Black and Blue

The conflicting versions of the shooting by police of a teenager widen the rift between cops and African-Americans

The police department's version: It began after dark on April 3 as an undercover drug buy at Lee and Turner avenues, near Fairground Park in North St. Louis. Two men were arrested, and police were loading them into a police car when a red Ford Escort came flying by carrying three young black males, one of them leaning out the window and firing at the police. Two officers in a car chased the Escort, which led them east on Lee for a couple of blocks, then turned left on Fair Avenue and left again on Carter Avenue, past Harris Avenue. Then the two passengers jumped out and the Escort continued west on Carter to Red Bud Avenue. The cops, who were in civilian clothes, stopped their car at Carter and Harris, jumped out, identified themselves as police and ordered the young men to stop. Instead, the two men kept running. They ran west on Carter toward Red Bud. One of them turned and fired. Police, now chasing them on foot, fired back. By this time, two officers in an unmarked vehicle had arrived at the scene. Police shot one of the men seven times, and he fell; the other escaped. A .22-caliber pistol was recovered from the fallen man. Six weeks later, that man, 16-year-old Jerome Johnson, is still in the hospital, still not well enough to talk. He has been charged under the juvenile code with four counts of first-degree assault and four counts of armed criminal action.

The problem with the police version of events? Jerome may have been an innocent bystander.

I spoke with six residents who saw parts of what happened around the corner of Red Bud and Carter avenues, and they say Jerome -- or J.R., as he is more commonly known -- didn't jump out of any red car, and he had no gun. J.R. was hanging around on the sidewalk with a friend, and dozens of people were out on porches and sidewalks. They say J.R. was running, as others were, from gun-toting figures who started firing after jumping out of cars that screeched to a stop at the scene. Nobody knew at the time that these were undercover drug cops working as part of the department's Street Corner Apprehension Team. They also say that after J.R. had been shot seven times, a couple of the men with guns kicked and stomped on him.

Six weeks after being shot, J.R. is not well enough to give his version of events.
Six weeks after being shot, J.R. is not well enough to give his version of events.

Although these witnesses have told attorneys for J.R.'s family that they will testify in court, if necessary, they all told me they have not -- and will not -- talk to the police. The reasons they give boil down to this: There is nothing to gain but trouble by talking to the police, because the police never admit when they are wrong.

He's a tall, slim man with deadpan eyes, a thin goatee and a raspy voice. For most of the time we are talking, here in the 4400 block of Red Bud, a cigarette dangles from his lips, the rising smoke causing his eyes to crease in a permanent squint. The word is that Goatee Guy has dabbled in selling small rocks every now and then, not enough to warrant carrying a gun or a cell phone. He came up to me after he heard I was looking to talk with anyone who had witnessed what happened when J.R. was shot. Assured that I was with the Riverfront Times and not the police, he eagerly launched into a play-by-play account. He was standing on the sidewalk at about 9:30 that Tuesday night, he says, talking to a female friend outside her house. Dozens of people were out on the streets, including J.R. and his friend. Goatee Guy says he saw J.R. cross the street and go through a gangway, heading toward his home, a few blocks east. Next he saw a small red car drive by, heading north on Red Bud. Less than a minute later, he says, a van came down Red Bud the wrong way, heading south toward Carter. It slowed down.

"That's when a passenger jumped out and said, 'I'm gonna kill all you motherfuckers.'" he says. "No flashing lights, no police indication at all. So I grab the female, like this, and go down to the ground [behind a car]." His friend ducked and ran into her home. "I'm still on the ground," he continues. "I never once surface myself for anybody to see me -- I'm steady tryin' to peek out, peek out. Heard gunshots. So I get back down." He feels compelled to emphasize that he and the others assumed these weren't cops in the van. "Look at where we at. This is the 4400 of Red Bud -- be for real, St. Louis city, Mo.," he says. "I mean, we gotta tell the truth because of how it is out here on the street; that's for real ... gang-related territory, gang-related street, gang-related individuals."

The van, Goatee Guy says, stopped at the corner of Red Bud and Carter, and then the gun-waving passenger and the driver were both outside the van. A gold Dodge Intrepid came east on Carter and pulled up across the street from the van. Two more men with guns joined the first pair. "I still don't see no lights, I still ain't heard nobody say no 'Police!' so I still don't come out," Goatee Guy says. "I stay on the ground."

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