A Criminal Action and ONB’s Reaction
June 28, 2017
By Michael A. Calvert
On an ordinary Tuesday afternoon in 1991, attorney John T. Winston, III stuffed fifteen $20 dollar bills into his wallet as he strode out of the SouthTrust bank lobby, and into the spring sunshine in his blue and white seersucker suit. He scanned 20th Street for his wife’s gray van with Johnny, Maddie, and Aiden belted in the seats behind her. Late again.
Simultaneously a strong arm gripped his waist from behind, a forearm blow to his shoulder blades bent him forward, and a powerful push thrust him through an open car door into the back seat of an old Chevrolet Caprice at the curb. A heavy body covered him like a blanket as the car accelerated and turned into an alley.
“Don’t try anything and you won’t get hurt,” a gruff voice shouted into his ear. “Hear? I don’t want to kill your ass.”
* * * * *
That evening, I groaned and shook my head slowly when the headline on the TV screen screamed “LAWYER ABDUCTED DOWNTOWN,” with “BREAKING NEWS“ flashing in red below the headline. A jowly anchorman gravely restated the words on the screen and introduced his reporter at the scene of the crime.
A young man with shaggy hair and a microphone at his lips stood on 20th Street, repeated the headline, and reported that the police were searching for a older, gray car hoping to find the abducted young lawyer alive. The camera panned up the facade of the 36-story tower and then showed well-dressed business people passing on the sidewalk. The reporter added that the crime wave, fueled by violent gangs and crazed addicts who would stop at nothing for cash to buy more crack cocaine, had spread to downtown. After watching an interview with a frightened young secretary, I turned off the TV. This was a body blow to downtown’s reputation. As President of Operation New Birmingham, I felt like I had been punched in the gut.
Harry Lynch, CEO of Harbert Realty and a member of ONB’s board, called at just after 8 am the next morning and said, “What the hell? A young man gets snatched on 20th Street in broad daylight. Might be dead. Something’s got to be done. Crime will kill downtown. Never mind new buildings, parking decks, street trees, and all the rest. We’ve lost the department stores and dress shops, now we could lose the banks, law firms, and accountants. We need more police downtown, cops walking beats.” When Harry took a breath, I commiserated for a while before reminding him that Chief Johnson claimed he already had more patrols downtown than the should, given its relatively low crime stats. The North and West Precinct Commanders were begging for more officers to deal with far higher crime stats. I didn’t have to remind him that the chief was adamantly opposed to his men walking beats.
“This might change his mind. I’m going to call the mayor. By God, downtown pays a lot of taxes. Dammit, we’ve got to take action,” said Harry in a way that conjured an image of his red face and popping eyes.
“New Orleans, Louisville, Philadelphia and some other cities have started uniformed safety patrols walking downtown sidewalks. The business community has responded favorably,“ I offered tentatively.
“Might help if they’re armed and have the power to arrest, but I’d rather have sworn officers on foot. Why not? We pay taxes.” Harry replied. “Anyway, we need to make security the main topic at our board meeting this afternoon.”
* * * * *
In minutes, John Winston’s arms were jerked behind him and his assailant’s knee pressed heavily on the base of his spine. His hands were tightly tied behind him with wire. His watch slipped off easily, but his diamond studded wedding band took some tugging and pulling. The weight pressing him into the seat shifted to the back of his legs. His feet were wrapped with wire. A strong tug on his back pocket ripped the seersucker to free a wine-red wallet.
“God Damn! Only $310 fucking dollars,” the oppressor in the back seat shouted to the driver.
“For Christ’s sake! Well, shut up and get the bastard blindfolded. I sure as hell don’t want to do time for a lousy $310. Stuff a rag in his mouth and tie it with a bandana, too.”
The car doors slammed and John heard nothing. Under the blanket, he could see nothing.
* * * * *
On Wednesday, I called Captain Reese at the North Precinct when I returned from lunch, hoping for some good news in the hunt for Winston before the Board Meeting in half an hour. The captain offered a summary, “Surveillance film shows an overweight African-American male shoving Winston into a faded 1987 Chevrolet Caprice, a stolen car. We’ve got every patrol car searching for that car. The chief’s added patrols to the North and West Precincts. There hasn’t been a homicide in downtown in many years. We’ll find him alive.”
Barry Copeland, ONB chairman and a BellSouth executive, stepped into the conference room as I hung up the phone. “Any news on Winston?”
“Still searching. I just hope he’s alive,” I replied as I handed him the revised agenda that began with “Public Safety Discussion” in large, bold letters.
As soon as Barry opened the ONB Board meeting, Harry began, “Public safety is absolutely critical. If the streets are not safe, I can’t rent Harbert’s office buildings, Fox can’t operate AmSouth, and Sam can’t recruit the best accountants coming out of college.”
Sam added, “Harry’s right, but even worse, our clients won’t come downtown. The chief needs to put cops downtown walking beats, like the old days. God knows we’re paying more city taxes than anyone else.” He hunched his shoulders as he looked around the table at men in suits that represented the downtown corporations, property owners, and professionals.
Fox nodded and said, “You’re right, Sam, but crime is so high in some of these neighborhoods that the mayor and city council would raise holy hell if the chief moved more officers downtown. It’s just not in the cards.”
“If I can’t lease Harbert’s office buildings, property values will fall—not just offices, everyone’s property will lose value,” Harry warned. Others around the table grunted in agreement.
“I’m afraid Fox is right; the mayor is not going to move officers from the neighborhoods to downtown. The voters are in the neighborhoods. Let’s hear about what other cities are doing,” said Barry turning toward me.
“Several cities have created uniformed foot patrols on the sidewalks to provide a reassuring presence, give directions to visitors, and answer questions. Philadelphia calls them downtown ambassadors. Most importantly, they serve as additional eyes and ears for the police and are connected to police dispatchers by radio, but they are not armed…” I said when Harry interrupted.
“Hell, these gang members aren’t afraid of the police. These ‘boy scouts’ might get abducted themselves. We need armed, sworn policemen, highly visible all over downtown,” said Harry with his fist clenched and his face flush with color.
“These ambassadors would cost a lot less than trained police officers. That’s important because the property owners fund them through a special assessment based on property value,” I said ominously.
After another round of grumbling about the city, the mayor and the police chief, Barry concluded, “Let’s invite the mayor and the chief to our next meeting, but let’s also get more details on patrol programs from other cities.”
* * * * *
Total darkness. Like hiding in the closet as a kid, John lay still and heard only himself breathing through his nose. The rag in his mouth smelled like grease. Finally he turned his head and rubbed the blindfold on the seat until it slid off. A little light filtered under the smelly blanket covering him. He squirmed repeatedly. Wires dug into his wrists and ankles, but eventually the blanket fell to the floor. He saw a weathered clapboard wall through the back window and a twilight sky through the front window. Employing the same maneuver with the the bandana tied behind his neck and holding the foul rag in his mouth, it loosened, and he spit out the oily rag. Exhausted by his exertion, he fell into a deep sleep.
* * * * *
A Balch & Bingham lawyer, made available to ONB by Alabama Power, advised that the legislature would have to pass a law enabling Birmingham to create assessments based on property values to fund a security patrol. After the mayor responded as predicted on the following day, Barry said we had no alternative to pursuing legislation. We recruited a task force of corporate leaders, merchants, and property managers to work with Alec and me to draft a bill. John Woods, CEO of AmSouth Bank, would be named chair of the task force and AmSouth President Fox DeFuniak would lead the project.
I highlighted appropriate sections in ordinances I had collected from Philadelphia and Louisville. Alec and I cut and pasted a draft bill to enable Birmingham to establish an assessment district to fund security patrols. Property values for downtown were totaled and potential budgets were prepared. We were satisfied that the enterprise was generally feasible.
* * * * *
The car was flooded with bright sunlight when John awoke, confused by his surroundings. Hungry and thirsty, John struggled with the wires on his hands to no avail. He yelled for help in the closed car. Realizing that no one would hear him, he lay motionless in despair.
Eventually anger and frustration replaced despair and self-pity, and he kicked the door with his wire-bound feet. Then it occurred to him that he could kick out the window. The heels of his loafers cracked the glass and after many blows it fell out. He cheered and maniacally screamed for help for several minutes. His dry throat ached. His cries for help became intermittent as the daylight began to fade.
A pig-tailed girl peeked through the open window. He screeched “Please help me,” and she vanished. In a few minutes, she reappeared with a grandfatherly man with a gray mustache. He nodded and promised to call the police. The sirens were balm to John’s wretched state of mind.
* * * * *
At a press conference the next morning, Fox expressed relief that Mr. Winston was reunited with his family, praised the police for their response, and cited statistics that showed crime was rare in downtown. He also announced that the downtown business community proposed a new security patrol in downtown funded by the business community. A bill would be submitted to the legislature in the near future. The Birmingham News ran stories about John Winston’s ordeal and Fox’s announcement side by side on page one, above the fold.
We were confident that the legislature would readily approve an initiative supported by the banks, utilities, and corporations would be adopted. As Fox said, “The business community wanted to assess itself to enhance security.” Business lobbyists relayed this message to the legislators, but our bill was never put on the calendar for a vote and died. The next year, we retained a well-connected professional lobbyist, and a committee hearing was scheduled on our bill.
Harry Lynch was tapped to represent us because the prestigious firm of Harbert Properties had no legislation pending that year. Harry began by confessing that he had strongly opposed the proposal initially. He vividly described his reaction. Once he had the legislators attention, he made the case for allowing the city council to implement the proposal. No tax dollars would be involved.
The committee approved the bill, and our lobbyist arranged for consideration when the chairman of the rules committee “played baseball,” a bizarre practice that allowed committee chairmen to offer three bills for a quick vote late in the afternoon. Three strikes and they’re out. Generally bills with a local impact in a chairman’s district are passed routinely on voice votes. Our legislation was enacted without opposition and signed into law by the governor. Not the democratic process I learned in civics class, but I was delighted.
Two years after John Winston’s horrific experience, the City of Birmingham had the authority to assess downtown property owners to create a security patrol. Harry was a zealous convert, but many property owners vowed to block what they called another tax for public safety, a basic responsibility of the city. Some said it was double taxation. Convincing the city to exercise their new, hard-won authority would be a challenge, but passage of the enabling legislation was something to celebrate.