ST. BERNARD, OH — If someone points a gun at you, it will probably be one of the most frightening events of your life.
In Hamilton County, many of the accused get out of jail quickly by posting bonds of $500 or less and, in some cases, nothing at all, according to court records in several hundred recently filed cases reviewed by the WCPO 9 I-Team.
Court records show that in some of those cases, victims claimed the defendant had pointed a gun at them and threatened to kill them.
"That leads victims to believe that nobody is there for them," St. Bernard Police Lt. Bill Ungruhe said.
The I-Team's reporting focused on misdemeanor aggravated menacing charges, which requires a threat to cause "serious" harm to a person or property.
So far in 2021, there have been 769 charges of aggravated menacing, more than double the 377 similar charges filed during the same period in 2014.
A conviction carries a maximum sentence of 180 days in jail.
There's no part of Ohio law that allows a felony charge of aggravated menacing for pointing a loaded firearm at people, even if the defendant threatens to kill the victim and fires shots to prove the threat should be taken more seriously.
"We need to increase those penalties with regards to firearms," Ungruhe said.
Judges dismissed the charges in most of the cases reviewed by the I-Team because the victims failed to cooperate with prosecutors.
Some of the victims claimed they were afraid to testify.
In June, Ungruhe and other officers responded to a report that a man with a gun had threatened to kill someone in their home.
St. Bernard Police Department body camera video shows officers arriving at the scene, securing the residence and arresting the suspect, Andrew Kay.
Kay, a convicted felon prohibited from possessing firearms, can be seen on the body camera video telling officers that he had held a gun and threatened a friend.
"I was going to fix one of my friends' laser on his gun," Kay told officers on the body camera video.
On the body camera video, Kay said, "I got real mad at him and told him I could've shot him."
"You said you were going to kill him," Ungruhe said to Kay, according to the body camera video. "Did you mean that?"
"Yeah, I did," Kay responded on the video.
At the time, that friend and his business partner declined to file a complaint against Kay because they were afraid of him, according to police records.
Court records show Kay has served prison sentences in Ohio and Kentucky.
"I've got home invasion, possession, handgun by a felon, cocaine possession," Kay told police on the body camera video.
Ungruhe charged Kay with Having Weapons While Under Disability, a third-degree felony.
A judge released Kay on his own recognizance.
The next day, Kay began threatening his friend's business partner, according to court records and witness statements to police.
"Not in my wildest dreams did I think he was going to get let out of jail," the man told Ungruhe during an interview recorded on police body camera video in Ungruhe's office.
The victim, who claimed Kay had threatened to kill him days earlier, showed police text messages he said Kay sent him soon after Kay was released.
The text messages read: "You're dead" and "I'll start with the dog. I'll be feeding him to you."
The texts also talked about the victim being Jewish.
"I'm very fearful," the man told Ungruhe during the interview.
Police charged Kay with aggravated menacing and ethnic intimidation. After that, he was released again without bond.
"That's a problem," Ungruhe said. "It's bad enough it happened the first time, but the second time you would think they would be able to look back and say, hey, this just happened. We need to stop this."
Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters has repeatedly criticized judges for releasing defendants in gun cases on little or no bond.
But in addition to finding numerous cases of defendants released on little or no bond in aggravated menacing cases involving guns, the I-Team also found cases where judges required defendants to post tens of thousands of dollars in cash to get out of jail.
In some cases, judges set much higher bonds for defendants who didn't have a gun than they did for defendants who allegedly had firearms when they made threats to kill victims.
"One day we're getting slammed for a bond that's too low. The next day we're getting slammed for a bond that's too high," Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge Josh Berkowitz told the I-Team. "I try to focus on the case in front of me."
In Andrew Kay's case, days after he got out for a second time without bond, a third judge set a $40,000 bond for Kay.
Kay didn't post bond.
He pleaded guilty to ethnic intimidation.
A judge sentenced Kay to 120 days confinement for the ethnic intimidation conviction and credited him for 120 days time served.
Kay was placed on community control and ordered to spend six months in a treatment program at River City Correctional Center.
"If they saw that the system was putting people away and something was happening to that individual, I think they would be more willing to come forward," Ungruhe said. "In this case, I know for a fact that the victim is very fearful to this day."