This is the third part of a series on the incident which put Wilmington in the national spotlight beginning on February 15, 1997.
With a pool of 75 jurors to choose from, there was no question that this trial would be followed by many.
On January 11, 1998, Cheyne Kehoe would take the stand and some of the greatest courtroom drama Clinton County had ever witnessed would take place.
It was a Saturday and reporter Gary Huffenberger was at the trial. Yes, there was a Saturday court session. The day was long and Kehoe appeared to be very nervous.
Gary wrote that once questioning began, Kehoe said, “I see Deputy Gates, I think. Oh my God, he’s pointing a gun. He fires two shots at me and I duck into the seat and grab a pistol beside me.”
He then stated he, “reached for the handgun with his right hand and went for the passenger door handle with his left hand.” Kehoe went on to say, “I am really scared at that point and I don’t know why he is firing at me.”
Bill Peelle was ready for this testimony and started in. Peelle urged that the video does not show that Kehoe ducked to get his pistol, after Gates shot into the Suburban.
Peelle got Kehoe to testify that he was able to see the videotape. Two white spots appear in the Suburban inside rearview mirror. Peelle then stated that, “The two white flashes of light are the result of you discharging your weapon twice, while still inside the vehicle.”
As time marched on, Peelle broke down what happened frame by frame and got Cheyne Kehoe to change his story on the stand. It was a masterful performance by Peelle.
The trial came to an end after testimony from Bob Gates and Harold Harker.
The jury had reached a verdict. Cheyne was found guilty on four of the five charges levied against him. “The video doesn’t lie,” was the Peelle and Moyer chant, and that indeed got Cheyne Kehoe convicted. He would receive 24 years for his part in the infamous shootout.
Peelle and Moyer were hailed heroes for their masterful work.
But what about the two officers that were in the line of fire, and what do they have to say?
Bob Gates and Harold Harker were at the center of everything. Both men were doing their jobs and were spoken of very highly during the trials and hearings of the Kehoe brothers.
After the ordeal, in a Wilmington News Journal article from May 5, 1999, Gates said, “You know what can happen, but you don’t think it’s going to happen to you. You don’t think it’s going to happen that quick. It was a pretty day. It was kind of cold, but it just didn’t feel like one of those days when you get into a shootout.”
For this article, Gates was interviewed and this is what he had to say:
“There isn’t anything that really led up to it,” said Gates. “Boom, it just happened. How I remember coming to the scene is I saw Harold shaking his head and hands, so I swung back around to help him.”
He was also asked about after the incident and how his life changed.
He answered, “I’m very active in my church. My faith got me through it.”
I then asked him how he got back into the swing of things after the shootout. He told me that he was, “Already to work dispatch the following week, so I did that and the following week I got back into a cruiser and did radar traffic stops for about an hour, and that gave me confidence to get back into the job.”
He added that his faith was not changed and stated, “God desired to leave me on this earth to accomplish something bigger than what I had already accomplished in my life, to that point.”
Harold had this to say:
“It somewhat changed my life long-term, but I really just did my normal routine after. What I really enjoyed doing in the after, was training other officers for such an incident.”
That was really rewarding for him. He wanted to help others spot the signs of a stolen vehicle and with the signs and expired tags. He really felt like he had a stolen vehicle on his hands that day, which is why he followed his hunch to pull the brothers over.
Because he was part of a special team unit, he was one of the few that had a dashboard camera. It was cutting-edge technology, at the time, and without it, there would be no record of the shootout.
Harker also said afterward, “My faith deepened and I kept a closer watch on my wife and made her get a cell phone. I also believe that the Sheriff’s Department kept an eye on my home too.”
He stated that, in the aftermath, he was contacted by people all over the country, wanting him to go on TV shows and talking-head news shows. He did meet with Nancy Grace of Court TV, when she came for the trial.
In closing, Harold said that, “Bill Peelle was a master when prosecuting the case and he is a true gentleman.”
The Kehoe Shootout was but a blip in Clinton County history. There are many records and files at the Clinton County History Museum, but this one particular, marked “Kehoe”, should never be forgotten.
When reached out to, the Clinton County Sheriff’s Office issued this statement about the shootout:
“February 15, 1997 is a day that many will not forget in Clinton County, but there were also lessons learned that day. Today, the new policing techniques and technology have greatly enhanced law enforcement, in dealing with and preventing crime. These new advances in crime are an asset to us, along with the citizens who report suspicious activity.
“The ‘If you see something, say something’ saying is so important, as our citizens play a vital part in fighting crime also. No community is immune from threats, crime, and danger, but as more money becomes available to law enforcement to purchase these up-to-date tools, the Clinton County Sheriff’s Office will always continue to strive to keep its citizens safe in our area.”
These words are so true, and now Ralph Fizer Jr. and his entire department live them every day.
We all know tomorrow is never promised. And that day when Harold Harker pulled over a 1977 Chevrolet Suburban, he never could have imagined what would take place and how it would change law enforcement forever.
Harold and Bob, thank you for your service to our county and for your bravery that February day, 25 years ago.
Jonathan McKay is a Clinton County native and a current member of Wilmington City Council.