“I once was a witness in a murder trial.” Starting a conversation with these words, always gets everybody’s attention. And it’s true. I really did have to go on the witness stand, swear on the Bible that the testimony I was about to give “ shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” I answered questions from the Prosecutor and the defense attorney, trying to recall to the best of my ability the events of the night of Jan 1, 1984, some four and a half months prior.
I’m sure you’re first reaction is “WOW! Did you actually see someone get murdered?”
Here’s my long answer to that question: First let me set the scene. We, my husband and four kids, lived in a house on Van Lear Alley, a dead end street at the top of the middle section of Ohio Avenue in Cincinnati. (For those of you unfamiliar with Cincy, there are many streets that are actually steps. The street just stops at a set of cement steps, usually snaking up a steep hill, canopied in trees and overgrowth. These streets then continue at the top or bottom of the stairs, depending on which direction you are going. Ohio Avenue is one of these streets.) Van Lear is just a sliver of pavement that extends off the end of Ohio, which actually continues up the steep hillside via the steps that lead to the rest of Ohio Avenue and to Bellevue Park.
From our patio on Van Lear we could look down on the house whose front faced the Ohio Avenue steps. In the early 1980s this house was occupied by an Asian guy we knew as Sam. Also living in this house with Sam were several other family members and his mother–in-law, none of who could speak English, at least not well enough for us to communicate with them. Sam was in the process of rehabbing the property, so he often had men who worked for him coming and going. On the night in question, we were watching “Poltergeist” with the kids on HBO. (We had this box on our TV that we paid monthly for. It was called “ON TV” and we got HBO and a few other options to supplement the four local TV channels available at the time.) When the movie was over I heard yelling outside, so I went to the door and looked out the window toward Sam’s house. I saw a man standing at their back door. I began to watch him intently. He was yelling “Sam. Hey Sam. I know you’re in there.” He had a stick of sorts and he used it to hit the window several times as he hollered. I could see inside my neighbor’s kitchen window and observed the mother-in-law scurry away. She was not going to answer the door. The man took a break from his haranguing the residents, took a swig from his quart bottle of beer and even bent down to pet the dog who was tied up in the yard, who by the way, had not barked or acted alarmed by the intruder.
“Hey, Joe. There’s a drunk guy over at Sam’s, yelling and stuff.” I wanted my husband to join me at the window. “You sure are nosy,” he replied, not caring about the drama unfolding next door. I continued my vigil and observed the noisy drunk head around the side of the house toward the front, where I could no longer see him. Show over, I rejoined Joe in front of the TV. Then I heard a loud kaboom. I knew it was a gunshot. I jumped up, ran to the window, this time opening the door to the cool night. (I remember that it was pretty mild for January, not bitterly cold like most January nights in the Ohio Valley.) I could see or hear nothing. I came back in breathless. “I’m going to call the Police,” I said. Joe again warned me to not get involved. If I knew what events would transpire as a result of that one phone call, I might not have acted. NAH!! I probably would have anyway. So I made the infamous call directly to District 5 (pre 911). “I want to report a gunshot,” I started my report. When I gave the address, trying to explain the street number 2126 Ohio Avenue was not actually on the street, but located on the steps, the dispatcher knew exactly where it was and said I was the second person to report a shooting at this address. I was told to wait there, the officers would want to speak to me.
I have to admit, I was excited, too excited to sit and wait. So I decided it would be a good time to take the garbage out to the street, even though tomorrow was not garbage day and it meant hauling a can from our basement down our own treacherous steps to deposit it on the boardwalk across from our house. (This is another Cincinnati anomaly; the placement of wooden walkways on sides of hills where paving is not feasible. I believe that most of these wooden walks are no longer in service today.) But I needed a valid reason to go to the street to see what I could see. So I did just that, leaving the can I headed the few hundred feet to the bottom of the Ohio Avenue steps. I could not see anything in the dark, and was not about to venture up there, so I turned around. No sooner had I gotten to back to my house, when the sirens started and several Cincinnati Police cars careened up the hill, screeching to a halt at the bend where Van Lear and Ohio met, the ambulance not far behind. Now the other neighbors came out to see what was going on. It was about midnight by now. I was full of my self importance as I sauntered up to one of the officers and told him I was the one who called. He said, “Good. We’ll need you to come downtown to make a statement.” And with that he opened the back door of his cruiser, told me to get in. I complied. The door shut and there I sat, locked in and alone. I could not stand outside and gab with my neighbors, speculating on who shot who and why. I could not mill around and see what was going on. I did not get to see a bloody gunshot victim or a dead body. I did not know anything, except that I was a prisoner. I began to get scared. What if the guy I saw was on the loose. Maybe he shot Sam and the cops were looking for him. What if he knew I was watching him and that I’m the one who called the cops. He might try to hurt me, keep me from testifying. Why didn’t I listen to Joe? No other neighbors were in the backs of cop cars. They probably thought I shot Joe and that’s why I was locked back here. They’re probably talking about me now. “Holy Shit!” Now I know how those shirtless guys on Cops feel when they are locked in a cop car. The only thing I was missing was the hand cuffs. I strained my neck trying to see what was going on. I could see a white sheet on the first landing of the Ohio Avenue steps. I’m sure that it was covering the body of the murder victim. I figured that tomorrow, in the light of day, I would see the crime tape and the chalk outline of the deceased, splayed out like a rag doll.
After an eternity, an officer opened the front door and I said, “Hey, can you let my husband know I’m in here? And ask him to bring me my coat and purse?” (A lady always needs her purse. Naked without it.) Another eternity passed and then Joe came to the car. He handed my stuff to the cop and waved to me. That was all I got, before being taken down to headquarters, just like in the TV cop shows. In this show, headquarters was the Alms and Doepke Building on Central Parkway. As I was led down the hall, we passed a waiting area of seats filled with Sam’s family. They were talking quietly in their native language. We passed a room where I could see Sam’s mother-in-law sitting alone. Then I was escorted into another room, no windows only a table and two chairs, where I too was left alone. When the door shut I assumed it was locked. I didn’t even try to escape.
A third eternity came and went, before an officer came with a tape recorder to take my statement. So I told him what I saw and heard. He did not want my opinions or feelings, just facts, which I did my best to do. I signed a paper saying I was not telling any tales, only the truth, then I was free to go. But, I said, “I can’t leave. My husband is home with the kids and he can’t leave them.” So I was chauffeured home the way I came, in the back of a cop car. I was exhausted and hungry, but not sleepy. It was almost 5 am when I returned to my waiting spouse and sleeping kids. I remember the sky was a dusky gray.
A few days later we learned from the neighbors and the news, that the man I saw, the guy with the stick and beer was the victim. Apparently he was trying to get Sam to pay him for some work he’d done. I guess Sam didn’t agree about the monetary transaction, thus the dispute. The confrontation ended when a third guy, who also worked for Sam, shot the victim at close range with a shot gun on the Ohio Avenue steps.
I was subpoenaed to appear in court for a jury trial sometime in April 1984. Once in the courthouse, I was directed to sit outside the courtroom until it was my turn on the stand. I don’t remember if there were others waiting to testify. If there were, I’m sure we would be instructed not to talk to one another. The Bailiff came and got me, escorting me into the courtroom and to the witness box. After being sworn in, I stated that I didn’t want to perjure myself and that whatever I said that night was true and I may not recall all the details now. So I was given a copy of my statement and was able to refer to it while being questioned. I thought that was pretty good.
It didn’t take me long to realize where the defense attorney was trying to steer my testimony when he asked me several questions about the posture and threatening words used by the victim. I answered that it was only my feeling or opinion, but that if the guy wanted to hurt someone he could have broken the window with his stick. And I also added he did pet the dog. As to other questions about the defendants state, I said I did not know if he was drunk, but I did see a bottle in his hand. Not sure if it was beer or something else. And so it went. And I did the best I could then I was dismissed.
I heard nothing about the trail outcome for weeks. And only found out much later that Sam’s man, the one with the shot gun, got off for self defense. As for Sam and his clan, they moved out a few weeks after this event. We never saw them again.