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What the Boy Saw 

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

Page 5 of 5

"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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