On May 4, 1979, at a pool hall located at Central Avenue and West 15th Street, 28-year-old Percy Wilson, of 126 Mulberry Street, and Vicki Clayton engaged in an argument over eight dollars. Wilson left the pool hall threatening that he would return to “shoot somebody.” Fifteen minutes later, he returned with a pistol, pointed it at Clayton, and pulled the trigger several times. The gun failed to fire. He left, returned again minutes later, and shot at and missed Clayton, but struck a female bystander.
Melvin Henze, a Vietnam War veteran and extremely dedicated police officer went to work on May 5, 1979, knowing it would probably be his last day in uniform. Captain Howard Espelage, District One Commander, had determined Mel’s meticulous nature and tenacity had earned him a desk in the District One Investigative Unit and his transfer would be effective on May 6. Also, it would be a “short” day because he had requested to take off the last two hours, using accrued court time, so that he could vacation with other police officers who were traveling to Nashville, Indiana – an annual tradition for this group of officers. At roll call that morning, the sergeant informed the relief about the shooting at the pool hall the night before. From previous encounters with Percy Wilson, Officer Henze knew him on sight and also how dangerous he could be.
Officer Henze spent most of the morning looking for Wilson. Having had no success, he met with fellow officers at 1427 Walnut Street. He gave them all the information he had developed on Wilson and his possible whereabouts. As he left the meeting, already late for his one o’clock dismissal, and as he headed toward District One, Communications broadcast that Wilson had again returned to the pool hall. A patron called the police and reported that Wilson pointed the gun at him saying, “I will kill anyone who messes with me.” Officer Henze decided to put off his dismissal a little longer and renewed his search for Wilson.
He found Wilson getting into an automobile. He called for backup assistance and turned his patrol car around, but when he came back to the spot the car was gone. District Four Police Officers Gregory Snider and Kenneth Zinser heard the all-channel broadcast, spotted the car, and pulled it over on East McMicken just east of Vine Street, but Wilson was no longer in the car. The occupants asserted that they had kicked Wilson out of the car when they realized he was armed.
Not long thereafter, about 1:30 p.m., Officer Henze spotted Wilson, on foot, heading toward Naeher Alley off Baymiller Street. Again, Mel asked for assistance and pursued. With officers on the way. Mel drove slowly down the alley with one hand on the steering wheel and one on his radio microphone giving directions. His Division-issued Smith and Wesson Model 10 .38 Special revolver was lying on the seat next to him.
Suddenly, at 925 Naeher, Wilson popped out from a recessed entryway, went immediately to the cruiser’s open window, and shot Officer Henze five times with a .25 ACP caliber semiautomatic pistol. Officer Henze radioed for immediate assistance. The only thing fellow officers heard was a gurgled transmission – they knew something was terribly wrong.
Police Officers Nick Misch and Wes Sullivan arrived almost immediately after the shooting – soon enough to see Wilson running from the scene. They chased him and he turned and leveled the pistol at the officers and pulled the trigger. It did not fire. Sullivan was the first to realize that Wilson’s pistol was empty and yelled that information to Misch. They captured him, he fought the officers, and they overpowered him.
Mel Henze was transported to General Hospital. Police Officer Ron Oliver brought Mel’s parents, Melvin H. and Rita Henze, to the hospital and upon their arrival, District Four Sergeant Joseph Hall, who had been detailed to stay with Officer Henze, informed them that their son had died at 2:28 p.m. After they visited with their son, Officer Bruce transported his body to the morgue.
Police Officer McCain took Wilson to Good Samaritan Hospital for treatment of injuries incurred during his arrest. He was guarded there by Police Officer Richard Gross, then transported to Criminal Investigation Section. During his interrogation, he freely admitted killing Officer Henze saying, “Yeah, I shot the (expletive deleted) cop and I’m still alive!”
Officer Henze was survived by his parents and five-year-old daughter, Kathleen Ann (Kate) Henze. A funeral Mass was held at St. Catherine Church on Wunder Avenue. It’s a large church, but hundreds of officers that attended hd to do so from the front lawn of the church. He was escorted by hundreds of police cruisers to St. James Cemetery on Hubble Road where he is buried. His father joined him there a few years later.
Wilson was charged with and convicted of Felonious Assault, Attempted Murder, Attempted Aggravated Murder, and Aggravated Murder. He was sentenced to 22 years to life and was incarcerated in the London Correctional Institute. Wilson had a parole hearing scheduled for September 30, 2011, but died of natural causes on August 13, 2011.
If you have information, artifacts, archives, or images with regard to this officer or incident, please contact the Greater Cincinnati Police Museum at Director@police-museum.org.
Officer Henze was the 9th Cincinnati officer to die by gun violence in 7 years, the 8th in 5 years, the 5th in 10 months, and the 3rd in 2 months. All of Greater Cincinnati had not experienced this sort of carnage among its law enforcement officers since Prohibition and never before Prohibition. No other city in the country, or most states, had as many officers killed. New York lost three in three years; Chicago and Los Angeles each lost one.
During the same seven years that Cincinnati lost nine officers, staff studies were conducted, reports were written, requests were submitted, and officers and concerned citizens pleaded with administrators and politicians to equip Cincinnati officers with modern patrol cars, shotguns in the cabs, better performing side arms, and bullet resistant vests.
Exacerbating these issues was a predominant perception that members of City Council were, and had been, since the riots of the late 1960s, antithetic to law enforcement. Then, during 1975, City Council eliminated the Police Cadet program. During 1976, they laid off 124 more police officers. Four of the nine violent deaths occurred after these lay-offs. Another officer, one of those laid off, John Bechtol, lost his life as a Delhi Township Police Officer. During this period, the Police Division’s Target Range was closed. Firearms qualifications were reduced to State minimums and practice and live-fire training was eliminated.
So, when Mel Henze, a military veteran, expert pistol shot, and highly respected and meticulous officer, was shot to death, emotions erupted and Cincinnati Police Officers reacted by staging a one-day sick-out which they called a “Stress Day.” On May 7, 1979, after they buried Officer Henze, almost every Cincinnati police officer went home, as did many of the sergeants, and returned 24 hours later.
Also on May 7, the Cincinnati Council’s finance committee approved spending $300,000 for body armor, spotlights, and improved emergency lights. Furthermore, Safety Director Richard Castellini recommended fixing and re-opening the Target Range. These would be put to a vote by City Council on Wednesday, May 9. Hundreds of officers filled the City Council chambers to petition them to redress their grievances. Eventually, City Council approved; an increased complement of officers, repair of the Target Range, body armor, ballistic clipboards, .357 Magnum revolvers, 5-cell flashlights, shotguns in the cab, and modern patrol cars with light bars, screens separating the prisoners from the drivers, mounted spotlights, air conditioning, and power steering. While several agencies had already upgraded their officers’ equipment, almost all did after Officer Henze’s death and not one officer was murdered in the Greater Cincinnati area in the next eight years and only seven were murdered in the next 32 years.
This narrative was revised August 4, 2011 by Cincinnati Police Lieutenant Stephen R. Kramer (Retired), Greater Cincinnati Police Historical Society President, with anecdotal contributions from Cincinnati Police Specialist Richard Gross, Greater Cincinnati Police Historical Society Vice President; Cincinnati Police Lieutenant Joseph W. Hall (Retired), Greater Cincinnati Police Historical Society Bereavement Committee Chairman; Cincinnati Police Lieutenant Daniel Steers (Retired), Greater Cincinnati Police Museum Volunteer; and Cincinnati Police Captain Gregory K. Snider (Retired). All rights are reserved to them and the Greater Cincinnati Police Historical Society.