[Editor's note: In November 2014, the Ohio Innocence Project secured the release of this story's subjects, including Ricky Jackson, who had been in prison for 39 years, and Wiley Bridgeman, who had been in prison nearly as long. The case was based on reporting first included in this story.]
The street corner that changed Ronnie Bridgeman's life is nothing much to look at: just a bent elbow of sidewalk where Stokes (formerly Fairhill) Boulevard and Petrarca Road meet south of University Circle. The curb is scuffed after years of close parking jobs, cracked here and there from summers past, when weeds won out against the concrete. The frayed wooden trunks of streetlight poles keep the drive-by vigil with a fire hydrant.
Bridgeman stands on the traffic-swept corner, his boxer's hands holstered in jacket pockets. The sun is just starting to punch through the low canopy of March cloud cover. Overnight, Cleveland was jumped by an unexpected snowstorm; now the surrounding streetscape wears a fresh half-foot of powder.
To Bridgeman's left stands a church that, according to the lock on the door and the spiderwebs across the front steps, hasn't seen a Sunday service in some time. He nods at a patch of overgrown weeds next to it. "That's where the store was. Right there."
Turning around, he throws a finger at a mosque across the street. "That's where the flower shop was, and over here," he says, pointing down Petrarca to a row of multi-story homes, "is where we all grew up."
Despite those roots, Bridgeman has managed to put miles between himself and his childhood home. He lives across town now, and he doesn't keep in touch with old neighbors. Legally speaking, he isn't even Ronnie Bridgeman anymore: It's not the name on his license or what his wife or co-workers call him. But this street corner's been lodged in his mind for 35 years, the ground zero around which his world still spins.
According to the State of Ohio, a 17-year-old Bridgeman was standing on this spot at 4 p.m. on May 19, 1975. His best friend was there too, and his 20-year-old brother was waiting down the block in a getaway car. According to their criminal records, they were responsible for the blood that soaked the sidewalk that afternoon.
It didn't matter that none of them had previous records, or that no physical evidence linked them to the crime. When they were put before juries, prosecutors produced a single eyewitness tying them to the incident: a 13-year-old-boy with bad eyesight.
All three were convicted. Bridgeman pulled 27 years and eight months of hard time; the other two remain incarcerated. Each maintains they had nothing to do with what happened that day.
Now 53, Bridgeman is clinging to an athletic air, with a large frame you wouldn't want to post up against in a pick-up game. His head has the color and contour of an 8-ball, his beard dusted with white. He is quiet and thoughtful, answering questions only after much deliberation, as if he carefully gets under the hood of every sentence before sending it out into conversation.
"My mother, who was very religious, told me, 'Trouble is easy to get in but hard to get out. But if you're not guilty of anything, the truth will set you free,'" Bridgeman says.
"But that won't work with the law."
Until the clock hands hit 4:00, Ronnie Bridgeman's May 19 was a dead-ringer for a day in the life of any 17-year-old kid on the block in 1975.
Ronnie woke late in the morning at his house on Arthur Avenue, an address he shared with his three siblings and ill mother. Around the block, Ronnie and his brother Wiley — the two were called "Bitsy" and "Buddy," respectively — were known as good stock: kids who stayed out of trouble and took care of their mom, the kind of guys parents liked to see their daughters hanging around. On that morning, Ronnie was out the door after breakfast and quickly met up with Ricky Jackson, his best friend and neighbor.
Neither work nor school were on the schedule. Ronnie had made it through the ninth grade before jumping ship for trade school, where he studied to be a welder. By now, he was logging weekly shifts as a porter at a restaurant downtown. Eighteen-year-old Ricky had dropped out to join the Marines. But now he was back scouting for work, after an honorable discharge for health issues.
The two spent the day ambling around. The weather was good and hot: spring souring into summer, the type of blue-sky day that draws neighborhood moms out on their porches. First they hit a school playground for a couple hours of pick-up basketball. Next, they gravitated back to the Bridgeman house for a game of chess. Out front, Wiley was washing his car, a white '71 convertible; later, he ran errands for some neighbors.
At one point in the afternoon Lynn Garrett dropped by, a straitlaced kid from the neighborhood who grew up with the Bridgemans. They were practically kin; Wiley and Ronnie even called Mrs. Garrett "Mom." Unlike his friends, Lynn had stayed in school and landed a football scholarship to Bowling Green. He was a walking, talking example of how a guy could ride the classroom out of the neighborhood.
By 4:00, school kids were walking the sidewalks homebound from the bus stops. As Ronnie, Ricky, and Lynn stood outside the Bridgeman house, someone passing by said there'd been a robbery at the store up at the corner of Fairhill and Petrarca. A white man had been killed. Word buzzed through the street; people were peeling off their porches and heading for the store. Lynn left to visit some friends in another neighborhood. Ronnie and Ricky decided to go see what it was all about.
Back then, news quickly pedaled through the neighborhood, a small slice of the East Side squeezed between Cedar Road and the rail lines to the south. It was made up of three short blocks — Frank and Arthur Avenues, and Colonial Court — that ran against Petrarca to the east.
The area was mostly safe, say former residents. The families were working-class and black, most anchored by single mothers. Everyone knew everyone, and the branches of family trees tangled: Chances were good you were a second cousin or half-sibling with someone up the block or down the street. Kids would leave home in the morning, roam the blacktop and lawns all day, and be inside for supper. When trouble broke out, the guilty parties were an easy mark: Even if your mom didn't see it, there were 50 others on watch for any misbehaving.
But as the mid-'70s rolled in, the neighborhood's good vibes were starting to go bad. Sons began meeting their mothers at the bus stop at night; the Fairmount Cut-Rate — the area convenience store — was robbed repeatedly. But regardless of the slight sea change, the streets around Fairhill were safe enough on May 19 for 16-year-old Karen Smith to make an after-school trek to the Cut-Rate by herself.
Smith was an honor student at John Hay High School, just finishing up her sophomore year. After she came home for the day, her mother asked her to run up to the store. At around 3:40, she took off from Colonial with three empty glass pop bottles under her arm. As she rounded the corner and headed up Petrarca, she spotted two young black men up the street leaning against the Cut-Rate. One was drinking from a bottle, the other held a paper cup. She didn't recognize either of them.
As Karen closed in on the store, her nerves started rattling. Neighborhood men were always cat-calling after women — especially 16-year-old girls on their own. To her relief, the strangers only nodded as she neared the door.
The Cut-Rate was a small store, just a couple counters and some shelves jammed with groceries, the walls papered with ads for Colt .45 and cigarettes. Inside, Karen found the store clerk, Clarence Jackson, and the owner's wife, Anna Robinson, talking with an older white man in a brown suit. After putting the empties on the counter and fetching fresh bottles, the girl asked for some potato chips. As she waited for Jackson to get her order, the white man walked out the front door with his briefcase.
Seconds later, a muffled sound — the rushed foot scrapes of a scuffle — came from outside. From the window in the door, Karen watched the white man try to reenter the store. Before he could, he was splashed with a liquid and stumbled. Mrs. Robinson approached the door. Two piercing sounds snapped in the air.
"They're shooting," Mrs. Robinson said. Karen ran toward the back of the store. Hidden behind the shelves, she heard another shot. When she returned to the front, she spotted Mrs. Robinson on the floor, blood jetting from her neck and clogging her mouth. Call the police, she tried to tell Karen.
Harry Franks was a limp zigzag on the sidewalk with a crowd surrounding his body when Ronnie and Ricky came up to the store. The 59-year-old sold money orders to local convenience stores, dropping off the forms and collecting the proceeds. He'd been making his weekly visit to the Cut-Rate at the time of the incident. Later, police would determine he'd had around $430 in his briefcase, which the assailants apparently made off with. Franks had been beaten with a blunt object, doused with acid, and shot twice through the chest. Mrs. Robinson was clinging to life on the operating table.
Once word of the incident shot through the neighborhood, the sidewalk outside the Cut-Rate grew thick with rubberneckers. The afternoon wore on, and the crowd swelled to almost 100. TV crews were soon on the scene, aiming cameras at the local kids mugging for a cameo on the nightly newscast or joking around while officers tried to interview witnesses.
Ronnie and Ricky soon got bored and walked home. It was the last time they gave the crime much thought, until a few nights later, Bridgeman recalls today, when Wiley got a call at the house while he was playing chess with his brother. The caller said the cops knew that Wiley and Ricky were good for the Cut-Rate robbery. They might as well turn themselves in.
"We all lived up here on Arthur," Ronnie Bridgeman says. "My father passed away of a heart attack in 1974, and my mother was in ill health back then. She had heart problems."
Bridgeman is riding shotgun through the old neighborhood, taking the morning off from his job to bounce down streets a Cleveland winter or two away from undrivable. Thick new snow is stuck to every roof, winter-stripped tree, and barren lot, throwing a downy muffle over the urban decay screaming out from underneath.
Empty trash cans lie in the middle of the street. The two- and three-story houses that remain seem to be slowly dripping into the earth, as if they've been microwaved; it's hard to tell which curtained windows might be hiding people and which only keep company with dust.
Almost everyone Bridgeman knew has moved away. When heroin ballooned in the 1980s, it hit the neighborhood hard. Rumor says drugs are still regularly dealt here.
"To be honest, I've come to the conclusion that I really don't want to trust anybody from the neighborhood," admits Bridgeman, who hasn't even come by to see his old house since his release. "Because it seems to me that someone knew, or maybe a lot of people knew. And for some reason, they wouldn't do the right thing, and they let all this destroy my life, my brother's life, Ricky's life."
Bridgeman hasn't passed a night here since May 25, 1975 — the Sunday morning after Franks' murder. Before dawn, 20 armed officers knocked on the Bridgemans' door with an arrest warrant for Wiley; down the street, another detail of cops were at Ricky's with the same paperwork. It just so happened, Jackson had spent the night with the Bridgemans, and the pair were quickly taken into custody.
That sunup, the police had no business with Ronnie. But when the boy objected to how the cops were talking to his sick mother, they threw him into cuffs and carted him off as well. He was held in juvenile detention for about a week before hearing he would be charged as the third assailant in the Cut-Rate robbery-homicide.
"It should be up on the left," he says of his old house as the car swings onto Arthur Avenue. Like the others, the street is a stuttering Morse code of house, empty lot, house, empty lot; Bridgeman's childhood home falls on the latter, now just another bare patch of grass.
"Ain't that something," he says slowly.
After Arthur Avenue, the next address the Bridgeman brothers and Ricky Jackson shared was Cell Block J at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville — Ohio's death row at the time.
During the fall of 1975, Wiley, Ricky, and Ronnie were in short order separately tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for the murder of Harry Franks.
They didn't hang on physical evidence — there wasn't any. The gun used to kill Franks was never recovered; the victim's briefcase never turned up; the green getaway car spotted speeding from the scene was never found, nor was a link established between the vehicle and the defendants. The only evidence taken from the scene was a plastic-coated paper cup police guessed contained the acidic substance splashed in Franks' face. But after initial tests turned up no fingerprints, the cup disappeared.
Instead of concrete evidence, the state produced a witness: a 13-year-old boy from the neighborhood named Edward Vernon. The area paperboy, Vernon had large, thick glasses and a quiet demeanor, the kind of polite kid people forgot about after he was gone from the room, folks from the area recall.
But after May 19, Vernon was forever jammed into the neighborhood's memory. In each trial he testified to the following: On the day of the murder, the eighth-grader left school early and caught an RTA bus home. Near the neighborhood, he exchanged waves with Wiley Bridgeman and two passengers driving in a green car up Fairhill, then down Petrarca. Vernon got off at the bus stop at Fairhill, and as he walked up toward the Cut-Rate on the corner, watched as Ronnie and Ricky attacked Franks. Ronnie allegedly threw a cup of liquid in the man's face and struck him with a pipe; Ricky then shot him twice, before turning the gun on Mrs. Robinson when she came to the door.
The two then ran down Petrarca, Vernon testified, and drove off in the green car Wiley was driving moments earlier. Vernon said he stood around as onlookers gathered around the store, and he watched as Ricky and Ronnie returned to the scene. Ronnie swatted away a TV camera when it turned his way, suggesting some tacit admission of guilt, the boy testified.
Vernon's account was corroborated by Charles Loper, an old man who lived in a home attached to the back of the Cut-Rate. A retired sanitation worker, Loper testified that on the day of the crime he was sitting on the porch watching his grandson play in the small yard when he saw Vernon get off the bus and walk down Fairhill. A moment later, the shooting happened, at which point Loper grabbed his grandson and ran inside without glimpsing any of the assailants.
Despite the apparent smoking gun, there were problems with Vernon's account — issues that popped up in the first pass through the legal process, and others that are more obscure and ultimately unresolved even today.
The main issue was whether or not the boy was at the scene at all. In the original police report, none of the witnesses — including Loper — mention Vernon's presence. Despite Loper's testimony, a number of Vernon's classmates testified in court that he had not caught a city bus home that day, but stayed at school later and rode the school bus home with the rest of the kids. The children claimed that the riders all watched from the bus as it idled at the light on Cedar and Fairhill, while a white man struggled with two black men outside the Cut-Rate. Some said they'd heard a shot. The bus then moved up Cedar and dropped the students off at East 108th, from which point they went to the store to see what had happened.
The boy's testimony was in direct contradiction to Karen Smith's account. The 16-year-old girl also climbed up on the witness stand for each trial. Smith knew the Bridgeman boys and Jackson from the neighborhood; she'd even been in the same sixth-grade class as Ronnie. According to her testimony, the two young men she passed outside the Cut-Rate moments before the crime were not from the neighborhood — they were not Ronnie or Ricky. Mrs. Robinson, who recovered from the shooting, also knew the boys from the neighborhood, but couldn't testify that they were the assailants.
Certain details in Vernon's telling also failed to gel. Most dramatically, the boy's courtroom testimony differs wildly from the statement he gave police on May 25. On that afternoon, he viewed a lineup with seven suspects, including Wiley and Ricky; Vernon failed to ID anyone, but later that day told police Wiley and Ricky were the ones who committed the crime.
In the document police typed up after that ID, Vernon claimed to have been getting off the bus when he saw a car "between me and curb [sic]." Behind the wheel was Wiley, with Ricky and a third individual the boy identifies as "Vincent."
Continuing this account, Vernon said he saw Ricky and Vincent waiting outside the Cut-Rate as "a white guy got out of his car and was walking toward the store," then was attacked. Later, the boy testified that he'd seen the attack while Franks was leaving the property, not arriving.
At the trials, when confronted about the divergence between the courtroom account and the original statement, Vernon claimed he told detectives the document was wrong, but that they refused to correct it.
The play-by-play of the testimony revealed inconsistencies. Vernon testified in one case that he hadn't spoken to Loper right before the shooting, yet later testified that he had spoken with the old man. The original written statement says the boy first saw the green car as he was getting off the bus. Later, at a juvenile court hearing for Ronnie that summer, Vernon said the first time he saw the green car was after the shots were fired, when he walked down to the corner of Fairhill and Petrarca to watch the assailants run away.
But the story changed again: In court, he testified he'd first seen the green car from the bus while both were turning from Cedar to Fairhill.
And again: In Jackson's trial, Vernon said he'd seen the green car, weeks before the crime, parked outside of the Bridgeman house — a fact never before mentioned or verified. Similarly, Vernon originally testified that he couldn't recall what the defendants were wearing that day, yet in a later court appearance he recalled one had been wearing a colorful flowered shirt — a fact Mrs. Robinson had testified to.
Vernon's story also changed in terms of where he was when he viewed the crime — an important distinction. In some testimony, the boy told jurors he was walking down Fairhill toward the corner of Petrarca when he saw Franks doused and struck with a stick; he claimed he then turned around and ran back to the bus stop, where he hid behind the shelter's wall. From there, he said, he saw Jackson shoot Franks twice, then turn the gun on Mrs. Robinson.
But Vernon also testified that he saw the first two shots up close near the corner, then ran back to the bus shelter, where he watched the third shot fired.
Loper's own courtroom account also contained details that didn't fit with other evidence. First, he testified that he watched the boy get off the bus and walk up Fairhill across the front of Loper's lawn. That house was connected to the Cut-Rate, so had Vernon crossed the lawn, he would have been mere steps away from the front door of the store. But by Vernon's own testimony, he didn't get that close.
Loper also told jurors he'd heard three shots, then saw the white man fall to the ground. But according to all other accounts — including the medical examiner's — Franks was thrown onto the ground, then shot.
But perhaps the most jarring aspect of Edward Vernon's testimony was that he was paid for it — a fact at least one jury did not know about. The store owner, Robert Robinson, paid Vernon $50 for his courtroom presence; Robinson left this detail out of his original testimony, revealing it only after the boy was confronted about the payment on the witness stand.
There was also an outright discrepancy over when the deal was struck: Robinson said he offered the boy the money after Vernon had already ID'd Wiley and Ricky; Vernon testified he was promised the money the day after the crime was committed, before Wiley and Ricky were even named suspects. It also came out in court that Vernon had aided Robinson before: He once offered the boy money to point out the house where a shoplifter lived.
Inconsistencies, details recalled only later, jumbled timelines, the $50 payoff — Vernon's testimony was problematic, and at least one trial judge openly stated out of earshot of the jury that he felt the boy was "not truthful."
Even Vernon's own family questioned his testimony. When he took the witness stand, Vernon's father seemed to doubt the boy's account. His sister Darlene sank a key piece of his testimony: She told jurors in Ronnie's case that she'd seen the defendant walk with Ricky Jackson from the neighborhood to the store after news broke about the shooting.
Darlene continued that her brother was lying when he stated that Ronnie tried to avoid having his image caught by the TV camera. The news crews showed up after Vernon himself had left the area with their father — he couldn't have seen what he claimed, his sister said.
Toward the end of Darlene's testimony, one of Ronnie's defense attorneys confronted the girl about a conversation she'd had with a prosecutor in the hallway.
"Darlene, isn't it a fact that you did tell [the prosecutor] that Eddie lied?"
"I told him that all kids lied," she answered.
"That Eddie lied?"
"I said all kids lie."
Ronnie Bridgeman is standing again on that lonely and cracked street corner. The morning traffic up Stokes has fallen off to an occasional car. Bridgeman is looking for a bus.
"There," he says, pointing toward the stoplight at Cedar and Fairhill. Waiting to make the turn is an RTA bus, its aluminum sides shaking with the leashed motion of the engine. When the light clicks to green, the bus heaves forward and sails over the short distance from the left-turn lane on Cedar into the curbside lane on Fairhill, where it coughs to a halt at the bus stop.
"Edward Vernon said that he saw us in the car while we were turning onto Fairhill," Bridgeman says, his voice jumping along excitedly. "But you can't make that turn at the same time."
The boy testified that, before the crime, he waved at Wiley from the right side of the bus as both vehicles were turning onto Fairhill. But Cedar, then and now, has two lanes: a left-turn lane and a lane going straight. If the bus was in the turn lane, the green car would have been in the lane continuing down Cedar. If the car had turned from the right-hand lane — as Vernon claimed — there would have been little time for the car to cut off the bus before either hitting the larger vehicle or eating sidewalk.
"And if you're going to commit a crime," Bridgeman wonders aloud, "what the hell are you doing waving at somebody on the street for?"
Although the three young men were tried, convicted, and sentenced to death, police records show they weren't the only suspects on the radar. In fact, there was no shortage of candidates.
After the crime, a woman from the neighborhood called police to say she believed her son had been involved in the shooting. Not long after the Bridgeman and Jackson arrests, another tip came in saying they'd grabbed the wrong guys and that the men responsible were still operating in the area. The same suspect was named. The caller declined to meet with police in person, and no further communication appears to have taken place.
Records also show that, two days after the crime, a local FBI agent contacted Cleveland Police with information from "several of his informants" on the identity of the four men responsible for the robbery. Two of the men, brothers Arthur and Willie King, had previous records for stick-ups. But witnesses were only shown a picture of one of them — the suspected getaway driver. Karen Smith, who never saw the driver but only the two stick-up men, never saw photos of the others. None of the suspects named by the FBI informant were brought in for a lineup.
In court, cops also admitted they never asked whether these individuals had access to a green car matching the getaway vehicle. One detective explained from the witness stand that the reason was the FBI informant was not always reliable. On cross examination, the same officer revealed he didn't actually know the identity of the informant, so couldn't accurately assess his reliability.
On death row, inmates were hidden away with only their thoughts and the walls for company, 24 hours a day, minus one hour a week for recreation. When Bridgeman arrived at Lucasville in January 1976, he was given a cell four down from his brother. At the time, a current of hope still passed between them.
"Wiley — he had a bit more get-up in him," Bridgeman says today. "He was a very serious-minded person, and he spent all of his days writing, filing, trying to get help, researching the law. He was always fighting. He never gave up. But in the long run it hurt him."
In 1977, Wiley won a retrial based on a technicality in his original proceedings. But when he returned to Lucasville that fall with another guilty verdict, the strain had begun to chip away at his mind. Soon, Bridgeman was getting paranoid notes from four cells down telling him not to eat the food because it was poisoned.
In August 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court shot down the death penalty. Across the country, 97 death-row inmates walked out of isolation into the general prison pop. Wiley ended up in the psych ward. For Bridgeman, it was a toss-up whether talking to walls was worse than sharing the yard with the Lucasville prison stock. The place was notoriously brutal in the late 1970s, filled mostly with the same yard-hard convicts who had rioted at the Ohio Penitentiary in 1968. The average age in the prison was 35, with only nine inmates under 21. Bridgeman was 18.
Blood ran by the bucket. They couldn't mop it up fast enough. It was stuck to the floor, dotted the ceiling, clung to the walls, soaked your eggs during the morning meal. Each day during Bridgeman's nine years in Lucasville, someone ended up on the wrong end of a shiv. "I was afraid every day," he says, clearly troubled by the memory.
After his transfer to Lima, prison life settled somewhat. He ended up playing a lot of basketball and making a name for himself in the inmate boxing league. Later, education became his lifeboat. He earned typing and cooking degrees, became an administrator in the prison school system, and helped organize the first inmate chapter of the NAACP. But despite staying active, Bridgeman kept his mind glued to the outside, on the friends and family he'd left behind, and on the old neighborhood and what had happened there. It was easy in part because, despite the decades he ended up spending inside, the world behind the barbed wire was still foreign ground.
"I was in there with 3,000 people, but I felt like I'm just all alone by myself. The reason was, as much as day turned into night and night into day, I didn't know them cats, and I was not of the same thing they were, the same mentality," he says.
"There were guys that seemed like they were everyday people, but they weren't. They were robbers or rapists or murderers or thieves. That wasn't my mentality. I was the guy who still liked Christmas, and liked having Easter and Thanksgiving. These guys were all hardened to all that. I couldn't even say Merry Christmas to nobody because they didn't give a damn."
"I had no problem with the kid's testimony. It was sort of a brave act on his part," says Court of Appeals Judge James Sweeney, who served as a Cuyahoga County prosecutor on Wiley's case. Sweeney is one of the few adults involved still around. The Robinsons, the defense attorneys, the police detectives — all are either dead or couldn't be reached for comment. After all these years spent in courtrooms, Sweeney still recalls the case. "It was a horrific crime," he says. "I was not bothered by the conviction myself. I know a lot of people felt admiration for the boy."
But for the kids who grew up around Fairhill, now drifting deep into middle age, the opinion remains different.
"Nobody in the neighborhood believed Edward's story, except maybe his family," Lynn Garrett, the childhood friend of the Bridgeman boys, says today. "To this day it's unbelievable. Ricky, [Wiley], and Ronnie — we grew up together; if they were those kind of guys, I would never had been around them."
Peering over the gulf of 35 years, Garrett still clearly remembers that Monday afternoon, still recalls being with Ricky and Ronnie at the time when prosecutors and Edward Vernon said they were outside the Cut-Rate. But Garrett left the neighborhood for college shortly after the crime, and he was never interviewed by police or called to testify.
"It was a great injustice," says Garrett, who today is a local tailor.
Garrett's own relationship to the crime is closer than most from the neighborhood. Not only was he with Ricky and Ronnie that day; he was also dating Edward Vernon's sister Darlene at the time. He eventually had two daughters with her. Garrett has seen Vernon from time to time over the years, but the two never speak of the incident.
"Who knows what's in a 13-year-old kid's mind or heart," he says. "I can't answer why he would have done something like this."
Garrett isn't alone in recalling the crime, or in fishing out details from the past that throw the courtroom account into question. Valerie Abernathy also grew up in the neighborhood. Around the time of the crime, she was in her late teens and dating a close friend of Wiley's. They spent a lot of time together — including on the day in question, Abernathy claims today.
"If I'm not mistaken, that day me and Buddy were together," she says, adding that she was never interviewed by police or lawyers. "I'm just wondering with all of that going on, why nobody ever called me."
Ivan Tanksly was a 10-year-old paper boy from the neighborhood in 1975. Today, he claims he saw the crime take place. According to his account, on the afternoon of the shooting, Tanksly was standing near the now-gone gas station on Cedar when he heard the gunshots and watched two men run into a car on Petrarca, make a U-turn, and head up Fairhill.
Tanksly knew the Bridgemans and Jackson. "I could tell them from the back, and if that was them, I would have known," says Tanksly, who's lived in South Florida for the past four years. "It wasn't them."
The boy wasn't interviewed by police, but was called to testify in Ricky Jackson's trial — not about what he witnessed, but about overhearing Vernon admitting around the neighborhood he didn't see the crime. Today, Tanksly says he didn't come forward because he couldn't identify the men he saw. His testimony, like Karen Smith's, could have gone head-to-head with the state's account.
After graduating from high school, Smith went to Oberlin College and later earned a master's degree from Ohio State. Today she works with developmentally challenged kids for Franklin County. From the vantage point of time past, she still maintains the men she passed that afternoon outside the Cut-Rate were not Ronnie Bridgeman and Ricky Jackson.
On the Sunday after the crime, Smith also viewed a lineup with Ricky and Wiley, but didn't identify them as the perpetrators. Officers pressured Smith for an ID, asking her how she'd feel if her mother had been the victim. Later that day, she remembers, police bought Vernon snacks at the station house, while she was treated with cold indifference. At the trials, prosecutors tried to suggest the 16-year-old was friends with the defendants.
"Over the years, it's kind of bothered me that people didn't take my word to be the truth," she says. "That is something I live with."
The one person who won't discuss the events of 1975 is Edward Vernon. Contacted by Scene for this story, he declined to discuss the crime or his testimony.
"I'm not even going to talk about it," he says. "As far as I'm concerned, it's a done deal."
Ronnie Bridgeman was paroled in 2003. A year earlier, Wiley had gotten out of prison for a short time, only to be sent back by his parole officers due to his deteriorating mental health. Because he was the alleged triggerman, Ricky was continuously denied parole — and remains in custody to this day. [Scene's requests to interview both inmates were denied by prison officials.]
Streetside for the first time in almost 30 years, Bridgeman adapted well. He'd already changed his name in prison. He quickly passed through his parole term without any issues. Because he'd buried himself in education inside, finding a good-paying office job wasn't too difficult. In 2004, Bridgeman got married and bought a house. He was a walking how-to on successful rehabilitation.
But despite the new name and new life, Bridgeman was caught in a push-pull that continues today. He is tempted to hoist anchor and push off, completely leaving the past behind. But Ricky and Wiley are still on the other side. All three still wear the blame for something they claim they didn't do.
So Bridgeman has begun dusting off his old name, using it again as he knocks on doors and calls up people from the neighborhood, asking if they remember anything from 1975. To his surprise, he's hearing rumors about who may have killed Harry Franks, just thin smoke blowing off old cinders: half-remembered street names, overheard backyard boasts, whatshisnames and doyouremembers. It's not much to go on, but he keeps taking timeouts from his new life to dig around.
Even though he's linked back up with past friends, Bridgeman admits he can't cross the suspicious distance. Had the neighborhood coughed up what it knew all those years ago, things might have been different for the Bridgemans and Jackson. But Bridgeman says he's still able to fend off anger, even for the person whose testimony put him away.
"We were never really upset with Edward. He was only 13. How can I be bitter with a child? He didn't know better," he says. "It's better to go to sleep with a clean conscience than with something eating at you. If I had let it, I probably wouldn't have survived prison."
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