JIM DeBROSSE
Email: jimdebrosse@gmail.com

I'm the author of five books, a contributing writer for Cincinnati Magazine, and an award-winning newspaper reporter and columnist who retired in 2018 from teaching journalism at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. I'm the former Project Editor of Ohio Civics Essential, a monthly series of stories aimed at educating voters in civics knowledge and engagement. As part of my commitment to social justice, I co-founded a news website devoted to workplace fairness and equal opportunity, "Cincinnatians for the American Dream." I live in Cincinnati's historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood and volunteer as an English teacher for immigrants through Catholic Charities.

 

 

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MY LATEST STORIES

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The new chief law enforcement official for the Southern District of Ohio is focused on finding the root causes of crime and partnering with communities to prevent those crimes from ever happening.

hen a Southern California drug kingpin and Crips gang member decided in 2000 to expand his crack and meth empire into Zanesville and Middletown, Ohio, he hadn’t counted on coming up against Ken Parker. Then a young drug enforcement lawyer in the federal prosecutor’s office for southern Ohio, Parker wasn’t content with convicting just the little guys on the street. He wanted the big guys in their respectable homes and offices.

Parker’s philosophy is “to make sure you’re not just taking the low-hanging fruit,” says Ben Glassman, who worked with Parker for 14 years in the Cincinnati office. “Ken is a prosecutor’s prosecutor.”

As U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio in 2011, Glassman selected Parker to head his criminal investigations division. Today, at age 49 and with 20-plus years of experience as a federal prosecutor, Parker now runs the office. Appointed in November by President Biden, he oversees the enforcement of federal law for a 48-county region stretching from Columbus to Steubenville and down to the Ohio River. He supervises a staff of 125, including 65 prosecutors, with offices in Columbus, Dayton, and Cincinnati.

Parker’s colleagues point to that 2000 drug case as proof that the Cincinnati native and Walnut Hills High School alum won’t shy away from going after the criminals at the top, whether they’re drug lords or politicians.

The California drug kingpin was rarely seen in person, even by his closest lieutenants. Instead, he arranged for large quantities of drugs to be shipped to friends and former gang members all over the country. The locals handled the dirty work of drug processing and street sales, then took half the profits and shipped the rest of the cash to his home in Compton, California.

The operation worked smoothly until 2003, when clerks at a Staples store in Zanesville became suspicious of a loose packet someone wanted to ship via UPS to a Compton address. The package had all the signs of a cash shipment, a violation of UPS policy. The clerks opened it and found thick wads of bills wrapped in black rubber bands. They called Zanesville police, and a “sniff dog” quickly detected the reason for the cash transaction.

On July 21, 2005, Parker filed a sealed indictment in Cincinnati’s federal court against those profiting most from the drug network, and the operation’s leader was charged with distributing 15 kilos of crack and more than a kilo of meth. Leading the case at trial, Parker won a jury conviction and a life sentence for him, later reduced on appeal to 30 years.

As the new U.S. Attorney here, Parker doesn’t like to emphasize his prosecutorial side. He would rather talk about what he calls the “big picture” of law enforcement that means “first of all, holding people accountable.” But for Parker it also means finding the root causes of crime and partnering with communities to prevent those crimes from ever happening. He says he’ll encourage his prosecutors to do as he has often done in his career: “get out from behind our desks” and talk to community groups about their challenges and what they can do to help keep their neighborhoods safe.

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Monument to Shame

The Brent Spence Bridge’s traffic chokehold has taken a back seat to political cowardice and misplaced priorities for decades. Will the federal infrastructure bill finally bail out regional leaders who fiddled while the bridge burned?

The skies over Northern Kentucky were unleashing a chilly downpour on November 11, 2020, as Mansour Thiam drove his International semi north on Interstate 71/75 toward downtown Cincinnati and the Brent Spence Bridge. Traffic was mercifully light at 2:30 in the morning, though it backed up short of the Radisson Hotel in Covington.

Another semi had jackknifed on the slippery road and was disabled in the breakdown lane. Diesel fuel from the truck had sloshed across the highway. Thiam was careful crossing the oily slick, then joined the renewed flow of traffic as he continued north in the middle lane.

As he entered the lower deck of the bridge and its notoriously dark and narrow lanes, Thiam could feel his trailer begin to fishtail behind him into the far left lane. That’s where truck driver Raul Herrera happened to be rolling by in his Freightliner with a load of potassium hydroxide, a highly corrosive chemical. Even if Herrera had seen Thiam coming, he couldn’t have avoided the swerving trailer. A foot to his rig’s left was a concrete barrier and then an 80-foot plunge into the Ohio River below.

The first of Herrera’s double trailers collided with the back of Thiam’s load, and the two semis careened into a massive, tangled heap that ignited one or both of their fuel tanks and blocked all four lanes of the northbound deck. Miraculously, both truck drivers exited their cabs without serious injuries, but Herrera was in such shock he didn’t see that his rig was on fire. Thiam had to tell him to get clear as the blaze worked its way back toward his load of potassium hydroxide.

Other drivers entering the bridge, including a truck hauling a load of fuel, came to a stop as Herrera’s load caught fire and fed the blaze into a brilliant inferno. The flames spread out over the roofline of the bridge’s southbound upper deck, 15 feet above, burning at temperatures as high as 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit—hot enough to compromise the strength of steel beams.

Covington police arrived five minutes later but couldn’t get close enough to see if anyone was trapped or injured. The heat was so intense it set their uniforms ablaze, says Covington Police Specialist Joseph Gier, who reviewed the accident report.

Covington fire crews arrived soon after but held off taking any action after spotting the HAZMAT label on Herrera’s trailer. Speeding over the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge, Cincinnati firefighters joined the Covington crews already stationed on the Kentucky shore. When the chemical in Herrera’s load was identified, water boats were called to the scene with fire-suppressing foam. But their hoses weren’t powerful enough to reach the fire.

While the blaze continued unabated, motorists stuck on the lower deck of the bridge were directed to back up and turn around to the Fourth Street exit in Covington. Truck drivers were told to abandon their rigs so police could drive them to the nearest exits. Eventually, firefighters were able to reach the blaze by lugging hundreds of feet of hosing up an aerial ladder from the shore. The fire took almost two hours to extinguish.

The early morning nightmare could have been far worse. What if the accident had occurred at 2:45 p.m. rather than 2:45 a.m.? What if the truck drivers hadn’t been able to exit their cabs? What if the fire had reached the trapped semi with its load of fuel? And what if the earlier truck accident hadn’t slowed traffic as it entered the bridge?

The lesson from that near-tragedy a year ago is this: The Brent Spence Bridge is unsafe at any speed and has been for decades while local, state, and national leaders have done little to remedy the problem. From the moment the bridge opened a few days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963, the three-lane, double-decker design was already on its way to being “structurally obsolete”—engineer-speak for inadequate to handle the flow of traffic, then 80,000 vehicles per day. Traffic from Interstate 71 was added to the bridge in both directions in 1970 with no additional lanes to handle the flow.