Keith McNeese has a gift of gab, a concern for kids and a pleasant presence.
Those traits made him a customer favorite as a security guard at Big Jim’s gas station at 3024 Ames Ave. in Omaha. Old-timers stopped and chatted up the 62-year-old. Depending on their age, young customers affectionately referred to him as “grandpa,” “uncle” or “unc” for short.
He had a good rapport with police and a matter-of-fact approach to handling trouble and troublemakers.
Then came the early morning hours of July 28.
Two men — he believed them to be using crack cocaine — lingered in the parking lot of the gas station. McNeese warned them: I’ll Mace you if you don’t leave.
They didn’t, and McNeese sprayed. It worked — irritating Ronnie Williams’ eyes and his pride. Drugged and drunk, Williams stormed back to the gas station about an hour later and opened fire.
Now, McNeese is paralyzed. And Williams is on his way to prison. On Monday, Douglas County District Judge Thomas Otepka sentenced Williams, 45, to 90 to 115 years in prison for the shooting.
The sentence ensures that Williams — who served 14 years in prison for a 2001 Omaha bank robbery — will not be eligible for release until his 90s, if he lives that long.
The way Keith McNeese’s brother sees it, McNeese isn’t lucky to be alive. Williams is lucky McNeese is alive.
If the gunman realized that, he didn’t let on. He refused to talk to a probation officer preparing a pre-sentence report and said nothing to the judge sentencing him. His attorney, Assistant Public Defender Leslie Cavanaugh, said Williams acted in a fog of alcohol and drugs. He regrets his actions, she said.
“Something like this shouldn’t happen to anyone,” said McNeese’s brother, Shawn Buchanan. “Keith is always looking out for other people. Now we’re looking out for him.”
The oldest of seven children raised in the Chicago area, McNeese followed his little brother and parents to Omaha, moving here in 2000.
He’s been an over-the-road trucker, owned a tow truck and has served two security stints at Big Jim’s. He wore a body camera and a bulletproof vest as he worked security, though he never voiced concerns about his safety, family said.
That night, McNeese was taking care of a relatively typical problem: Drug users from a nearby apartment complex drifting onto Big Jim’s property. Though he could have called 911, McNeese didn’t like to get police involved, or get people in trouble, unless he had to.
After getting sprayed, Williams told the man he was partying with that he was “gonna get him.” Williams then asked his friend to “air that (expletive) out — I’ll give you a quarter.” Translation: he would give the man a quarter-ounce of crack cocaine if he shot McNeese.
The man refused — and both men left. Fifty minutes later, Williams walked into Big Jim’s as McNeese stood chatting up the clerk — his side to the door. Williams fired as many as six times at McNeese, penetrating his torso, perhaps through gaps in the side of his ballistics vest.
One of the bullets hit his spinal cord. He has use of his arms but not his legs. He has spent more than five months in an intensive care unit and has undergone 20 surgeries.
“He’s always been able to take care of himself,” said Kelly Buchanan, McNeese’s sister-in-law. “He’s always been really independent. I know he can be independent again — and he knows that, too.”
So far, simply surviving has been a grind. McNeese worked his way to two rehabilitation centers when an infection and blood-pressure spike sent him back to the ICU in January. He just got out of the ICU and to a lower level of care on Friday.
“It wasn’t just the beginning that was touch and go,” Shawn Buchanan said. “They’ve brought him back to life a lot of times — a lot of different doctors have.
“It’s tough. It’s tough for him. No one thinks about being 62 and having to start over. This is a challenge.”
Otepka outlined the challenge by reading a letter from McNeese, who could not attend Monday’s hearing. In it, McNeese wrote about the fight for his life, about managing pain and tedium and the chronic frustration of his new state.
The paralysis “leaves me with too much time on my hands,” he wrote. “And I become depressed.”
Kelly Buchanan, a nurse, said McNeese’s extended family are intent on boosting his spirits — the way he always has boosted theirs. Tough love, she calls it.
“We just keep on encouraging him,” she said: “You might be stuck in a chair, but you’re not going to be stuck in a bed.
“Get yourself strong enough so that chair — you can just drag it along with you. You are not going to lose your independence.”