Soldiers Attack Homeless Camp

Latest hate crime against homeless people

By Gregory Flannery

A woman, who asked not to be named, was present during the attack. Photo by Jon Hughes/photopresse.

A gang went hunting in Spring Grove village for a homeless man to beat up April 10. When they were finished, John Johnson needed 18 stitches in his head, and his girlfriend was in fear for her life. The brutality of the attack was shocking in itself – but even more so was the fact that three of the four suspects are soldiers in the U.S. Army.

Johnson, 52, says he was sleeping under a highway overpass at about 3 a.m. when four men attacked him.

“I was awakened by four young men telling me to exit the property,” he says. “As I was complying with them, they started beating me with pipes and bats upside the head and up and down the left side of my body.”

Initial reports speculated that the assailants were skinheads. But 16 days after the attack Cincinnati Police obtained warrants for three men serving in the U.S. Army.

On April 26, police charged Michael Hesson, 24, of Norwood with felonious assault. His bond was set at $5,000. The next day Riley Feller, 24, stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, was arrested at the base in Fort Knox, Ky., pending extradition to Hamilton County.

Military police were looking for the other two suspects, who are also stationed at Fort Bragg. At Streetvibes press time, those two soldiers had not been named.

‘Cold and calculated’

Johnson was attacked a few weeks after the city of Cincinnati had trimmed trees obscuring a small homeless camp on Mitchell Avenue near Interstate 75. As a result, the handful of people living there were exposed to almost constant public view during daylight hours.

What wasn’t well known was that people at the camp didn’t sleep in the shack that was visible to traffic; they slept under an overpass bridging Mill Creek.

The fact that the four attackers knew where to find Johnson indicates that the assault was pre-meditated, according to Josh Spring, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless.

“This one was planned,” he said. “They had the same haircut, they had the same clothes. They went to where these people were sleeping. When they left, they kept their headlights off.”

Johnson’s description of the assailants made them sound like skinheads – racist thugs whose trademark is a shaved head. He said the suspects had short haircuts and wore black jackets with some kind of metallic insignia.

“I got a good look at a couple of them,” Johnson said.

But for three of the men accused of attacking Johnson, short haircuts were the mark of military service.

The attackers allegedly beat Johnson and chased him up a hill, calling him a “bum” and saying, “We don’t want you here” and “Get a job.” The assailants threatened a woman staying with Johnson but didn’t harm her, he says.

Like Spring, Johnson believes the attack was pre-meditated.

“This was not some guys out half-drunk, having a good time at my expense,” he says. “These guys were cold and calculated. It was planned.”

Johnson participated in an April 23 press conference with Spring, who said the Homeless Coalition waited nearly two weeks to publicize the attack at the request of Cincinnati Police investigators. Spring said police asked him to keep the assault quiet so the suspects wouldn’t be alert. Spring developed several leads, including a woman who told police that several of the assailants were U.S. soldiers.

‘They were targeted’

Cheryl Meadows, director of the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission, says the attack on Johnson is part of a growing trend.

“Because of the recent economic crisis, we’re beginning to see hate crimes that we haven’t seen before,” she says. “It is quite a concern that the Human Relations Commission wants to bring to the forefront.”

The Rev. Dave Weaver, pastor of Nast Trinity United Methodist Church in Over-the-Rhine, also says hate crimes are on the rise.

“I’m hearing more and more about these kinds of incidents,” he says. “There seems to be some escalation. Hate of any kind cannot be tolerated.”

In the past year at least four homeless people in Cincinnati have been assaulted. While the motivation behind some of those assaults might be unclear, the attack on Johnson was plain in its purpose, Spring says.

“This is not just one person beating another person,” he says. “They were targeted because they were homeless. That means they might do it again.”

Johnson says he lived at the camp on Mitchell Avenue for about two years and never experienced any difficulty until April 10. He says he is no longer living outdoors. He, too, fears the people who attacked will strike again.

“They’re dangerous people and could end up killing somebody,” he says. “I came through this OK. My concern is to get these people off the streets.”

Prior to the attack, the homeless camp on Mitchell Avenue had been the scene of occasional good deeds. Employees of a nearby car dealership delivered food there during Thanksgiving last year. Scott Cowans, a tow-truck driver, has also taken food to the camp. The attack on Johnson made Cowans angry.

“This is something I’m not going to stand for,” he says. “I was homeless once because of heavy drugs.”

Cowans says he plans to organize monthly food deliveries from his church and wants to make sure no one else at the Mitchell Avenue camp is attacked.

“I got hold of my police friends and asked them to check the camp and make sure everybody is OK,” he says.

Cowans says many people tend to look down on homeless people who live outdoors.

“They call them ‘squatters,’ ” he says. “I call them homeless people who need help.”

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