Patterico's Pontifications


L.A. Times on the Meaning of “Unarmed Teen”

Filed under: Crime,Dog Trainer — Patterico @ 10:49 pm

Let’s say that I am in court some day, and the defendant makes a break for it. He rushes one of the bailiffs and reaches for his gun. A second bailiff sees this, and fires a shot at the defendant.

Has the second bailiff just “shot an unarmed man”?

Ask the reporters and editors at the L.A. Times how they would report a story like that.

The L.A. Times today runs a story titled A Lonely Fight Against Lawlessness. The sub-head reads: “Patrick McCullough, weary of the crime in his Oakland neighborhood, admits shooting an unarmed teen. He’s seen as hero — and vigilante.”

The story appears on the front page of the California section. Here’s what appears on Page B1:

OAKLAND — Patrick McCullough says he’s no violent vigilante, keeping the peace on his inner-city block with a bad attitude and a baseball bat.

He’s just a hardworking homeowner tired of watching young gangsters take control of his tree-shaded neighborhood in north Oakland. He’s weary of seeing drug buys in his own driveway — cocaine dealers from gangs such as the North Pole, Stone Cold Gunaz and Bush Rod Boyz “throwing bones,” as the street parlance goes.

For a decade, the 50-year-old Chicago native has waged a lonely and often dangerous one-man battle against the lawlessness he sees outside his 59th Street home. He’s faced off against street hoods and dealers, calling police on his cellphone as the youths have stood there open-mouthed, watching, before scattering.

“I don’t go bothering people,” he said. “And I don’t get bullied.”

Yet now McCullough has gone too far, critics say. He admits that in February, he shot and wounded what turned out to be an unarmed 16-year-old Oakland youth who McCullough says reached for a gun and threatened him.

Melvin McHenry, who was shot in the arm and torso, was described by his mother, Stacy Hegler, as a normal kid and aspiring rapper who was now unfairly portrayed as a drug dealer.

The Alameda County district

[See McCullough, Page B8]

Now let me just stop you right there and ask you: what do you think happened in this case? It’s important enough to be mentioned in the sub-headline to the whole story. So what actually took place?

My guess is that you are thinking what my wife was thinking when she read the story: McCullough thought he saw a kid reaching for a weapon, but he was wrong. It turns out the kid was unarmed. He made a mistake.


For those intrepid readers who make it to the back pages, here’s what Paul Harvey annoyingly calls “the rest . . . of the story.” Be warned, though: it takes forever to get there. [UPDATE: If you’re not up to the task of reading the whole block quote, just run your eyes over it and note how deep in the story the language in bold is buried. Then read my commentary after the block quote.]

attorney has decided not to charge McCullough, a licensed lawyer who works as an electronics technician. But authorities are still considering charging McHenry with assault, police say.

Meanwhile, Hegler is seeking $300,000 in damages from McCullough’s insurance company.

“I’m just trying to get my son’s name cleared,” said the stay-at-home mother of four. She wants to move from her home, a block from McCullough’s. “This man shot an unarmed child.”

In a city of 400,000 where urban crime is a key concern, the case signifies more than a violent street encounter. It has spurred a highly politicized debate over how far a citizen can go to protect himself and his property from would-be criminals.

Compared to Goetz

Residents have compared McCullough to Bernard Goetz, the so-called subway vigilante who in 1984 shot four teenagers who he said had threatened him on a Manhattan subway car. Others say the self-proclaimed community watchdog has been given special treatment by the city of Oakland, which among other things is paying for a $5,000 security camera to be installed outside his home.

McCullough’s supporters include his next-door neighbor, whose son was killed a decade ago by neighborhood thugs in a case of mistaken identity. Numerous Oakland police officers and even Mayor Jerry Brown are also on his side.

“The guy’s got guts,” Brown said in an interview. “It’s darn hard when you get these kids who act as outlaws. He stood up to them.”

After news accounts of the shooting, McCullough received scores of calls and e-mails from residents, most of which applauded him as a gutsy urban crusader.

“My neighborhood community is outraged by what happened to you,” one wrote. “We are fighting the same battle with you. You are not alone and have many friends and supporters…. You’re a good man, Patrick.”

A woman who identified herself as a “fellow gun owner” wrote: “I am sorry you are under so much pressure right now for doing the right thing.”

Many sent donations, and a resident in a nearby upper-class neighborhood threw a party in McCullough’s honor. People offered to drive past his house at night to check on the homeowner, his wife and their 8-year-old son.

But not everyone is supportive.

“No guns!!! Not in my neighborhood,” wrote a resident on McCullough’s block. “Prosecute fully all who use them. McCullough’s tough-guy fantasies endanger all others [here].”

John Burris, an Oakland civil rights lawyer, likened the case to that of Goetz.

“I don’t like the notion that he’s perceived as a hero,” Burris said. “You can’t let people with a hair-trigger temper take the law into their own hands.”

McCullough remembers how much he liked the shady block when he moved there in 1994. But his problems began soon afterward when gang-related gunshots left a hole in his car fender. Over the years, instead of closing the curtains and ignoring such activity, he’d call the police.

McCullough described how in 2003 a youth approached him in his driveway and accused him of summoning officers. The teen, a former football player, moved closer, he said.

“He told me, ‘I’m not selling in front of your house. Why do you care?’ There was this sense of entitlement he could do what he wanted,” said McCullough, whose version has been corroborated by Oakland police.

Drawing on his Navy training and experience growing up in Chicago public housing, McCullough said, he watched the man’s hands. When he thought the youth was reaching inside his pocket, possibly for a weapon, McCullough punched him. Three youths then beat up McCullough, sending him to the hospital.

The incident didn’t deter either McCullough or his wife, Daphne, a lawyer who runs a small family business. Both still call police whenever they see illegal activity.

The couple’s tenacity inspired a group of neighbors, who helped evict two homeowners who had allowed drugs to be sold from their homes.

In an e-mail to supporters, McCullough explained: “If I see dope dealers plying their trade or just hanging out, I KNOW I have the right to stand within a few feet of them and take their picture while I wait for [police]. I know most people won’t consider such a thing, but I have never thought or acted like a coward either. It may be unsafe, but being a coward whose life is directed by thugs seems an awful way to grow old.”

He asked residents to understand the difference “between a lawful-acting man and a vigilante. I’m a MAN, not a mouse nor a vigilante. I’m not looking for medals, just a safe neighborhood and a peaceful existence.”

Walking his block one recent morning, McCullough is deceptively easygoing. He shouts hello to a passing teen. “Hey, good to see you, brother.” Then he says: “He’s one of the good kids on the block.”

‘That Tunnel Vision’

Known as “Smiley” as a youth, McCullough has his limits when people make him angry. Years ago, said his wife, he chased a motorist who had flipped him off. “He can get that tunnel vision,” she said. “Things can go haywire.”

One night last fall, things went haywire. Someone threw a chunk of mortar through the couple’s living room picture window. Then, in February, as he was leaving his house, McCullough was approached by about a dozen youths, one of whom shouted: “There’s the snitch!”

McCullough told police he was surrounded and that he then saw one of the youths reach for a gun in another’s waistband. That’s when he fired a single shot from a handgun that he said he had carried under his arm that evening.

Holy hell. After a sub-head that tells us that he “admits shooting an unarmed teen”; after a Page B1 description that says he “shot and wounded what turned out to be an unarmed 16-year-old Oakland youth”; after little mini-headlines that read: “Compared to Goetz” and “‘That Tunnel Vision'” — after all that, we learn that (at least according to McCullough) the kid was reaching for a gun in someone else’s waistband.

And that’s what The Times calls an “unarmed teen.”

It’s very hard not to wish — only for the sake of poetic justice — that the writers and editors who worked on this story would run into a similarly “unarmed teen” at some point. One wonders how they would fare against such an “unarmed teen.” Since they themselves would be genuinely unarmed, my guess is that they wouldn’t do as well as McCullough.

It’s hard not to wish that. But I’m trying.

3 Responses to “L.A. Times on the Meaning of “Unarmed Teen””

  1. It wouldn’t make a difference, Patterico: people who are as deep into fantasy as “the writers and editors who worked on this story” would see even their own mugging as more evidence that what America really needs is a Japanese-style gun ban.


    Dafydd (df2f54)

  2. I can’t imagine anyone reading to the end of the article. I had a hard time finishing the post.

    Mike (41e87f)

  3. people who are as deep into fantasy as “the writers and editors who worked on this story” would see even their own mugging as more evidence that what America really needs is a Japanese-style gun ban.

    Sounds like somebody I’ve heard of: Robert Fisk.

    McGehee (acc74b)

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