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Ed's Tavern death: 'It was supposed to be a good night'

An encounter between strangers leaves one dead, the other charged.

By Elizabeth Leland
Eleland@charlotteobserver.com

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This story originally appeared in the Observer on March 25, 2012.

A faded poster in a strip of grass across the street from Ed’s Tavern stood for days as a memorial to Robert Kingston: “Bobby,” one hand-written tribute said, “thanks for all the great memories and laughs! We’ll miss you. I’m sure you’re cracking everyone up in heaven.”

Three weeks after Kingston was hit by a car in Dilworth, the pain and the shock surrounding his senseless death continue to reverberate, even as the circumstances of what happened that Saturday night remain in question.

A 30-year-old man described as “a kind, fun-loving free spirit” is dead. A 23-year-old law student with an exemplary past and a promising future is accused of pushing him in front of a car. A motorist, who happened to be passing by, is haunted by the horrifying moment when a figure suddenly appeared out of the dark in front of his car.

The sound of the crash was so jarring that homeowners heard it and came running.

“I asked the police officer if (Kingston) was OK, and that’s when she told me,” law student Kenan Gay said in an interview with the Observer. His voice choked. “I felt sick,” he said. “It’s just gut-wrenching.”

Police allege that Gay pushed Kingston outside the bar and into the street on March 3. Gay’s attorneys claim he pushed him outside, and Kingston, intoxicated, stumbled on his own into Park Road.

However it happened, and for whatever reason, his death raises questions about whether too much alcohol clouded the men’s judgment. Though their blood alcohol levels have not been released, no one disputes that they both were drinking.

That night, Ed’s was running a $2.50 special on a Charlotte beer, Birdsong Brewing’s pale ale. UNC Chapel Hill had just beaten rival Duke 88-70 in college hoops, and the band Dubb Axxess was playing reggae music while people partied.

Gay, who lives in Dilworth, told the Observer that he, his girlfriend and two friends watched the game at Sutton House restaurant and bar on East Boulevard, then headed to Ed’s after 9 p.m. to join friends from Charlotte School of Law.

Ed’s was their regular hangout, he said, where they met for burgers, beer and pool most Thursdays to mark the end of the school week.

“It was supposed to be a good night,” said Gay, who graduated from UNC. “Carolina had just beat Duke at Duke.”

‘A possible fatality’

The first call to 911 came in at 10:40 p.m., about an hour and a half after the game ended.

“We have a hit and run in front of Ed’s Tavern,” a man can be heard saying on a tape released at the Observer’s request. “It’s Ed’s Tavern on the corner of Park Road and Ideal Way. We have someone laying in the street, a possible fatality. ...”

‘I will never understand’

Friends knew Robert Edward Kingston III as Robb or Bobby, and some by the nickname Bear. He once lived in Dilworth, too, not far from Ed’s.

“All I can picture are news(tapes) of my friend lying in the middle of a Charlotte street with a cloth draped over his lifeless body,” Michael Rill blogged about his friend from childhood. “… I will never understand how or why this tragic turn of events took place.”

Kingston grew up in suburban Columbus, Ohio, where he played high school football, basketball and tennis. He majored in political science at Wittenberg University.

In Charlotte, he worked two years as an account executive with the Bobcats organization, which held a moment of silence in his memory at its March 6 game against Orlando. He also worked as operations manager at Apex Transportation Co. He was engaged to a school teacher here last year, but the wedding had been called off.

“Robb made me feel involved, included and, most importantly, as cool and as popular as he was,” Rill wrote. “… He would offer you the shirt off his back if you needed it.”

Kingston’s family members have not spoken publicly since his death, and Rill and other friends declined to comment out of respect for them.

Rill said on his blog that Kingston was “often times hilarious to the extreme.” On the memorial near Ed’s, a friend wrote, “I can honestly say there will never be another quite like Bobby Kingston.”

‘I just ran over someone’

Moments after the first call to 911, a second call came in.

“Oh my God. What just happened to me?” said the motorist who hit Kingston. “I just ran over someone on Park Road. He just ran out right in front of me ...

“911, Ed’s Tavern, please, on the way,” the motorist implored. “I just ran over someone on Park Road. 911, Ed’s Tavern. Please!”

The neighborhood bar

Ed’s operates out a brick building affectionately known by longtime Dilworth residents as “the old Martin Hardware building.” For 42 years, John Martin sold nails, gadgets and obscure pieces of hardware in his cavernous store.

Then, one afternoon in 1993, Martin was murdered. A man pretending to be a customer beat him with an ax handle, police said, and stole $75. Martin, who was 81 and had lung cancer, died five days later. More than 18 years have passed, and the case remains unsolved.

The building changed hands several times, reinventing itself as Harvey’s Garage Restaurant & Bar, then Wing Ranch, next Mad Dog Café and most recently, in 2006, as Ed’s Tavern. Though other businesses failed, Ed’s prospered. That popularity has brought problems, said neighbors who complain of loud late-night music and rowdy drunks.

The relationship between the tavern and the neighbors is so strained that homeowners took their concerns to police after Kingston died. “I watched somebody do CPR, then put a white sheet over him,” one woman told police. “It’s time something was done.”

‘Someone pushed him’

“… Apparently these guys are telling me now that somebody pushed this guy out in the road and it was right in front of me,” the motorist told 911.

“… Can you find out from anybody the people that pushed him in front of his car, who they are, what do they look like?”

The motorist asked someone, then told the operator: “… The guy who pushed him ran away…. A blond tall guy, about 6-foot-3. 6-4. Carolina blue college shirt….”

‘A get-along guy’

After Gay was arrested, more than 150 people from all stages of his life, many from his hometown of Sanford, wrote the court on his behalf. They described him as polite, respectful, compassionate, humble – a peacemaker and a “get-along guy.”

Teachers. Bankers. Coaches. Even his orthodontist wrote and said, “He is the epitome of what I would want my son to be.” His pastor said, “We need more Kenan Gays in the world.”

The Observer interviewed Gay on March 14, after he was released from jail on $100,000 bond. He wore a blue button-down Polo shirt tucked into khakis, and fidgeted with a pen as he quietly fielded questions for over an hour in his attorney’s office.

He kept his composure except when he talked about Kingston dying and about the support from his family and friends. Then he fought back tears.

He has no criminal record. He said he has never been in a fight. “I guess I’m the opposite of having a bad temper,” he said. “I just deal with things internally. … I don’t feel any need to make a big scene or anything like that.”

Though defense attorney David Rudolf barred any discussion about what happened at Ed’s, Gay provided a few new details.

Earlier that day, he said he worked on a midterm in copyright law. Gay, a graduate of UNC Chapel Hill, is in his second year at law school. “My life’s kind of boring,” he said. “It’s my apartment, work, law school, the gym and hanging out with my girlfriend and going out with friends.”

He drives his girlfriend, Liz Wicker, to and from her job uptown every day so she won’t have to pay for parking. She grew up in Sanford and works in Charlotte as a tax accountant. Asked how long they have dated, Gay said, “Two years and let’s see … Is today the 14th? … Two years and three months exactly.” By way of explanation, he said, “She’s my first serious girlfriend.”

He said he’s picked out an engagement ring.

At Ed’s, his attorneys said, Gay was trying to protect Wicker from Kingston’s unwanted advances.

How far did he push him?

Accounts differ about what happened.

Police said that based on initial witness statements, the two men were involved in “an altercation” inside Ed’s that spilled outside. The owner of Ed’s said there was no fight in the bar, and Gay’s attorneys agreed.

In a bond motion filed in Superior Court, the attorneys alleged that witnesses said a bald-headed guy who appeared to be intoxicated approached Wicker several times near the front door, where she was listening to the band. Gay, the motion said, noticed but did not intervene.

Wicker is an outgoing pretty woman with long blond hair. “I’m the type of person that if somebody continues to bother me, I’m not going to be rude and cause a scene,” she said. “I kind of turn and hope it goes away.”

Gay told the Observer that Kingston was “constantly staring at her. She’s his focus.” Then, Gay said, he heard Kingston tell friends: “Watch this.”

According to the motion, Kingston then grabbed Wicker’s buttocks with both hands and leaned his face in to hers in an apparent attempt to kiss her. She turned away, the motion said, and Gay stepped up.

“To me it was like somebody who didn’t know her was taking advantage of her kindness,” Gay said. “I felt like I didn’t want it to progress any farther.”

He shoved Kingston out the open front door, the motion said, “to stop Kingston from assaulting Elizabeth.”

Gay’s attorneys declined to say how far he shoved Kingston. It’s about 45 feet from the door to the middle of the southbound lane of Park Road, where Kingston was run over.

There’s a walkway about seven feet wide just outside the door. You step down into a row of parking spaces that extend 20 feet to the sidewalk. An entryway slopes down another eight feet to a bike lane. From there, it’s 10 feet to the middle of the traffic lane.

The day after Kingston died, Alan Cole, who owns Ed’s, said he saw Gay grab Kingston by the collar, run him to the edge of the street and toss him into the traffic lane. “The victim,” Cole said, “didn’t even have a chance to get to his feet before he was hit by an oncoming car.” Cole has declined further comment.

Gay’s attorneys said in their motion that Gay pushed Kingston outside the bar and that “what happened thereafter, according to several witnesses, was that Kingston, who was intoxicated, stumbled into the street in front of a passing car.”

How Kingston ended up in the street is at the heart of the second-degree murder case.

‘He was running away’

“The guy who pushed him ran away,” the motorist told 911.

“… Okay, did they see which way he went?”

“He ran down Park Road … towards, like, East Boulevard, South Boulevard … He was by himself. He was running away.”

Why did he run?

The motorist, who is 31 and works in finance, said he was on his way to Park Road Shopping Center to meet friends when he hit Kingston. He pulled over and called 911.

Asked last week how he is doing, he said: “Better as the days go on.”

He declined further comment and asked that his name not be published. He has not been charged.

While the motorist was seeking help for Kingston, Gay ran away.

He was found about 10 minutes later a few blocks north along Park Road.

If he didn’t push Kingston into the street, why did he run?

Before Gay could answer, Rudolf told him not to.

Many questions remain unanswered. Police and prosecutors have declined to comment, and it could be a year or longer before the case is tried. Gay is charged with second-degree murder, which means the state must prove either he intended to kill Kingston but without premeditation, or he did not intend to kill Kingston but acted out of malice.

Last week, Gay resumed law school. “My focus,” he said, “is getting back in my daily routine and being close to my family and friends.”

Asked if he is optimistic about the outcome of the criminal case, he said: “I know what happened. There’s no hoping I get lucky or anything like that. I know what happened. You can’t change it.”

Is there anything he would say to Kingston’s family?

“It was a devastating accident and I’m terribly, terribly sorry for the Kingston family and their loss.”

Researcher Maria David contributed.

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