Battle Lines

Gangs keep their murderous hold on the streets of St. Louis. And kids like Lil' Robert Walker pay the price.

The odds were stacked against him, but Robert Lee Walker was determined to get his life in order. An affable seventeen-year-old with almond-colored eyes, an engaging smile — and a toddling three-month-old son — Robert was finishing eleventh grade and intent on graduating high school. He'd recently completed a job-training course and told friends he planned to find a summer job to support the child born out of wedlock. Someday he hoped to begin a career designing and building homes.

But those hopes were shattered on a sunny spring afternoon, not long after Robert boarded a Metro bus on his way home from St. Louis Learning Center South High. From what Robert's friends tell his mother, Arthella Spence, the normally upbeat young man kept quiet throughout the ride. Then, two blocks before his stop in the north St. Louis neighborhood of Walnut Park, Robert inexplicably pulled the cord, signaling the driver to stop the bus.

The vehicle kept rolling, because the driver could only come to a halt at designated stops along the route. Seconds later — at 2:40 p.m. on Friday, May 5 — the bus arrived at the corner of Lillian and Emerson avenues. Several gunmen were in place. Waiting.

Robert had walked no more than a few yards down the street when the teenage assailants raced from around the corner, trapping him between the fury of their handguns and the bus. Two minutes later, the ambush was over. The shooters vanished and the bus driver, sprayed by broken glass, sped his bullet-riddled vehicle to the nearest police station.

Left bleeding on the street were Robert and two other neighborhood boys, ages fifteen and sixteen, who both survived their gunshot wounds. Of the several rounds Robert took to the shoulders, arms and torso, the shot to the back of the head — exiting between his eyes — guaranteed an instant death.

Police quickly labeled the murder a "gangland" homicide, adding Robert to the list of hundreds of young blacks killed in St. Louis as a result of gang violence over the past two decades. Though gang membership nationwide has dropped in recent years, crime experts say St. Louis gangs remain as strong as ever. And, notes criminologist Scott Decker, their numbers aren't likely to decline anytime soon.

"When you look at the level of social disadvantage these kids face — the unemployment, the single-parent households, the poor public schools, the poverty — their prospects are not getting better," says Decker. "That doesn't mean the number of gang members is going to increase, but it certainly makes these kids vulnerable."

In Robert's neighborhood of Walnut Park, the battle lines fall along Union Boulevard, two blocks west of where the bus made its fateful stop and within the boundaries of the 49 BAD Bloods, an acronym for the 4900 blocks of Beacon, Alcott and Davison avenues. To the east of the thoroughfare lies the Mark Twain neighborhood, a pockmarked enclave of crumbling brick homes and abandoned lots under the control of a group of young men who call themselves the Geraldine Street Crips.

In the days before Robert's murder, confrontations between the two gangs led to fistfights and gunshots. Things came to a head May 4 when members of 49 BAD allegedly shot a Geraldine Street Crip — a kid known in the neighborhood as "Four Foot." Robert's death was retaliation. "They wanted vengeance," says Carlos Ross, supervisor of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department's gang unit. "They were going to shoot any kid getting off that bus, and hope they got a gang member."

Robert's mother swears her son was not involved in a gang. But Ross says he and his officers knew Robert from their patrol of the neighborhood and considered him a documented member of 49 BAD.

Hours after coroners carted off Robert's body, a makeshift memorial rose up surrounding the crime scene. By the end of the weekend, the street signs and lamp poles on the corners of Emerson and Lillian were awash with stuffed animals, balloons, eulogy notes — and gang graffiti.

Written on red bandanas and spray-painted onto the walls of nearby buildings, the messages swore testimony to 49 BAD — and to Robert, known in the neighborhood as "Lil' Robert" or "Short Dogg." Several missives vowed revenge, with the names of the rival gang crossed out or stamped with the letter "K," indicating more killings to come. Others suggested that whatever association Robert had with the gang extended into the afterlife. "Life Blood Gang," read one message. "RIP Homeboy Lil' Robert," read another.

By Monday the amount of graffiti prompted St. Louis police to dispatch a clean-up crew to the neighborhood. The markings would only return the following day. "I'd never seen so much gang graffiti go up overnight," recalls Ross. "Was Robert a violent member of the gang, and did he deserve what happened to him? No. But based on all the love they showed him, he was definitely associated with the gang. And it's like I tell every kid — an association is enough to get you killed."

Robert Walker's funeral brought more than 300 people to the huge limestone edifice of Eastern Star Baptist Church in north St. Louis. Billed as a "homecoming celebration," the service had a decidedly casual feel. Older adults sang spirituals and nodded their heads to the eulogies that poured forth inside the sanctuary. Outside, a few dozen teenagers mingled and joked on the steps leading into the church. Several wore T-shirts bearing a silkscreen image of Robert posing for the camera, his arms crossed before his chest in a cocky, self-assured stance. Others dressed in sweatshirts, ball caps and athletic gear. Black may be de rigueur at most funerals, but among these kids, the fashion statement of choice this day was blood-red.

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