Death Trip

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

Nivens wants to talk about Jason because, he says, the brief that appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on the Monday following Jason's death "sounded too negative. I wanted to show the positive things, too. We went to the city for raves, but we never went to the city to buy pot. When Jason went on probation, he quit drugs. That's what he told me, and I never saw him do it around me after that, and we were together all the time."

Abby also rails at the story in the daily paper, a bare-bones treatment titled "Man Is Dead After Trip to Buy Pot," feeling that it reduced her friend to a cold statistic. "I thought that was retarded," she says. "It came across, like, because the situation had to do with drugs, Jason's life meant nothing. It was just another drug-related death. I mean, he screwed up, a lot, but who doesn't? He was a beautiful person -- some people didn't think so, a lot just saw the bad things about him, but he had a good heart. He always shared everything he had. He liked people, he cared about the human race and he loved kids. He had a nephew, Jordan, that he just loved to death. Kids made him light up, and it makes me sad that he'll never have his own."

Scotty Fried believes Jason was getting his act together at the time he died: "Actually, I think he was doing better than he ever had been doing. He wasn't doing very many drugs, not like what he'd been doing before. He was buying $20 worth of pot -- I mean, that's not much.

The troubled Marine Villa neighborhood in a deceptively quiet moment. When darkness falls, the activity begins. “Prostitutes and drug dealers are out in the open,” says resident Rich Emmons. “It’s like a three-ring circus practically every night.”
The troubled Marine Villa neighborhood in a deceptively quiet moment. When darkness falls, the activity begins. “Prostitutes and drug dealers are out in the open,” says resident Rich Emmons. “It’s like a three-ring circus practically every night.”
Jason Laboube on his 19th birthday, shortly before his death.
Jason Laboube on his 19th birthday, shortly before his death.

"He was a good guy if you knew him," adds Fried. "Like, some people thought that he wasn't all that good, I guess because of drugs, but he really was. He never did nothin' wrong to me or nobody I knew."

"Jason was always happy," says Nivens, "never in a bad mood. I never saw him mad at anyone. He was very polite and, I guess, charming. He's the only one of my friends that my parents ever liked."

"He did not deserve to die. No kids deserve to die for any reason," says Abby. "I don't understand how you can be so cold to just shoot some kid you don't know so you can have his drugs and $20. They weren't even good drugs. But he was in the game, you know, and when you're in the game, I guess, you accept all consequences."


Ben Eldridge is on the second floor of a brick building at Illinois and Potomac, boarding up windows busted out by the local riffraff. Eldridge, a retiree, doesn't live here, but he bought the building, the former Busy Bee Cafe, nine years ago as a rental property. The place is now empty, the tenants having left several months ago. Eldridge comes around a couple of days a week for a few hours, trying to fix up the place for new tenants. On a cold, bleak weekday afternoon, he stops unloading his van to talk about life in the neighborhood.

"They're putting bricks through my windows," he says, shaking his head in disgust. "I've had five knocked out in the last two weeks. I've been burglarized three times in three years. The cops won't ever come down here. They just take the report over the phone." He points to a squat boarded-up home across Illinois Street. "That house there on the corner rented for a long time. Now it's shut up, getting the windows knocked out of it, too."

Indeed, that corner, the place where Jason and his friends initially went to score, seems to have cancer. Five houses on or near the intersection are boarded up. Broken upper-floor windows with jagged panes of glass disgrace the once-handsome edifices. Fast-food containers and sundry trash litter the area, and someone has taken red spray paint to the sidewalk, scrawling a message, an exhortation, in the language of Marine Villa: "Illinois block dub up."

Marine Villa is a neighborhood in turmoil. Although the incidence of murder and rape has been low since 1998, reports of robbery, assault, burglary, larceny and auto theft are rampant, with larceny almost a daily occurrence. Yet the area is far from blighted. One block up Potomac to the west, on Missouri Avenue, new single-family homes sell for $80,000. James Rollins, Marine Villa's neighborhood-stabilization officer (a paid position in the city's Department of Public Safety), says that some of the shuttered houses that lie south of Potomac on Illinois are slated for demolition, to clear ground for more new housing. On nearby Jefferson Avenue, some three blocks distant, Concordia Publishing and St. Alexius Hospital add stability to the neighborhood. "Both of these institutions have programs that provide money to employees who acquire property or live in property in the area," says Rollins. "That encourages redevelopment in the neighborhood."

Rollins is part of the Caring Community Steering Committee, actively working to restabilize Marine Villa. But as long as the drug dealers operate with impunity, the neighborhood will likely be a long time coming back. Drug sales -- along with prostitution, muggings and other related crimes -- are by no means confined to Illinois and Wisconsin (according to locals, a nest of crack houses on the other side of Broadway is periodically swept clean by police raids), but there have been known drug activity and drug arrests on or near each of these streets as they cross Potomac.

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