Anti-drug Crusader in Calif. Triggers Controversy

Patrick McCullough, 50, battles drug pushers and gangbangers in Oakland, Calif. But since he shot and wounded a teenager, the neighborhood hero has become a target.

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In Oakland, California, one man's lonely battle against drug pushers and gang bangers has turned into a Bay area controversy. Many people call Patrick McCullough a hero, but when he shot and wounded a teen-ager, his critics labeled him a gun-totting vigilante. As NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, friends are now urging Patrick McCullough to move, even as he's vowed to stand his ground.

RICHARD GONZALES reporting:

The 500 block of 59th Street and North Oakland is a neighborhood in transition. Older, African-American homeowners share this leafy street with younger, white, professional, first-time buyers. Milton Simpkens(ph), a retiree, has seen the neighborhood evolve since the early '70s.

Mr. MILTON SIMPKENS (Oakland Resident): It was a beautiful place to raise kids at that time. But it seems like in the middle '80s, when drugs started coming into the neighborhood, it went down. It's a very ugly place to live.

GONZALES: Twelve years ago Simpkens lost a son, a victim of a drive-by shooting in a case of mistaken identity. Not long after that a Chicago native, Patrick McCullough moved in next door. A former vet, African-American and soft-spoken, McCullough began having his own problems with drug dealers and young gangsters on the block.

Mr. PATRICK McCULLOUGH (Oakland Resident): If I see something, I'm calling the cops. I'm not going to seek these folks' permission to go out of my house or walk down the street. And I feel like if anybody has to give, it has to be the people who are doing wrong, not the people who are doing the right things.

GONZALES: Two years ago McCullough was beaten in his own driveway by a suspected drug dealer. In November, someone threw a chunk of concrete through his front window. He was threatened and taunted as a snitch. Then in February, McCullough says he was set upon by a group of eight young men. There were angry words, punches and shoves. And then McCullough says he saw 16-year-old Melvin McHenry reach for a pistol in the waistband of another youth.

Mr. McCULLOUGH: He ran over there. And I have really good hearing, and I heard him clearly say two things right after each other: `Give me the pistol. Let me have the pistol.' Now I know that--what's going to happen.

GONZALES: McCullough says he reached for his own gun and fired a single shot that struck McHenry, a high school football player, in the arm and torso. McCullough was arrested on suspicion of felony assault, but he claimed self-defense. Prosecutors declined to press charges. Oakland police and Mayor Jerry Brown publicly sided with McCullough, and he's received hundreds of supportive e-mail messages from around the country.

But the wounded teen-ager's mother, Stacy Hegler, tells a different story. She says her son was unarmed and running away from the confrontation when he was shot in the back.

Ms. STACY HEGLER: My son turned around and could see that he was getting a gun, and then he took off running. He made it four houses down before he heard the first shot. My son was running for his life. This man came off his property and shot my son with a gun that wasn't registered, and he didn't get charged with anything.

GONZALES: Hegler says the community doesn't know the true Patrick McCullough, that he's a dangerous man with a short fuse. A local group of African-American activists denounced McCullough as a sellout, saying he's fronting for white home buyers who are gentrifying the neighborhood. But McCullough's neighbor, Milton Simpkens, doesn't buy it.

Mr. SIMPKENS: Pat pretty much did what any other concerned citizen would do They speak of Pat being crazy. I don't consider him being crazy. I just consider him being a concerned citizen.

GONZALES: Others say since the shooting, the neighborhood is still holding its collective breath. Tom Neighmond(ph) is a real estate agent who lives on McCullough's block.

Mr. TOM NEIGHMOND (Real Estate Agent, Oakland): A lot of people support Patrick, not necessarily for what he did, but for what he's standing up for. Then there are another group of people who are focusing on exactly what he did rather than what he was trying to accomplish. And that's caused a bit of tension.

GONZALES: Police say they fear that someone in the neighborhood will retaliate against McCullough, but he refuses to leave. And he's sending that message to the neighborhood with a homemade sign in the front window. It reads: `I am not moving.' Richard Gonzales, NPR News, Oakland, California.

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