WHITEHALL, Ohio — The man ended up along a road in Whitehall, wearing a black suit, still dragging his suitcase.
He was supposed to be on a Greyhound bus headed for the East Coast. Whitehall police Officer Scott Miller found him resting beside a bridge. He said his name was Robert.
I’m trying to get to Portland, Maine, he said.
“How did you end up here in Whitehall?” Miller said. “Because you have a very, very long way to go.’”
Miller, now a Whitehall detective, said he listened to the man’s story: An elderly sister with a broken hip who needed help in Maine. Cardiac problems that disrupted his bus trip there. A $20 bus rebooking fee he couldn’t afford.
“I really, really wanted to believe every aspect of his story,” Miller said. “Being a police officer for 16 years now, you obviously hear a lot of stories, and your first instinct is to not trust what you’re hearing.”
But Robert had a book of bus tickets. He had a hospital bracelet around his wrist. He had a business card. So Miller didn’t tell the guy to scram. Instead, he tapped into a little-known pot of money that Whitehall keeps for these very situations.
Area police departments say they sometimes reach out to churches or dip into their own pockets to help people in genuine need. “We are compassionate human beings,” said Westerville Deputy police Chief Ken Bell. But few seem to have the kind of account Whitehall does. Miller said the cash comes from various civic groups that chip in $100 or so apiece.
The money puts people up in hotel rooms or gets them closer to their destinations. Once, it went to a cab ride for a Dayton woman whose friends ditched her in Whitehall after a night of drinking.
And a few months ago, $40 of it ended up in the hands of a Maine-bound man stuck in Whitehall. Miller said he added a few bucks from his own wallet and dropped Robert off at the police station.
Another officer drove him to the bus depot. Miller asked him later how it went. The officer said Greyhound threw Robert a bone, waiving the fee to reinstate his tickets. And then Robert, who was down to his last $18 or $19, tried to give back every Whitehall penny.
The officer wouldn’t have it.