News: Closed Doors, Open Wounds

Two years later, dead man's family still awaits justice

Nov 14, 2002 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

Victoria Straughn of Citizens Concerned for Justice led a caravan to Clermont County to protest what she called the hiring of "rogue cops" by suburban police departments.

Protesters marking the anniversary of Roger Owensby Jr.'s death should not be intimidated by the police officers watching them, Victoria Straughn told a rally in Bond Hill Nov. 7.

"Our steps today are righteous," she said. "They can watch all day long, because God is watching over us."

But no one thought to tell Pierce Township Police officers that they needn't be afraid.

Whether the cops in this rural Clermont County township were intimidated by the protesters or just too rude to listen remains unclear. But the locked doors that greeted the marchers said plenty about the frustration Owensby's family and supporters feel two years after his death.

'They killed my son'
Before leading a caravan to the Pierce Township Police Department, where the man accused of killing Owensby now works, Concerned Citizens for Justice (CCFJ) held a vigil at the death site, a Sunoco station in Bond Hill. Owensby, an unarmed 29-year-old man, died of mechanical asphyxia in Cincinnati Police custody.

At the vigil, Roger Owensby Sr. held a photo of his son and stared across the street at police watching the crowd. His eyes didn't seem to see them; his face held an expression that indicated his mind was far away.

Maybe the photos of his son — one showing him in the Army, another from his childhood — sparked a memory from the past. Or perhaps standing in the spot where his son was killed was too much for him.

"They murdered my son," Roger Owensby Sr. said. "They killed my son. If you just go back and look at the evidence that's there, you'll see what we've seen from day one. Nothing's going to bring my son back. At least I can have some sort of closure by getting justice."

Last year a jury in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court acquitted then-Cincinnati Police officer Robert Jorg of assaulting Owensby Jr. but deadlocked on a charge of involuntary manslaughter. The Owensby family has unsuccessfully called for prosecutors to retry Jorg (see Piling On, issue of Oct. 3-9).

While the CCFJ planned to protest Jorg's employment in Pierce Township, the Black Fist led a march from Bond Hill to the U.S. Courthouse, backing the Owensby family's call for federal civil rights charges.

"We're marching to the federal courthouse because that's where the feds reside," said General Kabaka Oba, organizer for Black Fist.

With a black flag over one shoulder and a protest sign in hand, Oba and the Black Fist set out on foot.

Meanwhile, Straughn and the CCFJ began a car caravan to Pierce Township.

"If the community is not aware of all that's taken place, we're here to make them aware," Straughn said. "This is not a shout-down match, but Pierce Township should not be allowed to escape from this."

Protesting in Clermont County was uncharted territory for the group.

"There were a lot of people who wanted to come but they said they were scared," Straughn said.

Locals also seemed apprehensive about the protest march, made up largely of African Americans. A woman in a Dairy Mart remarked in distress that the store was usually very busy at that time of day. Another kept asking, "Can't the police do anything?"

'Go home!'
At the police station, Straughn held a press conference.

"We gathered out here today because we're very concerned about Pierce Township and their decision to hire Robert 'Blaine' Jorg," she said. "It allows someone like that to escape justice. It allows someone like that to escape discipline."

Owensby was more than just another number in the tally of young men killed in Cincinnati in 2000, according to Straughn.

"This man was a former Desert Storm veteran," she said. "He's a father, a son, a brother."

The Rev. Damon Lynch III of the Black United Front criticized the township for hiring Jorg.

"Pierce Township is in collusion with denying us justice with the hiring of Jorg," Lynch said. "Peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of justice."

As speakers addressed the media, a man drove into the parking lot and screamed, "Go home, you goddamn crybabies! If your black asses would go and get a job, you wouldn't have time to cry."

He circled the lot and left.

Straughn had prepared packets containing a report by Cincinnati's Office of Municipal Investigation, including an independent coroner's report, detailing alleged excessive force by Jorg and other officers involved in Owensby's arrest.

But when the protesters reached the doors of the police department, they were locked. After waiting for someone to open the doors, Lynch picked up a house phone designed to summon the township staff when the doors are locked. He waited on the line, but nothing happened.

Protesters chanted and demanded the door be opened to them — as it had been for Jorg. Nothing happened.

Lynch finally hung up the phone.

"She said, 'We'll get right back to you' and never did," Lynch said.

But the demonstrators finally found an open side door and entered the building. Straughn was able to deliver a copy of the reports on Owensby's death before the police chief ordered the protesters to leave.

John Buhr, a Pierce Township Fire Department employee, said he has the utmost respect for the township police.

"I think this puts Pierce Township in the wrong light," he said. "There's nothing with Officer Jorg — he's acquitted. That's where our judicial system comes in. I depend on them."

Buhr said he had talked with Jorg and respects him.

"They're there to help us, not to hurt us," he said.

But Buhr admitted he hasn't read any of the reports on Owensby's death.

"I'm not going to take the time to do that," he said.

Two years after Owensby was killed, some doors remain locked no matter what. ©