Trustees Johnson and Tompkin are currently fighting criminal charges of voter fraud from the April 2009 municipal elections, a fact to which Bergman alluded several times.

On it went for the first 45 acrimonious minutes, with all parties talking over each other on hot-button issues such as the sewers and the hiring of police officers. Each side even had its own attorney present.

Then the conversation turned to the hanging death of Lester Wells Jr.

A recent school yearbook picture of Wells. He was an eighth-grader at Huffman Elementary at the time of his death.
LifeTouch NSS
A recent school yearbook picture of Wells. He was an eighth-grader at Huffman Elementary at the time of his death.
Wells hanged himself from this obsolete railroad bridge located less than a mile from his house and near the police department's firing range.
Michelle Hudgins
Wells hanged himself from this obsolete railroad bridge located less than a mile from his house and near the police department's firing range.

A black man said he'd heard that any children of his race caught walking outside after 7 p.m. would be snatched up and hanged. "I'm scared for my kids, man," he said. "Am I supposed to walk around with my pistol on my side and fear for my kids' life?" Mayor Bergman replied that he did not recommend that.

Later the same man asked, "Can you treat the severity of the case for our kids the same way you would with yours?" Bergman said he would — after all, many of his own family members are black or biracial. But, added the mayor, because the FBI had intervened, his access to information was restricted and his hands were tied.

At this, an African American woman rose to leave in protest. "He's unconcerned, nonchalant," she snapped. "If it was his child, he wouldn't want his child hung. No, don't tell me to calm down for hanging somebody! Don't tell me to calm down!"

Bishop Henry Phillips from Power of Change Christian Center then spoke. "I'm a little disappointed we in the community have not heard from you," he told Bergman. "This thing is unraveling.... We need you to lead us."

Pastor Barry Simmons of New Visions World Ministries echoed the sentiment. "I'm gonna be honest with you: If that were my son, I'd want to hear from you.... I need you to go to that house, I need you to get the chief, yourself — and if you need any one of these pastors, we'll go. And you need to make it right with this community, because we can't have this. This is not right."

Simmons decried all the bickering. "It's becoming a war — I had no idea. This is not the way a community is to be ran, and I will not stand here as an educator in this community and let you or anyone bring it down."

Bergman said he'd been sick over the weekend and was unaware how widespread the fear had become. He also wondered aloud why the pastors didn't bother calling him when they heard talk of a lynching.

"I am here as your friend, Frank. We know each other," Simmons responded. "Don't bite us. Reach out and grab us. Let's handle it as men and women of honor and dignity."

Three days later, on May 7, Bergman stood before reporters from three TV news crews and two newspapers — his biggest press conference ever, he later noted. Flanked by Simmons, Pastor James Heard of the New Psalmist Church of God In Christ, and a representative of Phillips' congregation, the mayor announced that the FBI had assumed jurisdiction over the Wells investigation.

Offering his condolences to the Teague family, Bergman said authorities believed it to be a suicide. But whatever their conclusion, he assured those gathered that the truth would eventually prevail.

When Simmons took the podium, a reporter asked if he'd ever heard so many rumors about a death. "I've been in Cahokia 22 years," he replied, "and I've never been involved in any situation of this magnitude."

As the news crews packed up their cameras, another reporter asked the pastors what Lester Wells' death revealed about Cahokia.

Simmons bristled. "It's not that we're finding out what we are," he said. "Any community would react the same way. You just saw a community come together in love."

The reporter replied that he just wanted to learn as much about Cahokia as possible.

Simmons informed him: "You might never know how we tick."

Two weeks after her son's death, Crystal Teague confirmed that the bed sheet used in the hanging came from her house. Her dogs used to sleep on it. Police reports state several times that the body showed no bruises, scratches or any signs of struggle. The boy's clothes were not dirty or torn. Detectives also noted no drag marks or footprints in the area to suggest that other subjects had been present.

Still, Teague remains convinced her boy was murdered. When she asked for an autopsy, she says, authorities gave her the runaround, and that made her suspicious.

Dr. Morton Silverman, of the Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience department at the University of Chicago, says many parents go into denial after a suicide. "To accept the fact that it was a suicide means that they have to give long and hard thought to what they might've done differently or if they could've done anything at all. And that process is wrenching for people to go through. If you say, 'Well, it wasn't a suicide,' then you don't have to do that."

He notes that parents often get blamed even though it's not their fault. Some suicidal kids don't show any symptoms, he says. And even when they do, moms and dads don't necessarily know what to look for.

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