By Sam Levin
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When Crystal pulled into Gines' driveway that late-April day she was already crying, fearing their son had died. "That blew my mind," Gines recalls. "Nothing like that had ever happened to me before." Hours later, he says, he received a text from her: The body found hanging from the bridge was indeed his son.
Two weeks later Crystal and her new husband, Omarr Teague, are sitting on the front porch of their home in St. John's Garden, where a makeshift memorial of stuffed animals, flowers and wooden crosses adorns her yard.
It is here where she held a crowded candlelight vigil in the days following the discovery of Lester's body. Soon after that, she says, she and Omarr packed up her kids and checked into a St. Louis hotel and stayed for more than week.
"We tried to keep their minds rotating," she says of her sons, Mallik, Chris and John-John Wells, all of whom live at the house (Travion lives with his father). Her own mind kept replaying the evidence photos of the hanging, the grim pictures detectives showed her to prove that a bed sheet could, in fact, support her son's weight.
Getting some distance from the house helped, but only a little. "Every time I close my eyes," she says, "I see my son."
Last year was a turbulent one on the home front. According to police records, officers were dispatched to the Teague household six times on domestic-disturbance calls, three made by the children. On one occasion, police arrived and Omarr reportedly smelled of alcohol and had a deep gash in his forearm. Another time he told officers that Crystal had threatened him with boiling water.
In January 2010, Crystal Teague experienced what Omarr described as a "nervous breakdown," which culminated in a suicide attempt. He had to bind her hands and feet to protect her from herself. When officers arrived, she wouldn't respond to their questions.
Omarr says they were married on February 1 of this year. Since then, no police incident reports have been filed.
Crystal says she nicknamed Lester Jr. "Stinky" because she had to constantly change his diapers when he was a baby. She remembers the young man as quiet and sweet, a patient listener who watched his brothers when asked.
Lester sometimes came to his mother with girl problems, but he never seemed deeply distraught or got into much trouble, she says. "He loved the music, and he loved the girls. That was his thing."
He did get into trouble once. In April 2009 he got behind the wheel of his mom's van and, along with some other kids, went joyriding. Teague found out, grew worried and called the police. When a patrol car caught up with the van, Lester floored it, initiating a high-speed chase through Cahokia that resulted in his arrest and two years' probation.
Outside of that, Crystal says, "He was not the type of child that made me sit up and worry about him." She did report him missing once last December, but he soon turned up. "He'd check in. He never went very far."
Lester often spent the night across Route 3 at the home of his girlfriend, Tamera Moore. Sitting on the front step of her trailer home, Moore says the two met in eighth grade at Huffman Elementary. The petite fourteen-year-old remembers how her boyfriend adored the rapper Gucci Mane and never seemed upset enough to want to hurt himself.
On the night he disappeared, both mother and girlfriend thought Lester was at the other's house.
Moore says it was painful returning to school soon after his death. "His desk was empty," she remembers, hugging her legs. "It was just too sad."
Cheryl Conner, Wells' teacher, saw how devastated his classmates were. On May 20 they released balloons as a tribute to him. "I loved this kid," Conner wrote in an e-mail. "He made me laugh. He was very respectful. He was in my heart, and I'll never forget him."
Back at the Teagues' house, Crystal says she's still adjusting. The other day she was hunting around for her phone and called out to Stinky, asking where he'd put it. "Sometimes I catch myself," she says. She looks toward the stuffed animals on her front lawn.
On May 4, nine days after Lester's body was discovered, a large and anxious crowd converged for the semimonthly village board meeting at the Cahokia Nutrition Center for Older Adults. Police officers with metal-detector wands screened all citizens filing in. Once the Pledge of Allegiance was said, the proceedings swiftly degenerated into sniping between the six-member board of trustees and Mayor Bergman.
A loose coalition of mostly African American trustees, led by Kyle Johnson and Trevon Tompkin, accused the mayor (among other things) of misusing funds and running the town as a "dictatorship." At one point the normally quiet village clerk, Bernadette Wiggins, lost her cool with Bergman, called him a liar and shouted, "Excuse me, mayor, I respect you as a mayor, but I don't respect you as an honorable man!"
For his part, Bergman — a thick-set strawberry-blond who speaks in a croaky drawl — denied the accusations. With the end of his second four-year term approaching next spring, he has yet to announce whether he'll run again, but that evening he put up a fight.
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