Five Years After The Day We Lost Buddy Gray

By Jimmy Heath

            On the morning of Friday November 15th, Cincinnati police officers rushed to the drop Inn Center Shelter House after receiving an emergency call to 911.  At the drop Inn Center in Over-the-Rhine they found Wilbur Worthen sitting next to the bleeding body of buddy gray, the smell of gunpowder still in the air.  The gun was on a table nearby.  Worthen had fired six shots from .357 magnum revolver, three of them striking and killing buddy.  According to arriving Officer Keith Fangman, Worthen told him that Buddy was “pumping nerve gas into my into my apartment.  If you go there it will kill you, too.”

            Drop Inn Center staff later testified that Worthen came into the center shortly after 9 a.m., and pushed his way into a rear office while Buddy and other staff members were conducting a job interview.  Worthen was charged with aggravated murder for the killing of buddy gray, but was later found not guilty by reason of insanity.

            “Something clicked or disconnected in (Worthen’s) mind,” said Wilbur Worthen’s attorney, Peter Pandilidis.  “He got his gun.”

            Prosecutors had sought a murder conviction, but court appointed psychiatrists testified that Worthen suffered from a severe mental disease when he walked into the Drop Inn Center and shot Buddy that day in November of 1996.

            “He believed he had been betrayed,” said Dr. James Hawkins, one of the psychiatrists who examined Worthern.  “As a result of his delusional thought, he believed he needed to correct that betrayal.”

            Ten months later, Judge Richard Neihaus found Worthen not guilty by reason of insanity and ordered him held in a state mental health facility.

            Worthen, 57, lived in the same apartment building on Race Street as buddy.  They had worked side-by-side for many years at the Drop Inn Center, ReSTOC, and on many other Over-the-Rhine community issues.  Buddy had befriended and helped the mentally ill formerly homeless man for over the years.

            Since the death, the work of Buddy Gray has continued without him.  The shooting stopped a man who fought for 25 years to restore and protect the dignity of the down and out in Cincinnati. “It was a devastating blow to our efforts to lose Buddy, but this was never a one-person movement,” said Bonnie Neumeier, after buddy was killed.

            Buddy gray ReSTOCK and scores of volunteers struggled for years to save and restore vacant buildings in Over-the-Rhine for low-income housing.  Buddy founded the Drop Inn Center nearly three decades ago in a Vine Street Storefront.  He also was a founding member of the National Coalition for the Homeless and was known around the country for his efforts to serve the underserved.  He understood that in order to address the needs of the poor and homeless there needed to be systemic changes in society.

            Detractors of buddy and his efforts described him as uncompromising and difficult to work with, but they all respected his determination.  Buddy battled city officials and urban planners that he and his supporters saw as opportunists intent on pushing poor people out of Over-the-Rhine.

            For several weeks before Buddy’s death, stickers appeared around Over-the-Rhine with the words “No Way Buddy Gray” along with telephone numbers to call for a recorded tirade against him.  Buddy’s friends and co-workers wondered what role the stickers might have played in driving Wilbur Worthen over the edge.  Some of buddy’s supporters believe they know who was behind the hate campaign and remain bitter about it.           

            When people ask about Buddy some remember him as the man who was shot to death by a mentally ill, formerly homeless man.

            But five years after the death the work of the Drop Inn Center and the other organizations that he helped state continue to serve the less fortunate of the city’s residents.

            Ironically, buddy gray felt that the work he was doing was to help troubled men like his friend Wilbur Worthen.

Editor's Note:  Buddy gray preferred that his name be lower case and not capitalized.

Copyright NEOCH published December 2001 in Cleveland for Issue 51