Fighting for justiceWritten by Jim Harpen | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Nineteen years is a long time. Unless that’s all the time you spend in prison for shooting a man in the back of the head and scrounging through the dead man’s pockets for cash. That’s when 19 years doesn’t seem long enough. And Tim McKown is determined that his father’s killer spend more than 19 years in a cage.
“He walked in, blew his brains out” McKown said. “That’s cold blooded.”
Elwood “Poe” McKown was a familiar name in the west Toledo neighborhood of my childhood. Most of the fences you had to jump to retrieve a stray ball or Frisbee bore small “Poe McKown Fence Company” signs. But we only knew the name. Years later we discovered, tragically, who Poe McKown was.
It was a Saturday afternoon, June 21, 1985. “Poe” McKown was sitting alone in his office on Haverhill at Berdan, when 24-year-old Jeffrey McDermott, a former McKown Fence Company employee, walked in, said hi to Poe and moments later, put a bullet in his head. He was so close to his victim, testimony later revealed, that McDermott’s hands and shoes were covered with McKown’s blood. McDermott then took about $4,500 in cash out of McKown’s pants pocket. He reportedly used some of the cash to pay an attorney whom he confessed to later that evening.
But that confession remained secret for nearly five years. During those five years, Tim McKown made it his job to find his father’s killer. He posted a $20,000 reward. He rented billboards to publicize the reward and beg for information. He traveled around the country following dead-end leads on suspects. It wasn’t until McDermott’s friend, the brother of the attorney McDermott confessed to, went to police in 1990 that the case was cracked.
The attorney, now deceased, claimed attorney-client privilege, refusing to testify to the confession at McDermott’s capital murder trial in 1993. The attorney was cited for contempt of court and sent to jail. Without the attorney’s testimony, conviction was uncertain. The other key prosecution witnesses were shady characters with little credibility. So prosecutors, conferring with Tim McKown, decided to accept a plea bargain: the state of Ohio would drop its pursuit of the death penalty, and McDermott would plea guilty to murder and be sentenced to 15 years to life in prison plus three years for using a gun. Tim McKown agreed to the deal on two conditions: first, that McDermott wouldn’t appeal his sentence, and second, that he’d make a written confession.
“That was seven and a half years of my life,” Tim McKown told me. “When I read the confession at my dad’s grave site, it was over.”
But it’s not over.
On Aug. 26, the Ohio Parole Board will for the second time decide whether to release McDermott into society. And his release is not unlikely. In fact, if McKown hadn’t been notified that McDermott had been recommended for parole, he wouldn’t have been able to file an objection, and McDermott’s release would be a near certainty.
“I never expected him to do life but I thought it would be more than 15 years. I always knew this day would come,” Tim McKown said.
Those of us whose lives have not been visited by such violent tragedy cannot relate to the tortuous prospect of having their loved one’s killer back in their community. What if you’re filling your tank at the BP station and you see him three pumps over? You’re at a Mud Hens game and there he is, enjoying life, a life that, if it weren’t for attorney-client privilege, might have been taken from him by the state of Ohio years ago.
“This is a confessed murderer, a cold-blooded murderer. This is not a guy who professes his innocence,” McKown argued.
McKown moved back to Toledo from Florida last winter to launch a campaign to keep McDermott behind bars. Posters, a news media blitz, a letter-writing campaign — whatever it takes to thwart McDermott’s release.
“I know this is my last shot to keep him there. All I want is five [more years,” he said. “He does not by any means deserve the minimum. I’m not asking for the maximum. Give me the reasonable.”