'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.