Good Cop? Bad Cop?

An off-duty policeman was lauded for killing a robber who wounded two vendors. That was before allegations that the officer was actually protecting a gambling joint.

Mel Harlston thought something didn't smell right when he read the news story about the shooting of a 23-year-man over Labor Day Weekend -- and that was before he even knew that the dead robber was his nephew.

"The headline caught my eye: 'Off-duty officer kills robber who wounded two,'" says Harlston. The Post-Dispatch article did not identify the dead man, only said that he had tried to rob two vendors selling stuffed animals from a mobile concession on the corner of Natural Bridge and Marcus avenues. Both vendors had been shot and wounded; the assailant, in turn, had been shot and killed by an off-duty cop, Kevin Jones, who chanced to be on the scene. Seemed like standard crime-blotter fare for a holiday weekend. But not to Harlston.

"I thought, 'What a strange thing that a robber would find no better target than people selling stuffed animals in the inner city of St. Louis,'" he says. "I supposed that they probably wouldn't have a lot of cash, because I tend to think of folks who do that as down-and-outers. I also thought the robber was particularly vicious to have shot the down-and-outer stuffed-animal salesmen, and probably, like most people, I thought, 'What a stroke of fortune that an off-duty police officer was in the vicinity.'" Later that evening, Harlston learned from his family that the dead man was his 23-year-old nephew, William Darnell Harlston. And he was told that it wasn't a robbery but more of a retaliation against the vendors, whom William Harlston felt had cheated him while gambling with him earlier that day.

This stuffed-animal stand was allegedly a front for a gambling operation.
Wm. Stage
This stuffed-animal stand was allegedly a front for a gambling operation.

"There was no question that my nephew was dead and no question that he was assaulting the vendors," says Harlston, 41, "but there were questions as to what this was actually about." An administrator for a local law firm, Mel Harlston put on his detective hat and went to the scene of the crime two days later.

Contrary to the Post report, Harlston learned from passersby that the shooting had not occurred at the vacant lot at the southeast corner of Marcus and Natural Bridge but at the Shell station across the street. Harlston, a large man with a moderate Afro and a liking for open-necked shirts and gold necklaces, crossed Natural Bridge and, on the east end of the Shell lot, found a bloodstained patch of asphalt.

"I was there for an hour-and-a-half, talking to people," he says. "I stopped an elderly man, asked if he knew what had happened. Yeah, he knew about it, what it was, and by his estimation it had been there a week, maybe 10 days -- an open and notorious gambling operation." Harlston spoke with eight or more people that evening. "The story didn't deviate much," he says. "They all described a trailer with stuffed animals attached on the Natural Bridge side and a sign reading 'Racing Souvenirs.' On the other side, the side facing away from traffic, is where they were running a game, described to me as a carnival-like game involving numbered balls tossed into a box. But most importantly, they described a very high cost for playing the game, and when I asked, 'Why would people pay such large amounts of money for stuffed animals?' the reaction was: 'Well, people weren't trying to win stuffed animals. People were trying to win money.' At that point, a light went off in my head."

And that was before he learned from witnesses that the illegal gambling operation may have been protected by a cop -- the same cop who shot and killed his nephew. Not only was the officer working security for the game's operators, said the witnesses, he was trolling for customers.

Three young men take up two sofas in Sheila Warren's living room in a neat little home on Farlin Avenue. Occupying one sofa by himself is a 300-pound hill of flesh named Tiny. The 20-year-old sprawls back, gazing at the ceiling. He seems listless at first, perhaps reticent, but once Tiny gets wound up, he has a lot to say. The other sofa holds Jonathan, 19, serious and somber, and 24-year-old Big R, the most mature of the trio. Tiny is a student at a local barber school, Jonathan attends community college and Big R occasionally works construction. All either live in or frequent this Penrose neighborhood, and all choose to use fictitious names for the interview. Sheila Warren, 37, a home-health-care nurse and the mother of the man shot dead by Officer Jones, sits in a chair near the hallway. Her surviving son, Jerome, who looks as though he belongs on the Rams front line, comes and goes during the interview.

On the Thursday [Aug. 30] before the shooting, Jonathan and Big R's younger brother went to the booth, played the game and walked away $200 lighter. Tiny and a friend also played the game several times that day. Counting their own money, plus an emergency loan from Big R, the young men gambled away $1,000. Tiny is worried that his mother will find out about the money. Nevertheless, he is indignant as hell, as they all are, and they are ready to talk about it.

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