Some knucklehead set my fence on fire

Last night the trash bin for the apartment/office building next door caught fire, which in turn set the fence and climbing vine at my property line on fire, which caught my daughter’s attention, which led to us calling 911 to report the fire, which brought a crew of firefighters over to put it out.

Somebody – I’m not naming names mainly because I don’t know them – apparently put a grill with still-live charcoal embers in or on the Dumpster™, thus igniting the overflowing trash bin. The chain link fence that separates the parking lot and said trash bin from my property melted, the lattice caught fire and so did the climbing vine I planted there some 15 years ago, leaving a gaping charred hole where the fence used to be.

Luckily the thorn bushes that surround almost my entire backyard did not catch fire, or it could have threatened my house. And as dry as it has been around here lately, I’m surprised the hedge didn’t catch fire.

This was an intense fire while it lasted.

That pickup was a little too close to the fire for comfort.

Ah, the warm glow of a trash fire …

There goes the lattice …

I wish I’d thought to throw those hedge clippings in the foreground onto the fire.

The scene of the crime.

The likely culprit.

The morning after

The landlord next door is going to hear from me tomorrow, and so is the city. I’m not paying to replace the fence. They are.


Sept. 11, 2001

The second jet is about to strike.

Ten years ago an unthinkable evil unleashed its horror upon America.

Ten years is a long time, yet at times it seems so recent, the wound still fresh. Four hijacked planes changed the nature of the country, in some ways for the better but mostly for the worse.

For a brief period, we retreated from the increasingly rancorous public discourse about how we should live our lives or be told how to live our lives. For a short time we were united as Americans in our grief and the world was (mostly) united in its support for a deeply wounded nation.

But then fear and anger and even greed took over. Our government imposed ever-more intrusive measures to protect our “freedom” in the name of “safety” and “security.” We were on Orange Alert with an Islamofascist terrorist cell lurking on every town corner and mosques packed full of terrorists chanting “Death to America” and Saddam Hussein was leading the charge. Or something like that. So we went to war in Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires, then started another war in Iraq with that known al-Qaida collaborator, Saddam Hussein. That, we now know, was utter crap. Yet we are still being groped, subjected to peep-show X-rays and made to remove our shoes at airports. We are spied on. We are still stuck in hostile areas in Iraq and Afghanistan (and Pakistan).

A bright, sunny day

I had just started my new job as day slot editor at the Akron Beacon Journal a week prior. It was Tuesday morning and I saw what seemed to be a small hole in the side of one of the World Trade Center towers. It was a bright, clear late summer day. Cloudless in Akron and New York. I thought, how on earth does a Cessna get lost in broad daylight? Instrument screw-up? I had no idea that it was actually a jetliner that had struck the tower. That soon changed. Then the second jet struck, and we knew something was seriously, horribly wrong.

A quick look into Google showed the World Trade Center could have as many as 50,000 people in those buildings or more. That number made me fear for the worst as smoke billowed from the towers.

Soon we were thrust into terms like Tower One and Tower Two, Boeing 767 and Flight 93. When the AP Newsalert came about an “explosion at the Pentagon,” there were audible gasps in the newsroom. This unknown enemy had struck at the heart of our military might.

I was aware of al-Qaida and pretty well acquainted with Osama bin Laden, but at this point we didn’t really have an idea of who could be behind this attack. It just seemed so brazen. Shocking.

People were jumping out of the buildings. And then one tower collapsed. And then another collapsed. I remember images of ash-covered people running for their lives as clouds of ash and rubble bore down upon them.

In the ensuing hours the news broke fast and furious and was often inaccurate or incomplete. Such is the nature of big, breaking news events.

We quickly decided to produce an extra edition, the first (and only) that I had directly played a part in. Columnist Bob Dyer stitched together an account of the events including some erroneous reports (See: “nature of big, breaking news events.”) Terry Pluto wrote a column, “Creation groans. Again, and again.” Rich Heldenfels wrote about what we were seeing on TV, and other hastily assembled staff and wire reports described the chaos of the day. The main headline, by committee, was “OH, MY GOD.” My subhed, cranked out in about 20 seconds (it fit on first try): “Unprecedented attack strikes U.S.”

A photograph on the back page of the wrap-around Extra edition showed the look of shock and horror on the faces of New Yorkers. Looking at it now gives me chills. It still shakes me.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. Journalists live a strange dichotomy: Our finest hour, our best work, often comes on the very worst of days. Think about Pearl Harbor, or JFK’s assassination: Those moments are frozen in time with iconic images and headlines.  In my career I have been on hand for Hurricane Hugo on the South Carolina coast, both the Desert Storm and Iraq War (Son of Desert Storm, I sometimes call it), the recent murderous spree in Copley Township (I covered this at the scene) and of course 9/11 – an event so awful that it got its own date.

A strange quiet fell over us in the days and weeks that followed 9/11. The skies were empty. No vapor trails. Utterly empty. Bruce Springsteen wrote Empty Sky, a haunting song in his 2002 album The Rising, his response to 9/11.

The blame turned to al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Military forces massed. Security measures were beefed up. Commissions were formed. And so forth.

No doubt there will be tons of other bloggers, columnists, pundits and know-it-alls putting in their 2 cents’ worth. But sometimes I just want to join the cacophony. Because I can. They haven’t taken away that freedom yet.

I grew up in the height of the Cold War, with the specter of nuclear annihilation always looming. Then the Berlin Wall fell and a New World Order came to be. My kids are growing up in a post-9/11 world. My son was 6 when it happened. Not long after, while playing with a toy jet, he blurted out, “Plane attack!” and swooped down with his plane and crashed it into an imaginary building.

He was imagining something that had been almost unimaginable days before.


My first mass-murder scene

The calls and emails starting pouring in shortly after noon on Sunday. Reports of gunshots fired near Copley Township, a mostly sleepy community outside of Akron, sandwiched among Fairlawn, Bath Township and other Akron suburbs. Initial reports from a couple of my editors was that there had been a shooting incident at the Fairlawn Swim and Tennis Club on Ridgewood near Schocalog. And off I went.

All's quiet at the swim and tennis club.

I stopped at the Swim and Tennis club, expecting to see stretches of yellow tape and crowds gathered around the chain link fence. Instead there were five cars in the parking lot, including mine, and less than a dozen people at the pool. No crime scene. One lady there said she hadn’t heard a thing.

Then Kymberli Hagelberg had an update: The scene was on Schocalog, but over by Copley Road, more than a mile away. Four, possibly five had been shot. I came across at Bath Township police officer manning one of the roadblocks and asked if there had been gunfire and how bad was it. It’s bad, he replied, and shied away from my camera. He directed me to the other side of the roadblock where authorities planned a media staging ground (insert eye-roll here).

That initial report was a mile or two off target. I hesitate here, thinking “target” is a poor word choice given the events that unfolded, but maybe it should stay. What happened amounted to a cruel, psychotic round of target practice.

Apparently, one man came unhinged and, with two .45-caliber handguns (including one he bought just last week), went on a crazed shooting spree that left seven innocent people dead and then he was shot by police. It all went down in about 10 minutes. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop-pop. Pop. Pop. Pop-pop-pop. Pop-pop-pop.

SWAT and uniform police gathered after the carnage in Copley had ended Sunday.

I ran into some old friends and former colleagues from the Beacon Journal, Jim Carney and Karen Schiely, near the media “staging” area, but most of us hung out near the barricades hoping to get a glimpse of what was going on. A couple of media types said they heard four dead. Five dead. Police uniforms and plain clothes from Copley, Bath, Akron and Summit County Sheriff’s office were all over the place. Then the CSI truck rolled in. That was all I needed to see to know that this was a major crime scene (watch enough crime drama?). Then someone shouted “Here comes the bus!” It was an RV with “Mobile Command Center” inscribed on the side. People caught in the traffic jam creeping by kept asking, “What happened? What’s going on?”  I started saying, “We don’t know,” though we actually had a pretty good idea.

Roger Sommer and Kymberli arrived separately at the scene and Roger tried some back road looks at the scene while I hung out awaiting the chief of Copley to issue a public statement.

More media gathered, lots of tripods and TV crews, and they started setting up camp along the roadside by the barricades, across the street from the designated media “staging area.” What can I say, organizing reporters is like trying to herd cats. Good luck with that.

Roger came back from his scouting trip with news that he whispered to me: Eight dead. He had managed to talk to some witnesses at and near the crime scene. One of them, who was too rattled to talk to him, had barely escaped with her life.

Copley Police Chief Mike Mier.

Copley Chief Mike Mier finally came to the makeshift press conference and told us a few bare-bones facts: Eight dead, including the suspected gunmen, spread out over four crime scenes on Goodenough and Schocalog, and one shooting victim hospitalized in intensive care.

As  is often the case with breaking news, the facts were still a little dicey and new information seemed to materialize every five minutes – the tricky part is discerning what is reliable information and what is speculation, rumor or wild conjecture. The number of victims at each “crime scene” as well as the number of crimes scenes changed as more reports poured in. Was it a domestic dispute gone wildly out of control? A dispute with a neighbor? Was the shooter known to the victims? Did the shootings occur inside the houses or out? Both?

Slowly, the awful truth unfolded: Three of the shooting victims were kids, including two students at Copley High School. They were in a parked car.  The killer chased an 11-year-old boy, the nephew of the killer’s girlfriend, cornered him in a neighbor’s basement and shot him in cold blood.

A SWAT team, a CSI team and hordes of other law enforcement teams swarmed the area but the carnage ended almost as quickly as it began: A responding Copley officer was joined by a neighboring former Copley cop and the Copley cop took the gunman out. The killer was later identified as Michael Hance, a Goodenough Avenue resident.

We’ll spend the next few months trying to make sense of something that inherently cannot make sense. Why did all those people have to die at the hands (and guns) of some guy described as a bid of an oddball who at the particular moment went off the deep end? Who is to blame? And then the what-ifs will turn up. What if one teenage girl had not been visiting her friend at the time? Might they both have somehow avoided the carnage?

I can only imagine what the survivors of this must be experiencing, just as on Sunday afternoon I could only imagine what had happened on Goodenough and Schocalog. And then I knew. I wish I didn’t.

The meth lab next door

Ten years ago, crystal methamphetamine was a little-known phenomenon, unique because it began growing in the heartland of America before spreading toward the coasts.

It spread rapidly because it was relatively cheap to make with readily available chemicals and Sudafed (or similar) cold medicine, and it was almost instantly addicting.

I read this Rolling Stone article in 2003 and I remember thinking, “uh-oh.” I told Akron Beacon Journal police beat reporter (at the time) Andale Gross to keep an eye out for these “meth labs” popping up in the area.

Sure enough, they did.

Summit County, to its credit, was very progressive and aggressive in fighting the spread of meth labs. Sudafed was banished to behind the counter because meth cookers were stealing it so much. Eventually states started requiring the cold remedy to be removed from shelves.

But proliferate they did.

The addiction is devastating.

And so last night as I was picking my daughter up from a church function, we drove past an apparent raid on a house maybe five blocks from my house. I was tempted to stop right then, but my daughter was in the car, there a thunderstorm still hanging around and I knew the cops wouldn’t tell me anything.

The garage next to this modest house was open last night as several police and SWAT team members were on the scene.

So I called first thing this morning, and sure enough, it was a meth lab raid, complete with a SWAT team.

Almost in my backyard.

I’d have gotten the story up sooner but the website was undergoing some repairs or upgrades. Bad timing!

But if you Google “meth lab” and your town (or even your street), there’s a good chance you’ll get several hits, maybe more. I found a bunch in my neighborhood, only a block or two from my house. I’d hazard (interesting word choice) to guess that the hazardous chemicals and criminal element attracted to the meth house are a much bigger threat than the perves all the moms in suburbia get worked up about.

Look around. Chances are there’s a meth lab near you. Maybe even next door.