By Ray Downs
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By RFT Staff
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By Allison Babka
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Leonardo Drisdel had drifted for a while before realizing he'd left his heart in St. Louis. Since moving back to town in the late 1980s, the 46-year-old native son had seemingly found happiness. He shared a handsome house with his second wife and three kids. He loved their South Grand neighborhood, whose racial diversity and affordable cost of living embodied everything that made St. Louis great.
It wouldn't have been a stretch to say Drisdel was a minor celebrity around town. A radio host and sometime pitchman, he hosted The Human Factor Thursday afternoons on WGNU (920 AM), holding forth on the hot-button political issues of the day. He'd overcome a childhood stuttering problem and now had a perfect voice for the task -- a quick, smooth baritone, full of inflection. ("God-given," he'd say modestly.) St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay was a regular guest, and Drisdel considered him a friend. Passionate listeners looked him up in the phone book and called him at home at all hours to get his take on political issues.
As a black man with a conservative bent, Drisdel took pleasure in confounding expectations. In his teens he'd been a mohawked punk rocker, later he'd tried on the garb of a Pentecostal preacher, but now he broadcast his version of the unvarnished truth on the radio. He spoke up for the downtrodden and spoke out against the morally suspect.
Perhaps it owed to the influence of his religious background, but no matter what the topic, Drisdel always seemed to bring the conversation around to a basic theme: the struggle of good versus evil.
"The bottom line, folks: There is spiritual wickedness that runs around in high places," he said on March 24, speaking on the subject of that week's fatal shootings at a high school on an Indian reservation in Minnesota. "And there's no higher place than in your minds.
"It's the voice that you listen to, and it's what you do with that," he continued. "You can say, 'I'm not going to let stinking thinking ruin my life.' I can talk about drug addicts that wake up every day, alcoholics that wake up every day, overeaters that wake up every day and say, 'Look, I wanna eat and eat and eat until I bust. I wanna drug it up, drink it up until I pass out -- but I choose not to, because I refuse to listen to that voice.'"
As it turned out, good and evil were going toe-to-toe not just on Leonardo Drisdel's radio show, but also in his mind. Friends and family members say he was haunted by a physical disability and psychological disorders, by the recent deaths of two close relatives, one of whom was murdered, by various addictions to a plethora of drugs, both legal and illegal.
Somehow, though, he managed to keep the demons at bay.
Until June 4 -- the night Leonardo Drisdel listened to "that voice."
In the early evening of June 4, Derrick Drisdel wished his half-brother Leonardo a happy birthday. Despite the distance between them -- Derrick lives in Los Angeles -- the brothers were close. They even share a birthday, almost: Leonardo would turn 46 on June 5, while Derrick would turn 55 the following day.
Derrick figured his kid brother would be in good spirits. The birthday celebration had begun early, with a family barbecue. But Leonardo had nothing to impart but gloom and doom.
"I didn't do much talking," recalls Derrick Drisdel, who works as a personal assistant to funk legend George Clinton. "He seemed disturbed. He talked about everything that had been bothering him since he was a child." Derrick says he listened patiently but didn't think all that much of it; their family had suffered numerous tragedies in recent years, and venting was only natural.
It was a steamy Saturday night. At around nine o'clock, shortly after the conversation with his brother, Leonardo told his wife he was going to take a walk to Schnucks to pick up some beer. Janene Drisdel didn't protest, despite the fact that she wasn't feeling well and typically objected to her husband drinking beer in their home. "I was being generous because he was turning 46," she says.
He promised he'd be back in five minutes.
A few hours earlier, just around the corner from the Drisdels' south St. Louis home, Cassandra Kovack had left her apartment on Miami Street, headed to a festival in Tower Grove Park to meet some friends. The 28-year-old Chicago native had been feeling down; she was out of work and had recently broken up with her boyfriend.
Paul Hudson, the caretaker at Kovack's apartment building, saw her go out. "I said, 'How are you doing, Cassandra?'" he remembers. "She said, 'All right. I'm depressed, but I'm going out.'"
Drisdel and Kovack had been casual acquaintances for a number of years, though a more unlikely pair would have been hard to find: She was a Rubenesque white woman with long auburn hair; he was diminutive, stocky and bald.
At some point that night, they crossed paths.
Ultimately, much of what transpired will likely have to be sorted out by a jury. The description that follows has been pieced together from news accounts, interviews and a St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department incident report. (A request for further documentation was denied by the police department on the grounds that the investigation has been turned over to the St. Louis Circuit Attorney's office. Assistant Circuit Attorney Tom Clark declined to comment for this story.)