CINCINNATI – There are striking similarities in the stories of Otto Frederick Warmbier and Noel Winston Menifee.
Both were 21 when they were imprisoned (wrongfully, we dare say) in a foreign country. Both were Cincinnati high school graduates who had finished two years of college. Both were taking vacation with classmates, looking for fun and adventure – not a nightmare or death trap.
There were two major differences, though:
Menifee’s encounter took place some 50 years before Warmbier’s. And while Warmbier died as a result of his imprisonment in North Korea, Menifee was freed and survived thanks to the intervention of legendary WCPO News Director and Anchor Al Schottelkotte.
Because of the different times and circumstances. Warmbier‘s tragic story is known worldwide, but Menifee’s may not be remembered beyond his own family.
Still, it was big news in Cincinnati in the fall of 1965.
On Oct. 14, the WCPO-TV audience got to see Menifee’s emotional reunion with his tearful mother and sister near the Mexican border. A Mexican federal judge had freed him after seven weeks in primitive confinement.
One day later, Schottelkotte and chief photographer Frank Jones flew home with the three Menifees on a plane provided by Scripps-Howard, WCPO’s parent company. They were greeted at Lunken Airport by U.S. Rep. Donald Clancy, who also had interceded on Menifee’s behalf.
Menifee was arrested while driving with three classmates from Ohio University. They had crossed from Texas into Mexico on their way to one friend’s home in Monterrey, Mexico.
It was about 3 a.m. on Aug. 24 when they reached the border crossing at Reynosa, Mexico. Later, Mexican authorities said they arrested Menifee (the others were freed) because he didn’t stop at the crossing to register his car.
The former Princeton High basketball star was charged with smuggling – a serious crime in Mexico then, punishable by several years in prison.
Soon after the arrest, Schottelkotte concluded the charge was bogus after reaching Menifee by phone at the jail and talking with Mexican officials.
Menifee did indeed stop to register, advised by his Mexican friend to do so, Schottelkotte reported. But the lone guard on duty in the middle of the night had waved them on, saying it wasn’t necessary to register then and there.
Schottelkotte took up Menifee’s cause after Menifee’s mother, Vivian (nicknamed Sadie), called the station and asked for his help.
“I had gotten a letter from my son that day and I was so upset wondering what should I do,” Vivian Menifee told WCPO at the time. “So I laid there on the floor (watching) Al Schottelkotte and I said, ‘That’s what I’ll do.' I had used up all my other resources. I didn’t know what else to do. So I just decided I would call Al and see if he could help me.”
It was soon clear to Schottelkotte that Vivian Menifee wasn’t going to take no for an answer. And Schottelkotte learned that the Menifee family of Woodlawn was known for helping others. Vivian was a nurse at Jewish Hospital, and one of her daughters was a nurse who cared for former Cincinnati Royal Maurice Stokes. The three-time NBA All-Star was paralyzed by a hard fall on the court in 1963, which led to his death 12 years later at age 36.
“After I talked to Al, it was such a relief,” Menifee’s mother said. “I thought, ‘At last, I’ve got something going for me.’”
Menifee’s mother told Schottelkotte she had called the American consulate in Mexico, but they hadn’t lifted a finger for her son.
She also told Schottelkotte that her son had written her and said he was being “badly mistreated.”
There were about 250 prisoners, with boys mixed with men, small-time offenders mixed with hardened criminals, Menifee said. And there was constant fighting. Menifee said he had been beaten up because he went to the aid of a boy who was being abused.
All the prisoners slept outside on the ground. A few prisoners who had bunks had bribed the guards for them. After a month, the family of Menifee’s Mexican friend paid to get him a bunk.
For three weeks, the guards made Menifee stand up at all times except when sleeping at night, his mother said. He never got to sit or lie down otherwise.
For food, the prisoners got a steady diet of tortillas. One prisoner freely sold pot to others who had money.
The Mexican family hired an attorney for Menifee and discovered that Menifee had been convicted in a lower court without even hearing his charges or getting to appear at a hearing.
After confirming Menifee’s story, Schottelkotte contacted Clancy, who worked with the State Department to get Menifee’s case moved to a Mexican federal court. Once that was arranged, Menifee was home free, Clancy later said.
Menifee's mother and sister and Schottelkotte and Jones waited for Menifee's attorney to drive him to their hotel in McAllen, Texas. His mother and sister, Jean Watson, were sitting on a couch when he casually walked through the door with a big smile.
Vivian Menifree burst into tears, and her son hugged her.
“Don’t cry, Mom,” he said.
“Don’t do this again to me, please don’t,” she answered through her tears.
It was than two weeks from the day Menifee’s mother called Schottelkotte to the day Menifee was released.
But Schottelkotte wasn’t finished working the story.
Before flying back to Cincinnati, he and Jones drove to the Reynosa jail.
“I went on the chance they’d talk to us,” Schottelkotte reported. “The captain in charge, standing at the front steps, said no and left it clear he meant it."
Some half-dozen guards stood by him with weapons, Schottelkotte said. He said no pictures, but Jones snuck a couple from the car as they pulled away.
Once the plane landed at Lunken, Menifee shook hands with Clancy and thanked him.
“I was very fortunate to have help,” Menifee said.