Detroit — As he stared down the barrel of a nickel-plated pistol wielded by a teenaged gunman demanding the keys to his Jeep, Jesse Rutledge said an odd thought entered his mind:
“I’m thinking, ‘This kid is so little; how’s he going to see over the steering wheel?'” said the 88-year-old former Tuskegee Airman who flew bombing missions over Japan in World War II.
That initial thought was replaced by fear, said Rutledge, who was carjacked by four youths as he left a barber shop near Harper and Van Dyke at about 4 p.m. Saturday.
“Yeah, I was scared.” Rutledge, a former gunner on a B-25 bomber, shook his head. “I’m 80-something years old and I still got to fight out here.”
Police arrested the alleged robbers — ages 13, 14, 15 and 16 — the next day.
“They were charged as juveniles with carjacking,” said Maria Miller, spokeswoman for Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy. “As juveniles, the court has the option of retaining jurisdiction on them until they are 21 if they are convicted.”.
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A $75,000 bond was set for the gunman and $50,000 bonds were set for his accomplices. All four are scheduled to appear in court on March 20.
The day of the incident started out like many Saturdays for Rutledge: He drove his 1999 Jeep Cherokee to the Sportzone Barber Shop not far from his home.
“I like to go down and see my buddies in the barber shop, and watch TV for awhile,” he said. “I left the shop and was walking toward my Jeep, when these kids came out of this abandoned house and walked straight toward me like they know me or something.
“The littlest one had the gun and he did all the talking. He said, ‘Give me your keys.’ I was slow getting the keys and this kid racks his gun and tells me, ‘You don’t think I’ll shoot you, do you (expletive)?’ Where would someone that young get a gun like that?”
Rutledge, an Alabama native who heard the same racial epithet many times growing up in the Deep South and while serving in the military, said it was disconcerting to have an African-American youth call him that while leveling a pistol at him.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids,” he said. “When I was that age, I was working a mule, plowing fields. These kids have no home-training, I guess.”
Born in 1924, Rutledge joined the U.S. Army at age 18 and served with the Tuskegee Airmen in 1942 and 1943. He said he faced his share of racial prejudice while in the Army.
“I got locked up in Augusta, Ga.,” he said. “They locked us all up; some guy walks up with a huge Abraham Lincoln gun, messing with us because we were black, and threw us in jail for 8 hours. MPs had to come get us out”.
Rutledge recounted another incident — “somewhere on a highway in Georgia” — when the proprietor of an ice cream shop wouldn’t let him eat the cone he’d just purchased inside the store because of his race.
After his discharge from the Army, Rutledge moved to Detroit in 1948, landed a job in a Chrysler factory, and used the GI Bill to get training as a tool-and-die operator.
He saved his money, and eventually bought three businesses near his favorite barbershop: A laundromat, an ice cream parlor and a shoe repair shop.
“I’ve been through a lot, but I’ve never been robbed before,” he said. “I guess it’s happening everywhere.
“What gets me the most is how young these kids were — and they did it in broad daylight. It’s pretty scary, having some kid stick a gun in your face like that. They didn’t want any money; just told me to give them my keys.”
Rutledge, a married grandfather of two, said the incident has tested his faith in human nature.
“We give these kids free airplane rides once a month (at Coleman A. Young International Airport),” Rutledge said. “Some of them are good kids. But others …” His voice trailed off.
“What are these kids going to do when they grow up? It’s ridiculous what’s happening out here,” he said. “But I’m not going to do anything different. They’re not going to scare me into sitting in the house all the time. I’ve been through a lot, but I’ve made it so far.”