'I never appreciated what I put those people through'

'I never appreciated what I put those people through'

URBANA — James Winston looked straight into the eyes of the young man who robbed him Wednesday and had a reaction that one might not expect.

"I felt so humbled and so ashamed," said the 63-year-old barber, who was robbed in his southeast Urbana shop.

That's because Winston had once been a young criminal himself.

Fueled by drug addiction as a younger man, Winston committed a series of crimes, including armed robbery, that had him in and out of prison before he finally got a handle on his addiction in 2005.

For the past five years, he's run a fairly successful hair-cutting business in southeast Urbana. In December, he moved his shop from near Washington and Philo to what he thought was the safer confines of the indoor Sunnycrest Mall at 1717 S. Philo Road.

"I went to prison for armed robbery and I never really realized. I knew when I went in there and robbed, it wasn't a pleasant experience. But I never appreciated what I put those people through. I know it now and it just convicted me and made me ashamed of myself."

About 3:10 p.m. Wednesday, Winston was cutting a customer's hair when a young man with a bandanna covering the lower half of his face and a hooded sweatshirt entered his shop inside the mall.

"He had his hand in the pocket of the hoodie and said he had a gun in there. He said, 'Give me the money or I'll shoot you.' I proceeded to get the money out of the cash register. I had a customer in the chair and he told him to give him his money, too," Winston said.

Winston handed over cash from his register while the customer got cash out of his wallet.

The young man then ran from the shop, accompanied by a second man who Winston believes stood outside, acting as his lookout. The second man wasn't masked, he said.

Urbana police Sgt. Dan Morgan said Winston described the robber as a younger-looking black male, about 5 feet 8 inches tall, 130 pounds and "bug-eyed." He was wearing gloves, a black hooded sweatshirt, a red bandanna over the lower half of his face, and faded jeans.

"When I looked into that young man's eye, I saw fear. I saw desperation. He couldn't have been more than 16 or 18. I just saw the desperation in his eyes. We looked at each other eyeball to eyeball, and I thought, There's got to be another way to make these kids realize there are more options than to grab a gun," said Winston.

"This area out here is in the grip of terror," said Winston, referring not only to his robbery but the murder on nearby Colorado Avenue on Monday night.

Winston has been an active advocate for change in southeast Urbana. He has helped the Lierman Neighborhood Action Committee try to improve that neighborhood and helped police produce a video depicting how young people should interact with police when stopped.

Recently, he's been doing what barbers sometimes do even better than cutting hair: listening and counseling.

"I've done a little mentoring at the Juvenile Detention Center and cut hair as their barber. I not only work on the outside of their head but the inside," laughed Winston, who proudly proclaims that his intensive study of the Bible that began on his last trip to prison in 2005 is what turned him around.

Winston said he spent several hours talking with Denashio Tester, a 15-year-old who just last week was sentenced as an adult to 20 years in prison for robbing two of Winston's business neighbors on South Philo Road in October.

Winston said when Tester learned that Winston had been to prison, the two began to relate.

"From that day on, I could hardly get out of that place. He wanted to talk. His grandmother said he's a follower. She's right. If he had enough positive role models around him, he could be an outstanding young man," said Winston.

On Thursday, Winston locked the door of his shop as he worked, saying "that's going to be my security procedure from now on."

Urbana police Lt. Bob Fitzgerald, who knows Winston, said he was saddened by the holdup.

"He's a real good guy," said Fitzgerald, who's been equally proactive for more than the last year in working with businesses and residents along and near South Philo Road in trying to make it a safer place.

Fitzgerald noted that calls for service in that area decreased from 936 in 2011 to 823 in 2012.

And the department has no plans to let up on enforcement.

"Starting March 1, we're going to do bike patrols on Philo and other areas of the city. We want to have a high presence of officers out there. We just revamped our bike unit and have several brand new bike officers," he said. "We've also worked with apartment complex managers and owners, gone over safety plans, and we are strictly enforcing city and state violations in that area."

Fitzgerald said he's also part of another group of business managers and owners, local residents and city officials who meet once a month to discuss problems in that area and what can be done to improve them.

"We're going to be out there in force patrolling the area," he promised.

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j-cook wrote on February 08, 2013 at 9:02 am

 Sorry to hear Mr. Winston getting robbed and glad nobody was hurt. I have known James

for many years and will say he is a good man. Had a lot of problems in his life but finally

found a way to overcome them. Bless you James I am proud to know you. Your friend,

Joe C.


sweet caroline wrote on February 08, 2013 at 4:02 pm

James is our family barber and has been a positive influence on our children.  James has a life story to tell to anyone who will listen.  He has a huge heart for our youth.  He doesn't want them to go down the path to self-destruction.  I'm devastated that he was robbed.  It makes me sick.  He is one of the kindest, most caring and generous people I know.  I feel terrible that this happened to such a nice person.  However, I can just visualize James looking into the terrified eyes of that young man with such compassion and forgiveness. 

whatithink wrote on February 08, 2013 at 5:02 pm

Just can't wait to see how many people get robbed in the parking lot IF that new store ever moves in.  Thanks for all the section 5 people Champaign.

ladyfingers1958 wrote on February 09, 2013 at 8:02 am
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People like you never cease to amaze me.  I am so mad at your comment right now I just had to say something.  You just missed the whole principal of this story didn't you Whattithink?  

Just an FYI...all Section 8 people are not thieves and do not commit crimes.  I feel safe to say that more people NOT on Section 8 housing are in the county jail at this very minute.  You are a perfect example of what's wrong with this country.  You're judgmental, rude and self righteous.  

I have been in the position in life where I had everything and because the person who owned the large company where I worked embezzeled from the company and the whole company went belly up leaving over 500 people without a job.  That was including myself.  A series of events that occurred afterward put my world in a downhill spiral, a scare with breast cancer, marriage dissolved, etc.  I ended up on food stamp assistance and had to move into a tiny little home just to make ends meet.  During this down time I saw how people treat those who are not as fortunate as they are.  I liken it to high school and bullying.  It's not a pleasant thing to have to grovel for some help.  It's worse when self righteous people feel they must cut you down even further.

All this being said.  Be very very careful how you belittle others and be very careful of your accusations.  One never knows when a series of events can happen to them just as they did myself.  I totally believe in "karma" and I totally know you have some bad karma coming your way.  I just hope you have enough intelligence to know what it is that has caused it to come to you when it arrives.  And it will arrive.  It always does.  I feel sorry for someone with such a malignant narrow mind. Donna in Texas (this article was forwarded to me to read from a friend who lives in Urbana.)

sweet caroline wrote on February 08, 2013 at 10:02 pm

What's section 5?  Do you mean section 8?  If you do, I agree with you. 

rsp wrote on February 09, 2013 at 4:02 am

I use to have section 8. Before that my children and I were homeless. Never been arrested or suspected of a crime. That's true of most people on section 8. We had to pass a background check. A credit check. It also took four months to find a landlord who would take section 8 due to the falsehoods out there about the program. Just because there is a high crime area doesn't mean the people there are getting section 8. Because what you're really saying is that poor people are thieves. Right? 

sweet caroline wrote on February 09, 2013 at 3:02 pm

I'm sorry for agreeing with Whattithink's remark about section 8.  After reading the 2 posts from people who needed section 8 and whose lives were made better by it, I will not be so quick to think that section 8 equals crime.  It's there for those who need it.  I'm sure it is abused by some, but that's probably the exception, not the rule.  There will always be people who abuse the system and make it hard for honest, good people who need help.

SaintClarence27 wrote on February 09, 2013 at 5:02 pm

The reality is that section 8 coincides with crime. This is not because section 8 people are criminals. This is because section 8 housing tends to be found in poor areas and areas with high crime already in place where housing costs are low.