The ninety-second Cleveland Police Academy Class is still fresh in some of the instructor’s minds today. Unlike some of his more boisterous classmates, Benjamin Franklin Grair, Jr. was quiet, reserved, and soft spoken; Ben never called attention to himself. Oftentimes when someone in class was in trouble, he would just smile and nod. That was Ben. So how is it that on August 5, 1983, Patrol Officer Benjamin Frankin Grair, Jr. was killed in the line of duty?
Assigned to the Fourth District, Officer Grair was one of many officers finding themselves working a part-time job to supplement their income. He had taken a job working security for the Ameritrust Bank. Having just lost both of his parents within one month of each other, Officer Grair had misgivings about going to work. Despondent over his recent loss, he tried unsuccessfully to have someone fill in for him that day. He arrived in full uniform and assumed his duties at the security desk. As the customers waited in line and Officer Grair spoke on the phone, a man stepped out of line, calmly walked over to the officer and shot him. No words were exchanged. Still brandishing the weapon, the male jumped over the counter and demanded money from the tellers. Escaping out the front doors, the gun-toting suspect robbed a male of his vehicle and fled the scene.
An extensive manhunt got underway. Within a few hours the get-a-way vehicle was found in East Cleveland not more than a mile from the bank. Several witnesses were interviewed, and the following day, the suspect was positively identified as an ex-employee of the bank. An aggravated murder warrant was issued for one Willie Lee Jester of Cleveland. A photograph of Jester was distributed statewide by members of the department and by the news media. Early the next morning, two security guards at the Terminal Tower spotted Jester walking on Euclid Avenue. They called for police assistance, and Jester was apprehended by the arriving officers after a brief foot-chase. The officers placed Jester under arrest and found him in possession of a large sum of money. Police interviewed Jester’s friend who stated that Jester had given him twenty dollars to hold the gun used in the killing and robbery. The friend kept the gun until he saw news reports of the killing; he then hid it at another location. Later, he gave the gun to the police and informed them that Jester bragged about robbing a jewelry store and knew of a security guard that he could easily shoot. Jester further boasted about a bank he knew he could rob.
On August 8, 1983, at 9:00 am, Willie Lee Jester appeared in Cleveland Municipal Court to face aggravated murder and aggravated robbery charges. While Jester was being arraigned, the family, friends and colleagues of Benjamin Franklin Grair, Jr. laid him quietly to rest. Perhaps Ben was smiling as seven witnesses later that day positively identified Willie Lee Jester as his murderer. Jester’s trial began in mid-June, 1984. Two weeks later, he was found guilty on all counts by a jury of his peers. The jury recommended death in the electric chair.
On December 4, 1984, Judge Simon L. Leis, Jr. concurred with the jury and sentenced Willie Lee Jester to die in the electric chair. He also imposed sentences of ten to twenty-five years for both the bank and motor vehicle robberies plus six more years for gun specifications.
On January 10, 1992, in the 11th hour, outgoing Governor Richard F. Celeste commuted Willie Lee Jester’s death sentence to life imprisonment without parole.
As a member of the Ninety-Second, I still can picture Ben sitting in the classroom with quiet dignity, and I ask myself, “Why?”
Benjamin Grair, Jr.’s name is inscribed on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Wall, Washington, D.C. panel 53, west wall, line 11.
By: Det. Denise L. Reeves, Cleveland Police Dept.