Longtime cop Keith hangs up his badge

SHAWNEE TOWNSHIP — Lulu’s Diner just off Spencerville Road is to Mike Keith what Cheers pub was to Norm, Cliff and the others.

Everyone there seemingly knows his name. That’s due, in part, to a weekly gathering of retired Lima-area police officers at the diner. Every Friday morning, 6 0’clock sharp.

Keith is new to this retirement thing, having hung up his badge in late September after more than 44 years as a police officer, first with the Lima Police Department and the last 16 as chief of the Shawnee Township Police Department.

His newfound life in the slow lane didn’t start exactly as planned though, thanks to a brush with Hurricane Ian that wreaked havoc in Florida mere days after Keith’s retirement took effect.

Keith’s wife, Lori, retired in June after 31 years as a dispatcher with the LPD. She began looking for a part-time residence in Florida, and in August the couple purchased a condo in Clearwater. Then the hurricane, which slammed the Gulf Coast near Fort Meyers (after earlier predictions had targeted Clearwater as ground zero) came to welcome the Keiths to the neighborhood.

“I remember thinking, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me’ when we heard the hurricane was heading toward our newly-purchased condo. As it turned out, we only had a few limbs down but no structural damage,” Keith said.

It was a close call, to be sure, but nothing compared to some of his experiences as a street cop, like the time Keith had a gun pointed at him by one of the many “bad guys” he encountered during his career. The man pulled the trigger… and the gun jammed.

Looking back

Sitting down earlier this week for an interview, Keith reflected on his lengthy career. He recalled a pair of “horrific events” that left an indelible mark on his memory.

The first came in 2000. Keith was more than 20 years into his time with the Lima Police Department when what is commonly referred to as the Leland Avenue firebombing incident took place.

A group of 10 men, led by one, went after the man they thought stole drugs and money. Their plan was to flush that man out of his house and rob him. Instead, the man escaped, the house went up in flames, and five people — four of them children — died March 29, 2000.

“The following morning during roll call, we learned that someone was seen running from the fire,” Keith recalled. “We started canvassing the area … talking to neighbors … and we learned it was a firebomber. We rounded up all 10 suspects in one day. It was a very labor-intensive investigation, but we got 10 convictions. We tried for the death penalty for the ringleader, but he got life in prison.”

The second incident cited by Keith is also embedded in the minds of most Lima residents.

Jeronique Cunningham and his half-brother, Cleveland Jackson Jr., were each sentenced to death for killing two girls, ages 3 and 17, during a January 2002 drug-related robbery on Eureka Street in Lima. Six of the eight people inside the home were lined up in the kitchen and shot in the head as they begged for their lives, according to court records.

One seemingly minor point about the case remains vivid in Keith’s mind.

“I remember going to the scene, and the 3-year-old was wearing a coat identical to one my daughter had. She was 5 at the time,” he said.

Keith also remembers the teamwork within the LPD that led to a quick resolution to the case.

“Our guys did a helluva job. Within six months the two suspects had been arrested, convicted and sentenced to death. (Both remain on death row.) That’s pretty much unheard of.”

Slower pace in Shawnee Township

As chief of the Shawnee Township Police Department, Keith came to experience a more personal type of policing than he had earlier with the LPD. The severity of crimes, on average, was less from what he had seen earlier in his career, but Keith said he never took any crime lightly.

“The homicide rate nationwide is increasing again, but is there more ‘serious’ crime now? Well, all crime is serious to the victim,” Keith said. “In the township, it’s easy to talk to people. You’re dealing with people you know. But that can be a double-edged sword; it helps sometimes, but it also hurts.”

A graduate of Shawnee High School — as are his two children — Keith and his officer occassionally had to deal with teachers in the school district suspected of inappropriate behavior with students.

“That hits home,” the former chief said, “but we don’t judge people; we judge actions. People on the other end (of criminal offenses) deserve someone to step up for them, too.”

‘It was just time’ to retire

Keith said that after 44-plus years as a police officer it was “just time” to pass the baton. He is particularly pleased that the township trustees stayed inside the department when they selected Rob Kohli as the new chief.

“Rob has more than 20 years with the township. He’s pretty advanced in the newer technology, and I’m not,” Keith laughed. “He’ll do a great job.”

Keith said his retirement is not without some regrets.

“I’ll miss the people I worked with, the victims we were able to help. I’ll miss the teamwork. It was time to leave, but there are things I’m proud of, too,” he said. “We (Shawnee Township PD) were the first in Allen County to get body cameras for all our patrolmen. The guys were leery at first, but in nearly every complaint they’ve handled the cameras have helped by providing footage that assists in gaining a conviction.

“I enjoyed my career, but I have concerns about where this country is going. I steered my son away from law enforcement, but not my daughter,” Keith joked. “She’s a school resource officer and K-9 handler with Lima City Schools.”

The retired lawman said he has grown weary of the constant bickering and deepening divide across the nation.

“Our leaders display (divisive rhetoric) openly. I’ve not seen many politicians having civil discussions anymore,” he said.

But now it’s time for the next chapter. Time to spend time with his kids and tinker with a 1969 Barracuda and 2011 Challenger in his garage.

And enjoy life in a new condo in Florida.