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A humble hero reflects: Bill Leone tackled Wendell Williamson in 1995 shooting

<p>Bill Leone stands at the corner of Henderson and Rosemary streets, near where he was 20 years ago when he tackled Wendell Williamson.</p>
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Bill Leone stands at the corner of Henderson and Rosemary streets, near where he was 20 years ago when he tackled Wendell Williamson.

Whenever the 46-year-old returns to Chapel Hill, old acquaintances still recognize him when he’s walking down the street.

“Hey, you’re the Chapel Hill hero,” they will say to him.

Leone doesn’t understand it. He never did it for the recognition. On that day 20 years ago, he was just following his gut.

On Jan. 26, 1995, UNC law student Wendell Williamson walked down Henderson Street carrying a semi-automatic rifle. He opened fire and killed two people: Chapel Hill resident Ralph Walker Jr. and UNC student Kevin Reichardt.

Leone, a then-UNC senior and ex-Marine, heard the shots while taking inventory at the Tammany Hall bar on Rosemary Street, where The Chapel Hill Underground is now located. He didn’t think about what to do next. He felt it.

“I was a Marine before I went to college, and I was in the first Desert Storm, and people always attribute it to that,” he said. “I attribute it to being from New Jersey, I don’t know.”

Crawling through the gravel lot beside the bar, he noticed bystanders paused on the streets watching Williamson or watching the event from their windows.

“And I just thought, ‘He’s going to shoot one of these people through a window,’” he said. “They were standing there just looking at the guy.”

‘I just didn’t feel it’

Leone said he remembers six police officers were already on the scene, shooting at Williamson. Leone approached Williamson.

Williamson turned his gun towards Leone.

Leone dove towards Williamson, tackling him and ending the shooting. Williamson was arrested and later would be charged with two counts of first-degree murder. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity in 1995.

In the process, Leone was shot in the shoulder. The bullet slightly cut him on his shoulder and bounced off.

Leone said it is unclear if one of the six police officers on sight hit Leone or if Williamson did. But Leone didn’t notice he was shot until he arrived at the hospital.

“I just didn’t feel it,” he said.

The day was cold, gray and nasty, by Leone’s accounts, the sky humming of possible rain.

“It wasn’t traumatic to me,” he said. “I never felt like I did enough to garner attention because people died, and so I’ve always kind of let it go.”

The next day, interview requests from media outlets came pouring in. The only interview he did was one of Matt Lauer’s first for the Today Show.

“We had been celebrating all night,” Leone said. “And suddenly at 5:30 (a.m.) there were people knocking at my door.”

He started receiving job offers. During a spring break trip to Mexico, female UNC students whom Leone said would have never talked to him were suddenly interested in his life. Professors were more benevolent towards him. More people were actively trying to be his friend.

Because no one knew who actually shot Leone, lawyers even called him to offer their services in case Leone wanted to sue the Chapel Hill Police Department. He never took those offers, and he never wanted to entertain them.

“It was my 10 minutes,” he said.

Dan Holmes, who graduated from UNC in 1994, worked with Leone at Tammany Hall. On Jan. 26, 1995, Holmes was in Charlotte when he got a call saying Leone had been involved in a tragedy and was shot.

So Holmes got in his car and drove out to see him.

When he heard the story, he wasn’t surprised that Leone had intervened.

“And he was very quick to remind (the press) of the tragedy itself,” Holmes said. “I think that pretty much embodies him as a person.”

World’s worst stockbroker

But Leone’s life prior to his few minutes of fame wasn’t glamorous.

After attending high school in New Jersey, Leone enlisted in the Marines in 1987. For the next four years, he was a military man. He spent most of his tour overseas, and he was a part of the first Desert Storm operation.

When he was appointed to the naval academy, he turned it down.

“In Desert Storm, I hadn’t seen a woman or a beer in six months,” Leone said. “And I was like, ‘You know, I think I’m going to do something different.’”

So he enrolled at UNC. The plan was to major in business, but he was rejected from the school. His credits transferred into the industrial relations major, a program which is now called management and society.

When he graduated from UNC, Leone knew one thing: He didn’t want to exploit his fame. He turned down job offers, packed his bags and went to Atlanta to be a stockbroker.

As Leone puts it, “I was, hands-down, the world’s worst stockbroker.” To make ends meet, he would work part-time as a bartender.

Eventually, a friend offered him a job with Budweiser Brewing, beginning Leone’s career in the beer and wine industry. Now, he’s the sales manager at the Mutual Distributing Company in Raleigh, N.C.

The Chapel Hill hero

Daniel Kulenic, a partner at Tyler’s Taproom in Carrboro, was a freshman at UNC when the shooting occurred.

He recognized the name: Bill Leone. But he never saw the man.

Until many years later when Leone came into Tyler’s for a drink. They found a connection and started their friendship.

Kulenic remembered that name, though: Leone.

So he brought it up the next time he saw Leone for a drink.

“He’s a big personality, a big guy and a lot of respect, but he’s also a humble man,” Kulenic said. “So it definitely wasn’t anything he wanted to promote, but he couldn’t deny it at the same time.”

Reminiscing while at Top of the Hill’s Back Bar, Leone doesn’t understand why people still care.

Most UNC students weren’t even born yet when this shooting happened. Yet, people recognize him.

If he had it his way, he wouldn’t continue to tell the story. But his wife of 10-and-a-half years, Donna Leone, is proud of him and encourages him to share his story, especially for their two boys.

“It’s cool when I’m with my kids and someone comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, you’re the Chapel Hill hero.’”

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