Burned

Ellen Reasonover has served 16 years of a life sentence for murder. But new evidence -- a secret tape and a forgotten memo -- suggests that the prosecution may have committed the real crime.

Ellen Reasonover worried that her former boyfriend, Stanley White, was angry. He looked mad, anyway, when they placed him in the holding cell next to hers in the Dellwood police station on Jan. 7, 1983, and because she hadn't seen him since her arrest, she didn't know what kind of mood he was in.

In fact, she hadn't seen White since the month before, when she called the police on him after he pulled up in the parking lot of her apartment building in a large, dark car and broke the window of her own automobile because of an argument they'd had earlier.

Maybe he was still mad about that. Maybe he was just scared. She was a little worried, too, about being accused of robbing and murdering that young white boy at the Vickers service station on Jan. 2, but she knew the police didn't have any evidence against her and figured they'd hold her a little while and then let her go home.

The fact that White was here now, though, that wasn't a good sign. She hadn't told the police he did it, even when they showed her the awful photographs of the crime scene and accused her and White of beating up 19-year-old James Buckley and then shooting him seven times with a .22-caliber rifle until he was dead. Not even then, looking at those pathetic pictures, had she rolled over on anybody, least of all Stan.

Maybe he was just mad about being hauled in. Maybe he thought she really had told the police he was involved when they pressured her, threatened her with life in prison and showed her those terrible, terrible photos, or maybe, just maybe ...

"Stan?" she asked from her cell.
"What?"
"Did you rob that Vickers place?"

It was a question she felt she needed to ask. Her own life hadn't exactly been a session in slapstick, but neither she nor Stanley White had ever been convicted of anything before, and robbing and killing a young white boy like that, well, that was something serious.

"Babe, you know I been here but ain't done no shit like that," White said.
She told him she figured as much.
"You know one thing I can't understand?" White asked.
"What?

"They, they, they really trippin' and everything, and I ain't did a motherfuckin' thing."

"These motherfuckers is crazy," she assured White, "think you gonna rob and kill a, a young white boy, kill him, take his life."

"You know me better than that, sister."
"Yeah, I know you ain't done no shit like that."
"You know what?" White asked.
"What?"

"I'm gonna tell you somethin'. If I knew somethin', I would tell the motherfuckers. I don't know shit, and I'm not lyin'."

"I'm tellin' you. I mean, gosh, Stan, you know, if I had somethin' to do with that shit, I'da snitched on you and everybody else that I thought was involved."

But she hadn't. The day after Buckley was found dead on the floor of the Vickers station on West Florissant Avenue, Reasonover called the Dellwood police and told them she'd been at the Laundromat next door that night and had gone to the service window of the station to get change. She said that when she got there, she saw a young black man inside, and it dawned on her that he looked like someone she'd met somewhere before, someone she couldn't quite place. But when she knocked on the window to get his attention and he didn't respond, she told the police, she drove her AMC Hornet down the street to a 7-Eleven to get change there instead.

As she began to pull out of the Vickers parking lot, Reasonover said, she saw a police car cruise by, and because her Hornet was missing a taillight, she waited until it drove past -- she didn't need a ticket, especially because she had been warned about the light earlier.

At the 7-Eleven, Reasonover told police, she saw the same man she saw at the Vickers station, but with two other people -- one in a green army jacket -- in a large, dark car, maybe a Buick or Cadillac, with whitewall tires and another tire on the trunk. She said she didn't think much about it until the next day, when her mother saw a report about Buckley's murder on TV and told her daughter to call the police and tell them what she saw.

Reasonover said she didn't want to call anybody and tell them anything, but after her mother asked, "What if that was one of your brothers who got killed? Wouldn't you want a witness to come forward?" she agreed, but only if she could give the police a fake name so that, in case the man she saw was someone she knew, she wouldn't have to worry about any trouble down the road. The next day, she went into the Dellwood police station to look at mug shots, and when Capt. Dan Chapman asked her for identification, she admitted that she had given a fake name. She then picked out two men from the mug shots who she said resembled the men she saw the night of Buckley's murder.

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