A child's testimony put three men on death row. The neighborhood saw it differently

What the Boy Saw 

A child's testimony put three men on death row. The neighborhood saw it differently

Page 2 of 5

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.

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