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In the dim gray dawn of Sunday, April 25, on the southern outskirts of Cahokia, Illinois, a pickup truck was creeping along the Prairie du Pont Creek levee and stopped. Behind the wheel, Bob Shipley of the Metro East Levee District was supposed to be checking the creek's water level. Instead, he found himself staring down at an obsolete railroad bridge that crossed the dark, treeless expanse. The body of an African American boy was dangling from one of the wooden bridge supports.
"I thought maybe it was a hoax," Shipley recalls. "I couldn't believe it at first."
It was just after 7:30 a.m. when he dialed 911. Shipley chose to stay in the truck. An hour later police officers, an ambulance and a deputy coroner from St. Clair County had all arrived. Evidence photos were taken.
The boy was about six feet tall and slender, with collar-length twisties in his hair. He was hanging by a multicolored bed sheet, his sneakers just inches off the ground. The consensus among authorities was that it was a suicide. They cut down the body and carted it off to the morgue. The decision to order an autopsy is made by the coroner, but in this case, he saw no need to. Still, the deceased needed to be identified.
"We didn't know where to go," explains Cahokia Police Chief Rick Watson. For the rest of that day, he says, his officers interviewed residents and chased down leads to no avail. "We thought somebody would've reported their child missing. So here it is Monday morning, and we're still trying to find out who this kid is."
It wasn't until police reached out to their officer embedded in the school district that the search narrowed. Comparing yearbook pictures to police photos, officers hit on a match.
On Monday afternoon family members confirmed that the dead boy was fifteen-year-old Lester Wells Jr., an eighth-grader at Helen Huffman Elementary School. He lived less than a mile from the bridge.
Then, the rumors began to stir.
Some were uttered quietly after dark on driveways and front lawns, others brashly asserted in school lunchrooms or shot from cell phone to cell phone via text message. All of them contained the same premise: Lester Wells, a.k.a. "Stinky," never would've killed himself.
Some residents suggested he was strung up by a marauding band of Ku Klux Klan members, or that maybe the police strangled him and were trying to conceal it. Still others seemed convinced that Wells was killed in retaliation for the death of Blake Munie, a white teenager fatally shot by a black teen a few weeks earlier.
On Tuesday, April 27, Wells' mother, Crystal Teague, railed to the Belleville News-Democrat that police ruled her son's death a suicide without consulting her about his emotional state. He'd been excited to graduate and enter high school, she insisted.
Teague then told the paper that on the night her son disappeared neighbors claimed they saw the boy being yanked into a vehicle after an argument with the passengers.
The News-Democrat posted the story on their website. Within 24 hours readers' comments grew so vicious that the paper felt compelled to shut them down, a rare move for a story this fresh, says editor Jeffry Couch.
"With this one in particular, the racial comments started right away," Couch recounts. "And there were a bunch of rumors and attacks."
When RFT ran its own post on Wells' death, some commenters migrated there. "I'M HERE TO TELL U THIS," typed a self-described African American mother of two on April 30, under the name "Chris." "FUCKING CRACKERS, RACIST PIGS, BLUE EYE DEVILS KILL[ED] THAT BOY...WHAT WE NEED TO DO IS START KILLING THEIR FUCKING WHITE CHILDREN."
That same day, the Cahokia school district sent home a letter to parents that read in part: "As school leaders, we are very concerned about various conversations and rumors that have been circulating in the building and community regarding misinformation about the student's death."
Word quickly circulated of a second and then a third black youth found hanged to death. On the outer walls of Penniman Elementary School someone spray-painted a message urging violence to whites.
Chief Watson broke his silence on Tuesday, May 4, telling the media that no signs of foul play had been detected. He implored citizens not to make the tragedy worse.
His outreach efforts, though, failed to prevent that evening's village board meeting from spiraling into a tense exchange about what to do next. Several local ministers were present, reporting that the anxiety in their congregations had reached a fever pitch.
That week the FBI launched a formal evaluation of the police's casework. Reverend Johnny Scott of the NAACP's St. Clair County chapter came out in support of the police. Cahokia mayor Frank Bergman held his own press conference, promising transparency. The coroner, meanwhile, backtracked and decided to perform an autopsy and a toxicology report.
When the boy was finally buried on May 21 authorities still had not yet released their findings.
If in fact he killed himself, perhaps his reasons will remain a mystery. Yet one thing seems clear: Lester Wells Jr. may have been ready to leave Cahokia, but Cahokia, by all appearances, wasn't ready to let him go.