Show Me the Money

The state gutted years of Ellen Reasonover and Steve Toney’s lives and tossed them out without apology. Now that money’s short for both, will the state ante up?

Listen. Can you hear? Ellen Reasonover is sobbing today. Today, almost 20 months removed from the Chillicothe Correctional Center, almost 20 months removed from 16-and-a-half years in hell. Steven Goldman, are you listening? Dan Chapman, you? Ellen, she wants to know. Even as she attempts a valiant smile through those tears. Almost seems God never meant for her to cry. Gave her that smooth little-girl voice that can slither its way around a conversation so pleasantly and then, unobtrusively, slink right back out. Seems that voice was preordained to pull funnies, not explain tears in a tone so strained and worn.

But it has. Explained so many tears. And so many times over. Tears of uncertainty.

Of fear. Of anger. Of anguish. Of coping. Of remembrance.

After 16-and-a-half years in prison, Ellen Reasonover has been free for 20 months. But now what?
Jennifer Silverberg
After 16-and-a-half years in prison, Ellen Reasonover has been free for 20 months. But now what?
Steve Toney: "I've given out a long time ago, but I just don't give up."
Jennifer Silverberg
Steve Toney: "I've given out a long time ago, but I just don't give up."

And now, today, almost 20 months removed from an existence where days and months collapsed into half-a-life's languish too chilling to recall and too real to forget, those tears, those initial tears of uncertainty and fear, have come back to haunt her. Yes, she's sprung now, but ... now what? Now what? Today, 20 months removed, Ellen honestly doesn't know.

"Sometimes I wish they'd never let me out," she says today. And again: "Sometimes I wish they'd never let me out."

Ellen doesn't remember, though Steve Toney has told her plenty of times, but she and Steve -- she then a convicted killer, Steve then a convicted rapist -- rode the same bus during a 1983 journey from the St. Louis County Courts in Clayton to their respective state penitentiaries -- Ellen to Renz Correctional Center in Cedar City, Steve to Jefferson City Correctional Center. All Ellen remembers from those daylong trips was being crammed in a hot bus with a bunch of sweaty men. Steve doesn't remember much, either, but he does remember Ellen; he had been reading about her in the newspapers during his own court proceedings for rape and sodomy and recognized the young face that looked so out of place on that busload of crime-stained stories.

Missouri has had at least two known cases of wrongful imprisonment in which the innocent were incarcerated for more than five years. Back in 1983, both victims were on that same bus, headed for prison, Steve says. Ellen would go on to serve more than 16 years of a life sentence after her conviction for the murder of a Dellwood gas-station attendant. Ellen's conviction hinged on allegations that Goldman, then the prosecutor, now a circuit judge, failed to let the jury know about two secretly taped conversations in which Ellen denied killing the man and that Chapman, then a Dellwood policeman and now the police chief, dangled dollars for testimony against Ellen [Melinda Roth, "Burned," RFT, June 30, 1999]. A federal-court ruling triggered her release on Aug. 3, 1999. As for Steve, he had to wait out almost 13 years on a rape conviction before DNA evidence disconnected him from the crime in July 1996.

Now, five years later, Steve, like Ellen, has been busy just trying to get his life together. Steve would be the first to say he wasn't a saint coming up. He had already served two-and-a-half years at Moberly -- forgery, robbery, kidnapping -- before the 1982 rape and sodomy of a 21-year-old Richmond Heights woman was pinned on him. Steve had been picked up on a bad-check case and, instead, found himself identified by the woman as her rapist. His alibi? He was asleep at his grandmother's home. No chance. Next thing he knew, he'd been sentenced to two consecutive life sentences, with no parole until 2013. Then, 13 years later, a DNA test gave him back his life, and he was permitted back into society ... no support ... expected to get his life together. It was like abolishing slavery without reparations. Or keeping a fish out of the water too long before tossing it back.

It hasn't been easy for Steve. No, not by a long shot. Not as easy as it was for him back in the day on those basketball courts in Richmond Heights. That was easy. He'd take that ball in his hand, and he could swear by his mother that he didn't have the thing on a string. Nobody'd believe him. Need a 45-degree bounce pass, on the run, down three quarters of the length of the court? No problem, one-handed or two? Need a now-you-see-it-now-you-don't crossover and a pull-up 20-footer? It was money for Steve. He'd play pickup games with the likes of McKinley grad and future Celtics All-Star Jo Jo White. Shoot around with the St. Louis Hawks. He didn't have the height, but his arms were unnaturally long. He was a point guard who would also be his team's second-best rebounder. Steve would drop 20 a night for Brentwood High, no sweat, and smoke a cigarette after the game. It was that easy.

But this, this is different. What's easy about being five-and-a-half months behind on rent? About being behind on utilities? About using what little money you have in your pocket on public transportation? About being 54 and looking for that permanent job (Steve works 24 hours a week driving cars at a rental agency)? About depending on other people for survival -- 20 dollars here, an extra 30 there?

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