A Shooting at Tucker’s

“A reporter is about as close to the action as a crab louse is to the begetting of a child.”  Norman Mailer

Streetvibes writer turned investigative reporter, Jim Luken searches Over the Rhine for answers behind the shocking outburst of violence in a well respected and loved community restaurant

Jim Luken, Contributing Writer

As most readers know, Streetvibes is not a newspaper that specializes in investigative journalism.  Since this paper is published only twice a month, it would be difficult for us cover most of what the media calls “breaking news stories.”

Nonetheless, late Tuesday afternoon, January 18th, I opened an e-mail from Streetvibes’ new editor, Jen Martin asking if I would be willing to do a story on the shooting incident that had happened that morning at Tucker’s Restaurant on Vine Street. The decision was easy. I’m retired. In 1999, I had spent a number of months as an investigative reporter for a small town daily in northern Vermont. I responded that I would “see what I could find out.”

I quickly came to grips with the fact that whatever I might discover, much of the story would be old-news by February 1, when the issue you are reading would come off the presses.

After thinking the whole situation over, I sensed that Streetvibes readers might be interested in what happens when an old (66+ years), unpaid reporter sets out to “investigate” a crime in the neighborhood he calls home. Of course, I knew there was no way I would come close to uncovering the perpetrators, but at least, with this angle, the story might not be dated as you read it.

If you stay with me over this long read, you will follow my daily “log,” detailing some of my activities and interviews as I set out to get the local reaction to the horrible thing that happened at a beloved restaurant in Over the Rhine. The friendly authenticity of Tucker’s had been compromised by a terrible crime, almost as senseless—if on a much smaller scale—as what had happened in Tucson ten days earlier. As with Tucson, this shooting shook the foundations of our entire neighborhood community. Tucker’s has been a part of most of our lives, poor and middle class alike. Even the mayor showed up there on the day of the crime.

Most readers know the outline of the story: two gunmen came into the diner around 11 AM on Tuesday, January 18th, armed with shotguns. Each one fired a shot, but the man they were gunning for had jumped over the counter.  He was unhurt, although Carla Tucker was hit in the arm and the back, while another young woman, Ranisha Burgin, was struck in the neck. At the time this was written, the 18 year-old single mother was still in critical condition, paralyzed by a shot to the neck. Mrs. Tucker was home recuperating from her wounds. My log follows:

Wednesday, January 19

Early in the morning I walk out of my flat on Spring Street, hoping to get some sense of the outrageous crime that had already shocked and gripped our downtown community.

On my way toward the main Tucker’s, I stop into the satellite Tucker’s, a tiny restaurant on 13th Street. The proprietor is the nephew of the Joe Tucker whose wife had been injured at the diner on Vine Street. His waitress is off, and the place is busier than I had ever seen it.

I order a small breakfast in hopes young Joe will find time to talk. As I pay my bill, I express sympathy for his family. He tells me “Thanks,” then adds, “We’re used to it, man.  We been down her for 60 years.” He tells me to come back early next week.  He won’t have time to talk till his waitress returns to work.

I walk to my former workplace office on 14th Street.  I had been hoping to find an Enquirer so I could read their coverage of the story, but there are no paper machines along my route.  A friend at the office takes time to print the story for me off the internet, and I read over it. From the sketchy story, a dozen questions emerge.

I talk to a retired police officer who tells me something the article didn’t. “Crimestoppers” has offered a $10,000 reward.  This, the ex-officer believes, will result in the criminals being apprehended “before the end of the day.”

I walk across Liberty and down Vine to Tucker’s. Word was that Tucker’s would re-open on the morning following the crime. But the door is locked. A small note written on butcher paper thanks everyone who has offered sympathy. Joe’s wife, Carla, the note says, will be OK.

Source: Jim Luken

Thursday, January 20

The next day, the Enquirer “on-line” has a follow-up story saying that Tucker’s hasn’t re-opened. I read the brief article. It describes the criminals, who had worn ski masks. It describes the intended victim of the shooters as having acted apprehensively in the restaurant prior to the shooting.  It says the young woman who was shot is in critical condition.

There is an internet link to a police video from the alley beside, and the street in front of, the restaurant.  The two are seen from above walking back and forth, back and forth, and finally (one of them) is running from the restaurant. The images are fuzzy. I replay them over and over. The pair could be anyone dressed in black clothes, one with new tan work boots. I cannot determine if they are wearing ski-masks. They seem to be carrying something at their sides. Sawed off shotguns? I’m not sure.

Friday, January 21

14 degrees outside.  I call a good friend who has lived in the neighborhood for her entire life, 60 years.  She likes to keep track of things.  Like everyone, the woman is upset that a crime that is so over-the-top can happen in broad daylight. I would hear similar observations from dozens of downtown people. She tells me what many will say: this must be drug related. She doesn’t know whom I should question, but several times she warns me to be very careful.

I walk across OTR to Findley Market. I see two cops in a patrol car and ask them if they can tell Streetvibes anything about the Tucker’s shooting. From behind his sunglasses, the driver says, “No more than you can tell us.” I ask him who I might talk to at District 1.  He tells me to call over there and ask for the investigating officer.

I walk down Elder to Vine, hoping that the restaurant has re-opened. But everything is the same as yesterday. So I walk south on Vine to the Canticle Café at the corner of Liberty.  Run by the nearby Franciscan community, the café is open weekdays, at lunch time, for those who want to get out of the cold for cup of coffee and a place to relax.

Brother Dan, in his brown Franciscan robes, hands me a P & B sandwich. I grab a cup of coffee and sit down for an hour to listen and observe the people who have gathered there.  This quiet time among the very poor is very pleasant, almost soothing to the spirit. I don’t feel a hint of tension among the 15-20 “clients.”  This is a lot like Tucker’s was, I think.

After a while Brother Dan introduces me to a man he says knows a lot about the neighborhood. The man, a retired city garbage worker, assures me this is the kind of crime only “the drug boys” would do. “They don’t care about anything.” I remind him of the $10,000 reward.  “There’s people who would turn in their own mother for $10, 000,” he says.  “Then why haven’t they been caught?” I ask.

“People scared,” he says. “You should be scared too, askin’ too many questions. Those boys will kill you for a dollar.” He pauses.  “No, they’ll kill you for a cigarette, one lousy cigarette.”

I walk to the Homeless Coalition office and make a call to District 1.  I speak to the investigating officer’s answering machine… I will try him again on Monday, the day before my Streetvibes deadline.

Using “People Search” on the Internet I get a telephone number for a man in Maysville, Kentucky, who had been mentioned by the Enquirer as a witness to the crime that morning at Tucker’s.  A woman answers and tells me that the person I am looking for no longer lives there. I hang up. What could that possibly mean? I ask myself.

Joe Tucker prepares lunch at Tucker’s Restaurant in Over the Rhine just days after the shooting Source: Jim Luken

I walk over to one of the OTR homeless facilities. A friend of mine from the neighborhood who is visiting there introduces me to a man, who—my friend says—knows a lot about what is coming down “in the streets.”  Like everyone else the guy does not want his name to be mentioned. I can tell he is somewhat intoxicated. I ask him what he knows about Tucker’s. “I don’t want to know anything,” he says.

I ask him why not. He looks at me intensely, as if to say, “How stupid can one old, white guy be?”

I push him to the question. “Because those drug boys gonna do what they gonna do. That’s all.” And that’s all I can get out of him.  But, in a way, his remark seems to tell the story of crime in the city, a story often dominated by drugs and fear and poverty. And not a damn thing anyone can do about it. Or so it seems. Most times the story stays hidden among the lives of the dealers and their clients. Only when innocent bystanders are drawn in, does life in the ghetto command the city’s attention for more than a moment.

Saturday, January 22

Zero degrees in OTR, plus or minus. But who’s counting?  With a reporter’s keen intuitions, I sense that Tucker’s will finally re-open today. Rather than face the elements again, I take my car. Driving North on Vine, I see Channel 5’s remote television truck parked under the “Tucker’s” sign.  Cars fill every metered spot near the restaurant.

I open the door to find the place jammed with people, white, black, yellow. Everyone smiling, everyone excited to be part of the occasion. It’s a great sight. Tucker’s is back! Dozens have come out in the cold to show their support. Joe is there at the grill, as usual, turning over piles of hash browns and breakfast sausage with his favorite spatula.  He looks around as I shout my thumbs-up greeting.

“I know you’re busy,” I say, “but do you have a one little word for Streetvibes?”

“God Bless Over the Rhine,” he yells, and turns back to the grill.

White folks outnumber the blacks, but I lean down next to an African-American man sitting on one of the round stools at the counter. I ask him if he will answer a few questions for the paper.

His name is Abel Fischer, and he has been coming here for twenty years. I ask him what he thinks of the people who run Tucker’s. “I love them.” he says.

We have to shout above of the din of conversations. I ask him if he showed up today to show his support.

“Of course,” he says. “Why wouldn’t I?” And he begins laying out his take. No need for me to ask another question. “I can’t believe there was no respect showed for this place. I don’t think this place was ever touched, even during the riots. Maybe a window got cracked a little. I don’t remember. But I’ve seen Joe giving out food to people who came in here hungry, and without any money.” More than once? I ask.  “Many times,” he says.

I thank the man, and turn toward the booths. I decide to question the youngest patron.  His name is Elliot Watras.  He is 6. He is there with his dad, Isaac. They live on Race Street. Elliot tells me he has been here before with his Dad. I ask him what he likes about the place. “The pancakes are great,” he says. I ask the child if he has heard about the shooting. “I heard my Dad and my uncle talking about it,” he says somberly. He is sitting next to his uncle, Eugene Kim, who is visiting from San Francisco.  Kim tells me he has been to our city before, but this is his first time at Tucker’s.  I ask him how he likes it.

“I haven’t tasted the food yet,” he responds, “but I love the vibe.  I love the stories.” He has a small camera and asks if he can take a picture of me interviewing them.

I am hoping that the boy Elliot will tell me more about his feelings when he heard about the shootings.  He tries to tell me something but I can’t hear him. I lean in close. “I’m glad they didn’t shoot the whole building down,” he says.

Elliot’s dad thinks his son may be a little anxious about the situation. What about you, I ask, what do you think? “The value of the restaurant is that it is a safe place,” Watras says. “We have to keep it that way.”

A young photographer from the Enquirer is there with a camera almost as long as my forearm.  I resist telling her that the Enquirer’s “Tucker’s” story on Thursday was so short as to be almost confusing. I ask her if she will e-mail me a photo from this event, but she says the paper will not let her share. I tell her thanks and that I expected that would be the case.

On my way out, I ask Joe Tucker if he will have any time for a more detailed interview.

“Not today, that’s for sure.”

We agree to meet at closing time on Monday.

Monday, January 24

Warmer weather, but local news is very chilling.  Responding to the news that two young, local men had been killed on Saturday, the Enquirer quotes Mayor Mallory as saying all this gun violence is “absurd.” This is more or less what everyone I talked to for the past week has said about the Tucker’s shooting.
.           On foot again, I walk to Tucker’s on 13th to meet up with the young Joe Tucker. Business is slower now, and he agrees to answer a few questions. He tells me that well wisher’s have been dropping in all week, some of them bringing flowers for his uncle’s family at the Vine Street location (which was closed last week).  He says he only knows what he read in the papers about the last Tuesday’s shooting.
I walk to the Our Daily Bread Soup kitchen at Findley Market. The place is crowded. A steady flow of people pick up tickets and move through the food line. It’s 11:45. The second last person eat, my ticket number is 446. That’s a lot of well fed people, I think. I’m served a salad and some hamburger hash and baked beans.

A friend who works their hooks me up with a fellow diner, who, he says, will speak to me. The man, in his fifties, tells me that the problem has to do with the fact that “the government” won’t let parents “chastise” their children anymore. I’m quick to disagree. I tell him that seems to be a huge simplification. “No, Man, its lack of discipline at home, and in the whole society. In the old days,” he continues, “if you had a problem with someone, like those guys at Tucker’s, you’d go around the corner and fight it out.”
Alone now at my table, a black man in his thirties comes up and sits opposite me. He is wearing black knit cap, like the shooters wore at Tucker’s. We exchange names. “Now,” he says, “it’s time to do the right thing, and give thanks.” With that, he raises his hands and prays over the food, an exquisite (short) prayer that includes all the hungry people in the world. We talk for twenty minutes while we eat. This young man has the most positive attitude I have seen for a long time…from a person who wasn’t crazy. We bump fists as he leaves, and he tells me to always choose the good.
I head down Elder Street to Vine.  Tucker’s is busy, but nothing like on Saturday. I see several people I know. A WKR C cameraman has set up his tripod and interviewing several people, including, of course, Joe. I sit with a friend who works for a nearby publishing company. He says he has been coming in almost daily for ten years. He says he came in here right after the riots. “Black people and white people were sitting here together. The atmosphere…everything… was very cordial.”
Joe’s mother, Mainey Tucker, age 90, pushes a mop over the floor near our booth. I get up and give her a hug and tell her I’m glad she is OK. “I was very upset after it happened,” she says. “In 65 years, nothing like that ever happened here. I was upset for three days.  I’m still a little nervous, but I’m OK.”
I walked to the Homeless Coalition office and try again to reach the police. My deadline looms at 5 PM; I would like to have their input on all this.

The afternoon is overcast as I walk the six blocks from the office back to the restaurant.  As I pass Kroger’s there is a guy out in the street with a red cane yelling at cars as they pass, heading south toward town. “Your lights!” he roars, over and over. “Your lights! Your lights.” I guess this is his way of asserting some control over things, his way of encouraging safe driving in our crazy neighborhood.

I arrive at 3:30 as instructed. Joe Tucker’s right hand man, Rick, let’s me in, but Joe isn’t there. He forgot he had a doctor’s appointment. I ask if I can wait. I can see that, after almost a week, everyone is pretty tired of “the media.” I sit on a stool at the counter and do the crossword puzzles from today’s paper. At the end of her workday, Maynie is pulling the rubber mats from behind the counter out into the restaurant where she sweeps them, then scrubs them, top and bottom, with a mop. I don’t want to think about how many times she has done this.

The lock turns. Joe comes in. He apologizes to me, and asks Rick to fix him a burger.  He disappears into the back room. I finish the puzzles by the time he returns, twenty minutes later.  Looking exhausted, he sits down on the stool next to mine. It’s 4:30. “This isn’t going to take long, is it?” I assure him that it won’t.

Basically, how are you? I ask. “It’s tough. I’m pretty emotionally upset.”

I ask about the crime itself. He tells me had been gone for only five minutes to take his car in for repair, when his mother called him on his cell and he rushed back to the diner. The emergency people were already there, he explains. “Carla (his wife) was lying there in a pool of blood. One of the customers was holding her hand.” The other woman, he says, was lying face down on the floor. “I went straight to my wife. That was my only concern at the time.”

Joe assures me that Carla is on the mend physically, but he is also worried about her. “She’s the one who is sitting at home, taking all this in. I wouldn’t blame her if she doesn’t want to come back here.”

I remind him that on Saturday he had yelled “God Bless Over the Rhine” in my direction.

“I love Over the Rhine,” he says shaking his head.  “But other neighborhoods…they push all the crimes into this one corner. So the kids are having turf wars here, where other people have pushed them.”

I ask him about the young man who the gunmen were supposedly trying to get. “I knew the kid. I watched him grow up down here. He hadn’t come in here for a long time. I don’t know what’s going on with him right now.” It’s pretty clear that he doesn’t care either. “The police have talked to him. All I know is, if he hadn’t been in here, that thing wouldn’t have happened.”

Joe confesses to being worried about the overall effect of the bad publicity. When I point out that there has been a huge turnout of support from his customer base, he responds, “And I appreciate it a lot, he says. Believe me I do.”

They lock the door behind me, and I head back to my own place.

I am only home a few minutes, when my cell phone rings. It is police Sergeant Steve Saunders. He explains that he is not the primary detective working on the case, but adds, “You know there isn’t much they are going to tell you.” I tell him I understand that, but I thought the police should have a word in the Streetvibes story. He responds, “All I can tell you that we have a couple of very good leads.”

I bring up the $10,000 reward. He assures me that the way the “Crime-stopper” program works is very sophisticated. “They really know how to protect the people that are helping them,” he says. “Maybe you should provide the number,” he suggests, and gives it to me. “352-3440. Sometimes people will come forward after a long while.”

He mentions a few things about the case, but tells me that I cannot quote him.

After going back and forth about this for a bit, Sgt. Saunders finally says to me, “OK, We do have strong leads.  But without a victim who is ready to cooperate, we can’t move forward on the basis of circumstantial evidence.” I read the statement back to him and ask if I can quote this much.

“You can,” he says.  I thank him and click my phone shut.  My career as a Streetvibes investigative reporter has come to an end.