Death Trip

A joyride from Jefferson County to score some dope dead-ends with a murder on the city's streets

"About midnight, we heard a knock and this kid was standing there," recalls Barry. "He said that something's happened, that Jason had been shot. He didn't know where Jason had been taken. We called around to the hospitals in St. Louis, and we found him at SLU. We drove there as fast as we possibly could, but he was gone before we arrived."

Det. Amy Fiala, the officer assigned to the scene, entered St. Louis University Hospital on Grand Boulevard. She made her way to the emergency department, where Jason, freshly expired, lay on a gurney in a draped-off area. The bullet that had pierced his left side went through his lung and aorta. Fiala never got to talk with him, though she did meet Barry and Barbara.

"At the hospital, they were just devastated," says Fiala. "It wasn't real, it couldn't be, but they knew that it was. He was their only son; they had such high hopes for him. They knew the lifestyle he had, but I don't think they would've ever believed it would come down to that."

Fiala recalls Barry's concern about Barbara's seeing Jason's body to make the identification. "They were telling her, "No, you stay here.' But she insisted, and they put her in the wheelchair because they were afraid she'd faint. The staff had cleaned him up, but Jason still had a tube in his mouth, and seeing the family looking at him, seeing their pain, it's so hard. They second-guess themselves, which everybody in that situation does, and they go through the recriminations: "We shouldn't have done this,' or "Maybe if we'd done this.' And I try to tell them, "You can't change who somebody is. They're going to make their own choices, do what they want. You can give the best advice in the world, but 19-year-olds aren't going to listen to Mom and Dad telling them to get off the drugs.'"


Certainly Jason didn't need to visit the mean streets of South St. Louis to get his drugs. He could have scored his dub back home in Jefferson County. There's pot for sale there, and crack cocaine and, judging from the mounting raids on fly-by-night meth labs, plenty of methamphetamine. Jason may have preferred the anonymity of buying from strangers on a city street. Talk of his activities would be unlikely to filter back to his home base. But why that neighborhood; why that corner?

"This is a well-known neighborhood for drugs," says Craig Brune, 18, who lives on the corner of Potomac and Wisconsin. "I don't do drugs, but supposedly you can get the good-quality stuff here -- I mean, you see them selling it on the street. And Cherokee Street is just a block over. That's where they buy their supplies -- the bongs, one-hitters and the papers."

Scant blocks away on Cherokee Street, just west of Jefferson, are two head shops, Spectrums and Ngamsoms, both chockablock with every pot/crack-smoking aid and device known to man. Obviously such merchandise, though perfectly legal, helps draw to the area people who are users of street drugs, and it makes sense that dope peddlers have set up shop in the area.

"[Jason] went there a lot of times," confirms Abby. "He felt like he was in control of the situation because he'd done it before. But he was a trusting person; he always gave everyone the benefit of the doubt. And he didn't expect someone to be that way, because he wouldn't be that way."

"He was one year out of high school," offers Fiala, "and, basically, you feel you're invincible at that age. It seemed like he had just come down here and never thought anything would happen to him, that he could deal with these people like he would deal with anybody else. I don't think he fully understood or feared the lifestyle that these other people led."

At the crucial juncture of the transaction, when the dealers had played their hand, Jason dismissed their very real weapon as "a BB gun." False bravado, or a bad case of naïveté? Most city kids would know that in those neighborhoods it's probably easier to get a real gun than a BB gun. And where's the line between recklessness and self-assurance? Jason did the talking, brazen in itself, but the fact he ignored the dope dealers' patent threat indicates a dauntless character. A young man doesn't earn 31 merit badges without a healthy dose of confidence.

"That was pretty bold," says Matt Nivens, a close friend. "I wouldn't have expected him to get out and run after them like that, unless he felt like he was safe. I don't know what was going through his head. I don't know what to believe."

Matt Nivens and Jason attended ITT, where Matt will soon graduate with a certificate in electronics-engineering technology. Matt was vacationing in Florida when Jason was killed. "I had just talked to the guy before I left. I had bought him a CD while in Florida. I called the morning after I got back, and his mom told me and it just wigged me out."

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