks to friends, relatives or to "cash" totaling about $30,000. The pattern was the same in other months.

"They bled him dry," says Tim, who also got help from Johnny.

Once, while visiting from Cleveland, Ricky pulled Johnny aside and warned him to stop writing checks.

"Be smart about this," Ricky said. "You know the family is going to be leeches."

"I know," Johnny said. And then he put $500 into Ricky's hand. "He absolutely would not take no for an answer," Ricky recalls. "I still feel bad about it."

Ricky didn't bring up money again after that. It was as if Johnny had decided the money was a way to finally connect with his family.

"I think he was trying to make up for the past," Ricky says.

Not the 'Brady Brunch'

One of those who benefited from Johnny's generosity was the girl whose testimony had sent him to prison.

Johnny had known the girl, Angela Nichting, and her mother for years. He considered Angela his stepdaughter and said he didn't blame her for accusing him of rape.

Angela testified in 1999 that her now-dead father raped her and threatened to kill her if she didn't accuse Johnny.

"It was very difficult," says Angela, who was 8 years old when she testified about the rape. "Johnny was like the dad I never had."

So when Angela needed help in 2001, Johnny was there. He gave her at least $12,000 to cover her bills, pay off a car and buy clothes for her kids.

Although she accepted the money, Angela says she worried about Johnny's spending.

"You don't want to blow all this," she told him.

Johnny just laughed. "I'm OK," he said.

But by late 2002, Johnny's money was running low and he was no closer to his goal of bringing his family together. Plans were made and canceled. Calls were placed and not returned.

Johnny was disappointed, but Angela says he could not have been surprised.

"The Reeves side of the family," she says, "it's not exactly the Brady Bunch."

An honest effort

Cathie, a grocery store clerk, says she and Johnny were living paycheck to paycheck by the end of 2002.

He worked the third shift flipping pancakes and had moved into her two-bedroom apartment in Hamilton. Looking back, she says, the house-hunting trip in January was more wishful thinking than reality.

He still talked about a reunion, but that, too, seemed unrealistic.

"John put in an honest effort," Ricky says. "But my family is so screwed up, it just wasn't going to happen."

In February, not long after he toured the old house with the big dining room, Johnny drove to Covington for cigarettes. A gas station attendant spotted his car about an hour later, idling at an intersection.

Johnny was slumped over the steering wheel, dead of a heart attack.

Two of Johnny's brothers and one sister attended his funeral. Cathie brought his ashes home in a plastic urn and placed them on her coffee table.

She hasn't heard much from Johnny's family since his death, but she says she will be in touch soon. She plans to buy 10 small urns and divide Johnny's ashes among them.

And then she will send them to his brothers and sisters.

"That way," she says, "they each will have Johnny with them."


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