'Shame the Devil': Hal McKinney and the shooting at Junker's Tavern

Hal McKinney's dogs want to eat me. Alerted by incessant barking, the 54-year-old Northsider appears in the doorway of his Chase Avenue home. Approaching the tall wooden fence, he assures his dogs

Hal McKinney's dogs want to eat me.

Alerted by incessant barking, the 54-year-old Northsider appears in the doorway of his Chase Avenue home. Approaching the tall wooden fence, he assures his dogs are all bark.

Max and Baron, full-bred German Shepherds, push their full weight against the fence. It sways. I step back. They back down. I move forward. We tango in anxiety.

It's Friday night, and a cold drizzle falls as McKinney opens the gate. Stepping inside his darkened yard feels like the last thing I'll ever do.

I feel myself about to be devoured. But I owe him this visit.

On the porch McKinney greets me warmly, regaling me with dog stories.

"The rumor in the neighborhood is my dogs hate black people," he says. "They just don't like people hitting them in the head with two-by-fours."

Tails wagging, Max and Baron back away in retreat to the side yard. During the next four hours, McKinney's dichotomies unfold.

This is about what I didn't know until I spent time with him. It's about black boys and white men, crime, geography, class and culture. It's about guns.

Harold "Hal" McKinney is the white man — hero to some, devil to others — who May 8 shot Joe Person and scared the braggadocio out of DeMeico Hester, both 18 and black, in Junker's Tavern. McKinney emerged as a mythic, almost cinematic, Everyman's Man fed up with but unafraid of the clusters of young black dope dealers overruning his street. Fear and anger are recurring McKinney themes.

"The only people making money in this city are moving companies and ADT," he says, in typical McKinney absolute succinctness.

"Is it citywide?" I ask.

"It's not citywide. It's countrywide." He roots fruitlessly around his desk for an out-of-town editorial blaming crime victims for crime.

"I refuse to live my life in fear. I'd be hiding in the corner somewhere. When your number's up, it's up," he says, giving up on the article. "It's not a color issue."

Is he talking about Northside specifically, Cincinnati generally or responses to the shooting? Drop the "not," and his pronouncement ironically befits all three.

"The worst thing about Northside is that we don't gain strength in our diversity. Diversity divides. It's our unity — the thing we all believe in — that pulls us together. It's not who you sleep with or what you sleep with," he says, a nod to Northside's unofficial status as a hub for gays and lesbians.

He's been courted by cops and, encouraged by a groundswell of support, announced his City Council candidacy.

McKinney, a Lutheran, looks like a fundamentalist preacher in his button-down white shirt, ink pens peaking from its pocket, subdued tie, dark suit pants and dress shoes. He's come from meeting with Republican Party officials and doing the Endorsement Mating Dance.

Though he laments the slow to no police response for drug activity complaints, McKinney is unabashedly pro-police, a stance that might thrust him into a council seat. "A cop told me, 'You'd make a good police officer, but you'd make a better friend to (us) on council.' "

The shooting and McKinney's subsequent pass by the grand jury on charges of felonious assault and carrying a gun into a liquor establishment sparked a maelstrom of talk radio pontificators, opinions and name calling culminating in appearances by McKinney and his attorney, Mark Naegel, on WLW (700 AM) and WDBZ (1230 AM), the latter a colored version of the former. At the behest of Enquirer columnist Peter Bronson, they also appeared on the May 23 taping of WCPO Channel 9's Hot Seat, where we met.

During taping, I asked McKinney what he felt before he pulled the trigger on Person. I questioned him for walking into Junker's with a .40-calibre semiautomatic pistol.

To understand guns and any rights to carry and shoot them is to more fully understand McKinney, who says he's clocked 300 shooting range hours.

He's lived in the mammoth house since October. It sat vacant two years before that. Since, though, there have been three attempted burglaries. Some dealers McKinney confronted tried to feed his dogs in a ploy to win them over. One threatened his daughter.

"I got the house for $43,000 because of the crack dealers. I think the property value goes down because of the crack," he says, pausing for a punchline, "$1,000 off for every dealer."

The large living room is neat. The house has that damp and musty smell old houses emit when it rains.

Both sofas are covered with homemade Amish-looking quilts. His 6-year-old daughter's dolls, stuffed animals and toys are scattered about. A black-and-white picture of The Wizard of Oz leans on the mantle. I tell him it's my favorite movie and, as I rise to look closer, McKinney breaks into "The Lollipop Guild," singing it a la Alvin & the Chipmunks.

A flashlight, binoculars and walkie-talkie clutter a side table by the font door. A 12-gauge tactical shotgun lies crossways on the table among the accoutrements of his citizen's patrol force work.

"This is my best weapon," says McKinney, holding up a camera he uses to snap pictures of people copping drugs.

We mostly stand in the different rooms he tours me through. In the office, there's a picture of his bright-eyed daughter and his late mother.

I spot a smallish holstered gun on a dining table. It's a .380 Bersa, and McKinney pulls it briefly from its case.

"Do you ever consider moving?"

"No more than I thought about walking out that door (at Junker's) and leaving four people behind," he says. "My life revolves around right and wrong. It sucks. My ideas are the same now as they were a few weeks ago, except somebody got shot. It's sad. My prayers go out to Joe Person's mother."

Before we leave for Junker's, McKinney pulls a bulletproof vest from a coat rack and slips it over my head, pulls the Velcro straps and I'm in, constricted and weighted.

"I was doing everything but sleeping in it," he says.

He suggests I wear it to the bar "under your shirt," but I decline. He slips on the same dark hooded windbreaker he wore to Junker's the night of the shooting. As we walk back through the living room I see a third gun, a .357 Magnum, nestled above a row of neatly arranged videocassettes on the bookshelf.

He returns to the night of the shooting. "You know what the guys would've said if I'd let them get robbed and they found out later I had a gun? 'Girly man!' "

As we leave to visit his black neighbor, a similarly beleaguered citizen tired but undaunted by the gaggle of dealers on his stoop, McKinney says something quietly jarring. "Now I'm not being armed tonight."

As we wait in the light rain for the neighbor to answer, I recognize several black boys by dress, swagger and duplicitous antics as probably street dealers. They take turns standing at the corner eyeballing us. Their stares are stale forms of street intimidation.

I stare back. I think they recognize McKinney, and I'm unafraid.

Inside, the two men — a younger, plump and wild-haired black man from Evanston and a studious, practical, middle-aged white man born on 13th Street — commiserate about crime and fighting it. The neighbor once soaked his doorsteps with bleach. When a velour-suited drug dealer rose to leave, he sported a skunk stripe across his ass.

"When he moved in I gave him a 'No Trespassing' sign and hollow points," McKinney says.

They're brothers in arms. They both pray for inclement weather. A rainstorm a day keeps the dealers at bay.

McKinney and I walk the dark, wet street to Junker's. He's a conquering hero. The bar is a dark rectangle cooled by whirring ceiling fans and populated by People the City Forgot.

A woman with multiple face piercings sings karaoke to The Eagles' "Hotel California." Next, an old black man in a see-through shirt sings in a voice like a resistant car engine. The rest of the patrons comprise the cast — black, white, older, tired and retired, heavy drinking bar flies and a few youngish white men thrown in.

McKinney walks me through the timeline of the shooting, pointing out where he was when Person pulled his gun on bar patrons. Tony Coyne, the owner, is friendly.

Richard Wiggins, the man who dared Person to shoot him as Person held him at gunpoint, comes to our booth. Wiggins says McKinney saved his life when he shot Person.

McKinney downs his second and final Corona before escorting me to my car. The rain has dissipated. He strides quickly, nudging his body into mine as a signal for when and where to cross the street. Young black boys gather on the opposite sidewalk.

McKinney suggests we cross to them. As we walk through, McKinney greets them and I say, "What's up?" They respond in kind.

At my car McKinney says he'll take the written police exam the next morning "to show intent."

"You know a person by what they're willing to die for," he says. "I learned a lot about myself. I learned I can depend on me."

"Tell the truth," his mother used to tell him. "Shame the devil."

In McKinney's world of absolutes, black and white have little to do with race and more to do with the exactitudes of right and wrong. His mother's directive is a fitting motto for the man caught looking through the cross hairs into his own destiny.

Hear Kathy's commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.

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