By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Ray Downs
Cross the Poplar Street Bridge into Illinois, head south on Route 3 and swing past Sauget's raunchy nightclub strip. You won't find the famous Cahokia Mounds, which are eleven miles to the north in Collinsville. But you will find Lester Wells' hometown of Cahokia.
Today, the village of Cahokia is dwarfed by East St. Louis, but two centuries ago it was the seat of an enormous county that encompassed Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and half of Minnesota. In 1800, some 700 citizens lived here, many of them descendants of the first French settlers. By the end of World War II, it hadn't added many more.
Then the GIs returned home. Industry started booming during the 1950s and '60s in nearby Sauget and elsewhere, drawing folks from Arkansas and Missouri's bootheel. Subdivisions of affordable housing rose up, and by 1970 Cahokia's population peaked at more than 20,000. At the time, 99.5 percent of its residents were white, according to census records.
Mayor Bergman, who is white, remembers when school desegregation was enforced in the '70s and minority students were bussed in to town. "There were threats of violence, and schools were shut down," he recalls. "It was an explosive time."
Older whites started moving out, and younger African Americans started moving in. The numbers tell the story: In 1980, the U.S. Census counted 29 black residents in Cahokia. A couple decades later, there were nearly 6,300, more than a third of the village's population.
During that same period, the portion of residents living in poverty jumped from a tenth to a quarter. The tax base has shrunk, and Bergman says Cahokia, now with a population of nearly 16,500, is about $800,000 in debt.
"This town is hurtin'," says 57-year-old Jerry Nichols, zipping his golf cart through St. John's Garden, the subdivision where Lester Wells grew up. A portly white man with a close white beard, Nichols serves as committeeman of this neighborhood and the rest of Cahokia's 20th precinct. "It's never been this bad. Since they brought in the HUD and Section 8 housing, it's been miserable."
Several of the one-story homes on these streets, all bearing names of Catholic saints, are boarded up. Raw sewage seeps from a manhole where small children are playing nearby. Two sewers have caved in on St. Margaret road, leaving gaping holes in the pavement.
Nichols crosses Route 3 and parks his golf cart in front of his home on Garden Street. Many call this side of the highway "the white 'hood," even though some blacks live here.
Nichols is a retired steelworker. He welded together the huge cast-iron smoker that sits on his driveway. On this early May afternoon, with rain clouds approaching, he's grilling ribs. The smoke wafts into the road, and two different carloads of people stop and ask if he's selling barbecue. "Maybe I ought to!" he jokes.
Nichols says drug dealers are encroaching in the southern part of town and that the elderly people are "scared to death." He recently launched a petition drive called "Pull up your pants!" which would ban "unseemly exposure of undergarments," also known as "sagging." By the second week of May, he'd collected 171 signatures from folks of both races.
"I've only been refused by three people," he says. "Three black kids. The one young man asked me when they were going to pass an ordinance to prevent cross-burning."
Nichols remembers Lester Wells. Almost every day around 7 a.m., the retiree would look out and see the young man walking by. The boy would often sleep at his girlfriend's house then head home in the morning.
"He kept to himself, but he'd say hi," Nichols says, now sitting in his open garage. As he speaks, storm clouds outside are gliding in over the neighborhood, deep and dark as bruises. Wind whips up the tree branches.
Nichols believes Cahokia's racial discord has gotten worse from both sides. The groundless chitchat surrounding Lester Wells' death didn't help.
"The whole thing puzzled me," he says. "I hope they come out and say what happened to him. You got kids getting out of school soon. Things can happen."
From the moment Crystal Teague's eldest son, Travion, called her on April 26, she felt something was terribly wrong. "You know that sound and that tone," says the 34-year-old mother of five. Travion told her that his brother Lester was dead. She dropped the phone and raced up to Huffman Elementary.
A pair of detectives who'd been searching for her and other next of kin arrived at the school and found her there. She asked them how this could've happened. "They wouldn't tell me anything," she says. "They said I had to go to the morgue." Teague then drove over to the home of Lester's biological father, Armel Gines.
Gines, a.k.a. DJ Oatmeal, spins on WHHL (Hot 104.1 FM) and at nightclubs around town. He says he and Crystal had a "one-time thing" back in 1993 that resulted in Lester's birth. Crystal was eighteen. She decided to name the baby after the man she was with at the time, Lester Wells Sr.
It wasn't until the boy turned six, says Gines, that he learned that he was Lester's father. In the past few years, he would bump into Lester on the street and chat, but not often.