Icing the Cooler Bandits

Two Akron men are still behind bars for robbing a string of restaurants in 1991, prompting one filmmaker to ask, 'How long is long enough?'

At about 5:45 a.m. on Aug. 2, 1991, an 18-year-old in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles mask, most likely Frankie Porter, held a pistol to the back of Rick Berringer's head. Berringer and four co-workers were ushered into the refrigeration unit at Art's Place, an Akron restaurant. Porter and an accomplice took petty cash then sped off in a car driven by a high school pal.

That was the final, desperate act of a loose-knit gang the press dubbed "The Cooler Bandits." They robbed 17 restaurants in four counties, forcing the staff into the coolers then making off with the loot.

Two decades later, Berringer is angry about what happened. Not about the robbery. About the sentencing.

Summit County Common Pleas Judge Frank Bayer gave Frankie Porter up to 528 years in prison. Richard "Poochie" Roderick and Charlie Kelly, the other two bandits at Art's Place, each received 69 to 159 years. Donovan Harris, the only one of the four whose family was able to hire a lawyer, took a plea bargain for only 16 to 50 years. Others received lesser sentences.

I was deputy managing editor of the Akron newspaper then. I remember their story well. Yes, they were legally adults — though just barely. Yes, they were criminals. But they were just kids in many ways, robbed of much of their childhoods by the 1980s devastation of Akron's black neighborhoods, when rubber jobs left by the thousands and crack cocaine flowed in by the kilos.

And remember this: They didn't physically harm a single victim.

But don't listen to this old liberal. Listen to the man who had a gun to his head. "What kind of justice system has the power to end someone's life like that ... when they didn't hurt anybody?" Berringer asks me.

He's almost 40 now, living in Arizona. He's the leader of a popular regional heavy metal band called Vile Existence and a father of two teenage boys who play alongside him. He is so disturbed about the fate of Porter and the others that he volunteered music from his group's debut album — ironically, titled The Mask You Wear — for the soundtrack to a documentary about the Cooler Bandits.

John Lucas, another former Northeast Ohioan who moved west, is making the full-length film, his first, with his producing partner Bruno Navasky.

"It isn't meant to seek sympathy for them," Lucas tells me. "But it asks the question, How long is long enough?"

Lucas lives in Southern California, but he grew up in Cuyahoga Falls, just across the bridge from the North Hill section of Akron. In 1986, he became a Big Brother to an 11-year-old boy there, Charles Taylor.

Lucas got to know many of the other kids in North Hill, including Roderick, Charles' cousin. He saw the growing frustration in their lives, the loss of their futures. Many turned to crime. Violent crime in Akron doubled in the early 1980s. Young black men were most often the culprits.

This misery spawned the Cooler Bandits, all high school friends. The names changed from robbery to robbery, but Porter clearly was their leader. Their first job was 20 years ago: Jan. 16, 1991. Their last was Art's Place. Porter, Roderick and Kelly were arrested hours after putting Berringer in the fridge. Harris was already in jail, charged with another restaurant theft.

Berringer was there when Porter, Roderick and Kelly went to trial. "I wanted to testify against them," he says, though he couldn't identify them because of the masks. "I wanted to make sure they served some time for what they did. But I had no idea ..."

The sentencing stunned them all.

"They saw we was just kids," Kelly says in the film's trailer. "They went all these months, and they couldn't catch these kids, and it upset them, I guess. ... But they made sure we wasn't gonna leave as kids."

Former Summit County Prosecutor Michael Callahan tried the case — five years before Ohio established sentencing guidelines. He won't criticize Judge Frank Bayer, who died in 2002. But he acknowledges, "It looks like he was sending a message."

To me the message was clear: Don't waste the court's time with a trial if you're guilty.

To Porter, a 5-foot-3, 110-pound keg of dynamite, the message was even more brutal. During the proceedings, he tried to escape twice and said to the judge, "f--- yourself." But he did not deserve the Old Testament-style justice.

Roderick, Kelly and Harris were all sent to the state prison in Richland. Bayer dispatched Porter to Lucasville, which houses the baddest of Ohio's bad guys.

That probably would have been the last anyone heard from them, if not for Lucas. He kept in touch with Roderick, Kelly and Harris. In 2006, he decided to tell their story and Porter's. He has raised $15,000 in pledges to pay for an editor. He expects to complete filming in the spring.

"In some ways it's a film about friendship," he says — the friendship that brought them together in high school, led them to their brief lives of crime and helped the first three survive in prison.

Harris was released in 2003. Roderick was paroled in December. Kelly is scheduled to be let out in April, Lucas says.

Porter hasn't been so lucky. In 2002, he got another 10-plus years of federal time for attempting to orchestrate a bank robbery while in prison. He comes up for parole — for the first time — in 2035 at age 63.

By comparison, in 2003, John Zaffino was convicted of Akron's most notorious homicide in decades, the murder of Jeff Zack, boyfriend of Tangier restaurant owner Ed George's wife. Zaffino will be eligible for parole in 2025, a decade before Porter.

In the documentary, Porter still looks younger than his 38 years. But only a kid's mask could hide the sadness, the hopelessness in his eyes.

"Future ... what future?" he asks. "My future got took away when I was sentenced. I don't see how you can take the life of a person who didn't take a life. But they do it."

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