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Top Stories This Week in the Chronicle.
December 14, 2007

Drug deal may have led to man's death

Cleveland--A gay man who was killed in the first hour of December 7 may have been an unfortunate bystander in a drug deal gone bad, not a hate crime victim as was initially feared.

Joseph “Joey” Melaragno, 44, lived in apartment 5 above the Shed and A Man’s World gay bars at the corner of West 29th Street and Detroit Ave.

He was across the hall, in new tenant Santo Barbarotta’s apartment when, according to another neighbor, three men came in. One pulled a gun and put it to Barbarotta’s head, demanding money he owed for crack.

Babarotta, who lives in apartment 10, later told Richard “Dickie” Tomsic in apartment 9 that he handed over $22 and a rock of crack cocaine to the man with the gun, who then asked Melaragno if he had any money.

Melaragno, who friends described as having the mental capacity of a teenager, allegedly started to get up, and was shot. Turning, he ran into the apartment’s kitchen, taking another bullet to the leg.

He then jumped out the kitchen window onto a balcony overlooking the patio behind A Man’s World. He went over the railing, landing on the pavement below, and staggered into the club through the back door, collapsing behind the bar.

“I asked him multiple times, what, where, why?” said bartender James Foster, who called 911 while cradling the fallen Melaragno. “He just said, ‘Help me.’ ”

The incident occurred at about 12:30 am. When police arrived, Melaragno was being treated by EMS. He was taken by ambulance to MetroHealth Medical Center on West 25th St., where he died at 3:08 am on Friday morning.

The following day, Barbarotta, who was on parole for a burglary in 2000, was arrested. Police are still seeking the three visitors.

Melaragno’s funeral was held on December 11, and friends gathered afterward at A Man’s World, where he worked.

“Joey is a rock and roller,” said friend Michael Groves, who also works at the bar and organized the holiday show slated for December 14. “He did my husband’s birthday party, and through that got three more parties.”

Melaragno was scheduled to perform at the holiday party. Instead, it will be held in his honor.

“Joey was going to donate the fee that we paid him and his tips to the AIDS Taskforce,” Groves noted.

“If it’s a charity, Joey was there for it,” Foster noted.

His friends were concerned about Melaragno hanging out with Barbarotta. Melaragno had used crack in the past, but had given it up. They were unsure whether, after drinking beer with Tomsic during the day, and later with Barbarotta, Melaragno had partaken.

“Little Joey’s been off this shit for a long time,” said Tomsic.

Another theory his friends put forward was that, being diabetic, the beer may have spiked his blood sugar.

Regardless of the reason for him getting out of his chair, they believe he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, a tragic end to a colorful life.

He was a drag performer, but stopped doing that about four years ago. While he could not read music, he could teach himself songs on his guitar by listening to them repeatedly. He was a regular sight at A Man’s World, also working with leather clubs and other charities.

Another issue that concerns his friends was the early media coverage of the murder, compiled primarily from the bare-bones police report filed that morning.

With video of the outside of the bar and a utility pole with what looked like blood on the ground at its base, members of the LGBT community worried that another anti-gay hate crime had occurred on Detroit Ave., where two young gay men have been murdered in the last two years.

Melaragno, however, was not in front of the bar that night--he was in his neighbor’s apartment upstairs, then came through the back door. What appeared on video to be a puddle of blood was dirt, perhaps from construction on the building next door.

“This was not a hate crime,” said Foster. “Every newscast portrayed it like that. The way they portrayed it on the news is absolutely wrong.”

Far worse than the fear that coverage evoked, however, was the realization that they had lost a friend.

“Joey was the kind of person that, if he had $3 on him and it was happy hour and beers were $1.75, he would buy you a beer first,” said Ric Scardino, Foster’s partner. “If you and he were waiting for a bus, and you needed $1.25 for the fare, he would give it to you and walk home.”

A memorial service will be held from 2 pm until close on Sunday, December 16 for Melaragno, raising funds for his family. According to Scardino, one of Melaragno’s sisters died recently of cancer, while his brother was killed a few years ago. His parents are in a nursing home, so he hopes that the benefit will be able to assist with the expenses.




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