By Sarah Fenske
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Danny Wicentowski
By Jessica Lussenhop
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
January 2011, East St. Louis, Illinois: Below the tangle of raised highways soaring over the Mississippi River bank, a teddy bear lies face-down in the snow. Other stuffed animals, soiled and wet, are lashed to a light pole in a makeshift memorial along South Eighth Street. Someone has scrawled on a wooden cross: "Ur gone but never forgotten my baby."
Fifteen months ago, this stretch of road where the City Nights bar used to stand swirled with violence. Anthony J. Rice, a young black man with a clean record, was fatally mowed down by a vehicle. Official documents strongly suggest it was a pickup truck, steered by a young white man with a remarkably long and violent criminal past.
And yet that white man — Reggie Allen of Dupo, Illinois — still has not been charged for the killing. Somewhere in the Metro East, he roams free.
City Nights is now gone. It mysteriously burned down three months after the killing. Today, there is a quiet here. A calm. A bear covered with snow.
For five minutes back in October 2009, this place was chaos.
On the last night of his life, 23-year-old Anthony Rice agreed to indulge his little brother, Aubrey. The two were partying late at a friend's house in Centreville, Illinois, and Aubrey decided where he wanted to finish up celebrating his 22nd birthday: at the strip clubs.
"You sure you wanna do this?" Anthony had asked his younger sibling.
"I wanna go to pretty much every strip club," Aubrey replied. "If you feel like taking me."
Anthony, the oldest of three, was a former high school ROTC student. An engaged father with two children, he'd never been in trouble with the law. He was holding down a pair of jobs caring for the elderly and led a dance troupe that performed in the area.
But in his free time, he was inseparable from Aubrey, with whom he lived in Cahokia. Some mistook them for twins. Both had grown up steeped in the Rice family mantra, passed down from previous generations in Mississippi: "We only have two things in this life: our name and our word."
And so, in the wee hours of October 3, 2009, Anthony gave his word: "All right, I'll take you. Let's go."
They buckled into Anthony's Camaro. Two friends, Jeremy Williams and Andrew Neal, led the way in a second car.
The caravan swung through East St. Louis, where the brothers had grown up. Strip clubs are banned by ordinance there. However, they spotted a digital sign blinking in the night sky: "Hot Girls & Cold Beer!" The bar was called City Nights. They'd never been inside.
Both cars pulled up near the front door at last call, just before 4 a.m. The elder Rice, along with Neal, approached the front door first, where a sign read, "No weapons, gang colors or any other bullshit allowed!" They stepped inside the small admission lobby.
A man at the inner door tapped his watch and said the club was closing. But a second man behind the cashier's window said, "Five bucks, let me see your I.D." It was the owner's son, Reggie Allen.
The visitors did not know that, at age 27, Allen had already been charged in eight different jurisdictions with 40 non-traffic offenses, including 20 felonies, half of which involved violence. To Rice and Neal, he was just the cashier. They decided to change course and head back to their cars.
Four white males followed them outside. One was Reggie Allen; another was a six-foot-two, 330-pound bald bouncer in a black tank top named Charlie Hurd.
According to both sides, insults started flying back and forth.
"Yeah, that's right, we're closed, Chris Tucker," Hurd reportedly jeered at Neal, in a reference to the famous black actor.
Neal, who'd opened his car door and was about to get in, shot back with something like, "You need to get a T-shirt, not a tank top, Fat Albert."
At that, Reggie Allen stooped down, grasped a brick and hurled it through Neal's driver-side window, shattering bits of glass all over him. The white men then hurried back inside the club and locked the door.
Furious, both Rice brothers rushed back up to the front door and beat on it. Anthony Rice was yelling, "Why'd y'all do that?" when he peered through the window and saw that Hurd was about to reemerge from the club with a dark object in his hand.
It was a Taser. But Anthony Rice thought it was a gun. He barred the front door with his body, hollering at his younger brother to run for cover.
The heavyset bouncer, Hurd, heaved against the door several times and finally burst out as Anthony Rice took off running.
Rather than give chase, Hurd approached the younger brother who'd retreated to the Camaro. Hurd made a clear threat, Aubrey Rice would later attest: "You niggers need to get off our property, or we'll push you off."
That's when a white Ford F-150 came careering around to the front of the club. The truck was registered to Reggie Allen, records show. And according to what Hurd later told an insurance company, Allen was the one driving it.
Things quickly spiraled out of control.
Aubrey Rice spun the Camaro around the gravel lot, kicking up clouds of dust. At some point, not far away, a security guard Tased Williams. He collapsed onto the gravel.
Neal reached into his car, pulled out his gun and fired twice into the air, he says, in the hope of scattering everyone. It didn't work.
But it got the attention of Reggie Allen, who believed the bullets were flying at him — or so his friends would later contend.
Neal says the white truck came roaring at him, chasing him as he ran into a field and around a telephone pole. Evidence photos taken later of heavy tire tracks through the grass support his claim.
Neal managed to shake his pursuer. The last time he saw the truck, he says, it was hunting a new target: Anthony Rice, who was scrambling up South Eighth Street.
At his young age, Anthony Rice had already undergone heart surgery three times. He also suffered from asthma. On this particular night, he couldn't run fast enough.
The doctor performing the autopsy would later write that Rice, who had scarcely any alcohol in his system, was "run over by an automobile." A crash report completed by the East St. Louis Police Department says that Rice was "struck in the roadway" and that "it was determined that Reginald Allen was the driver." A jury of citizens convened for the coroner's inquest later concluded that the episode was a "homicide."
Aubrey Rice had just parked the Camaro at the road's edge, he says, when he saw the F-150 flatten his brother and continue north.
He darted over to Anthony, who lay in the street.
"He was like pffft, pffft, trying to breathe," Aubrey Rice recalls. "I had to stick my finger in his mouth, try to get the blood out." Then he jumped back in his car and raced toward Allen's truck, which had made a U-turn.
"I hit him, T-bone style," Aubrey says. "I was ready to take Reggie out with me. I was thinking, 'How am I gonna tell my momma about this? I'm not fixing to let him hit my brother again and get away with this.'"
Aubrey exited the car, spitting up blood and feeling "woozy."
He staggered back to his dying brother, Anthony. "I just fell. I kept getting cold, and my eyes started getting heavy. After that, I was looking at him, I was right next to him.
"And that's the last thing I remember."
For any St. Louisan heading east on I-64 for late-night revelry, the first strip club off the Washington Park exit is owned by Reggie Allen's mother, Gail. It bears her nickname in gleaming red letters: Miss Kitty's.
Gail Allen obtained her business license in 1996. Within three years, the bar was raided by undercover agents.
Under pressure from Washington Park residents to crack down on the strip joints, authorities swooped into four of them on April 22, 1999, arresting 31 people for lap dancing, masturbation and other sexual acts. Gail Allen and three of her female dancers were charged with misdemeanor obscenity.
The charges were later dismissed, and Gail kept the club open, assisted by her husband, Woodrow. Their older son, Chuck, managed the place.
As for their younger son, Reggie Allen, he committed his first felony in June 2000: smashing out the windows of two vehicles at a party in Cahokia. He was later sentenced to probation.
Allen turned eighteen that September. Soon, he was stirring up trouble at his mother's business, according to one former dancer, Monika Abbington.
"Miss Kitty would always tell Reggie, 'Don't bring no bullshit in here,'" the ex-employee recalls. "I think Reggie was just too much to handle. Can you imagine being eighteen and your mom and dad owning a club? What would that do to your mind? It had to give this young man a big head."
Abbington says she witnessed a disturbing event: Certain dancers didn't feel Mexican customers were tipping enough one evening, so they fibbed to Allen that they were getting fondled. Allen and another employee hauled the patrons out the back door and beat them with bats, she says. (Reggie Allen did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
But Allen also engaged in some fondling of his own, Abbington recalls. He tried to grab her boobs and her butt so often that she informed her boyfriend, who attempted to discuss it with Allen one night in the parking lot. Allen flew into a rage, she says, then tried to Mace him and hit him with some kind of billy club. The couple got away and filed a police report alleging battery. They later chose not to press charges.
"I never went back after that," she says.
In 2005, the Allens opened a second club in East St. Louis, at 1100 South Eighth Street. They called it City Nights. Soon, history repeated itself: It too was raided by undercover police.
This time, Reggie Allen and a bouncer were led away in handcuffs, along with a manager who'd presented a fake badge, pretending to be a cop from New Melle. City Nights hadn't even secured a business license yet, and Allen was charged with a misdemeanor for operating an illegal strip club. (The charges were later dropped.) Officers also arrested four girls who'd been performing topless — an illegal act in East St. Louis.
"They came in like a SWAT team, guns in our faces, telling us to get on the floor," says Brittany Shelnutt, one of the girls. "They tell us we can't grab our clothes. So we're literally in our garter belts, piling into this paddy wagon. It was the most God-awful embarrassing thing of my life."
Shelnutt says that the building had previously been a rough-and-tumble biker bar with a reputation for excluding blacks. The new owners weren't any more welcoming, at least while she worked there, she says.
"If you were black, you weren't allowed in there,'" Shelnutt says. And it wasn't an effort to avoid gang violence, she says. "Some of these guys who wanted to come in were 50-year-old men. I honestly think it was a race thing."
Shelnutt had problems with Reggie Allen, too. "He was a pervert," she says. "Always grabbing, groping. He'd shine flashlights on us while we were onstage. I don't know why."
But in July 2005, Allen faced much bigger problems than public indecency. An undercover sting implicated him in a meth-dealing operation headquartered in a shop about a mile from Miss Kitty's. He was charged with fifteen felony counts and, after pleading guilty to two, served about two years in prison.
The sentencing order reads: "Court strongly recommends that Defendant receive drug treatment while in [custody]. Defendant expresses desire for treatment."
While behind bars, Allen also pleaded guilty to an offense he'd committed on July 22, 2004. Late that evening, police records state, Allen was driving along McBride Avenue in Dupo. He almost struck a motorcyclist, Billy Reed. Reed tailed Allen to his destination and confronted him.
According to the officer's report, Allen told the man, "You don't know who the fuck you're talking to," then bashed Reed in the mouth with a liquor bottle. The motorcyclist said he tried to stand up, but Allen threw the car in reverse, knocking him over and crushing the front wheel of his motorcycle.
Court and police records from 2000 through 2009 contain an impressive catalog of criminal charges — at least 35 — against Allen, all of which were ultimately dismissed for one reason or another:
• Fifteen incidents of assault or battery, including a 2000 case in which Allen allegedly pushed down a young woman described as a "household member" then kicked her in the face.
• In another 2002 case that resulted in a battery charge, Allen and two accomplices admitted to an officer that they'd beaten a man in a dispute over a stolen motorcycle. When police arrived at the hospital, the victim was injured so badly, he was drifting "in and out."
• Six incidents involving damage to property, including one instance in 2000 when, during an argument at a Dupo auto-body shop, Allen shattered his adversary's car window with a glass jar. A shootout erupted, and Allen fled. Police later found him hiding in the closet of his grandmother's trailer.
• In a different damage-to-property episode in 2003, Allen was trying to retrieve his girlfriend late one night at her family's home in Cahokia. He broke through the screen door and began beating the front door with a golf club. As the girlfriend sobbed and her mother screamed hysterically, her father came to the door naked — and armed. Allen cocked back the golf club as if ready to hit the father. When the father fired a shot at the boy's feet, Allen ran away.
Many of these charges were dismissed in plea bargains. But in at least eight of them, the victim simply failed to show up for court. On one occasion, the reason was all too obvious.
In the early morning of June 23, 2003, Allen got into an argument with the mother of his children, April Hammond. When Hammond instructed her stepsister, Amanda Hail, to call 911, Allen allegedly smacked Hail in the forehead with a flashlight, then shattered the phone against the wall and left the scene.
A St. Clair County sheriff's deputy wrote in his report that he arrived to see Hail "covered in blood." When he interviewed the women, both blamed Allen. The officer then followed Hail's ambulance to St. Mary's Health Center, where she received several stitches.
Upon leaving the hospital, the officer spoke with April Hammond, the sole witness.
"This time," the officer wrote, "[Hammond] stated she did not see [Hail] get hit by Reggie and that if she did see anything, he would kill her if she told on him."
Just hours after Anthony Rice's death in October 2009, East St. Louis mayor Alvin Parks put the hammer down: He set a temporary 1 a.m. limit on all alcohol sales. Rice's had been the second club-related killing that weekend, and Parks called the liquor vendors to an emergency meeting on October 7.
Although Missouri attorney Justin Meehan wasn't invited, he showed up anyway.
Meehan, who is white, sports a goatee and favors Black Panther-style berets. In addition to practicing law in St. Louis, he studies and teaches martial arts. He also happens to be great-uncle to the Rice brothers, having married into their family decades ago.
Before the gathering, he dug around on Reggie Allen. "When we saw this guy's record, we about fell out of our chairs," he says. "I do criminal law. I don't ever see this."
Rising to speak before Mayor Parks and those assembled, Meehan tried to lay out his case against Allen. But Parks cut him off, requesting that both he and the media leave.
"There were individuals [present] who I thought might have clammed up or might have acted out because the media was there," Parks says later in an interview. "We [then] had such a healthy discussion, I knew the businesses were ready to handle their responsibilities." Parks lifted the moratorium that same day.
Meehan, the Rices and their friends kept clamoring for prosecution. They began regular protests, sometimes in freezing temperatures, in front of City Nights. When the Allens put up "No Trespassing" signs, they moved to city hall.
Some held aloft signs denouncing "Nazi skinheads" — a reference to Aubrey Rice's assertion that a City Nights employee had a swastika tattooed on his neck. (Riverfront Times could not verify that claim.) Other signs at the protest demanded that Mayor Parks "Shut Down City Nights."
In late December, those picketers effectively got their wish.
Firefighters responded to a blaze at the club just after midnight on December 23, 2009. They wrestled it into submission within two hours, but not before the entire building was reduced to ashes. The Illinois State Fire Marshal investigated the scene but refuses to release its findings to the RFT.
On a Facebook page set up to memorialize Anthony Rice, his mother, Annette Nash-Smith, weighed in. "I'm not pleased that this happened," she wrote. "[But] I can't say this was a loss to the city."
People in the Allen camp have suggested that someone angry about Anthony Rice's death started the fire. Meehan denies it. On the contrary, he suggests that the Allens could have burned the place down for the insurance money.
But Mayor Parks has a much higher opinion of Reggie Allen's family — particularly his late father, Woodrow, who died last weekend after a battle with lung cancer.
"Woody has been extremely benevolent to the city of East St. Louis," Parks observes.
In an interview a few weeks before Woodrow Allen's death, Parks says Reggie Allen's father donated roughly $3,000 to help citizens take buses to the state capital, in a lobbying effort to keep the area hospital open. Allen pitched in to purchase a new car as a gift for 2008 Olympic gold medalist, Dawn Harper, a native of the city. And during the holiday seasons of 2007 and 2008, Allen gave 50 Schnucks gift cards, each worth $50, to needy area residents.
The Allens have also been good to Parks personally. State records show that Gail and Woody made political contributions to Parks totaling nearly $1,000 in 2007 and 2008 combined. But the politician denies it bought any influence.
In fact, Parks adds, he summoned the Allens to his office, asking them to address various issues even before the Anthony Rice incident. For example, a St. Louis man was shot and killed in the City Nights parking lot in 2008. The mayor immediately met with Woodrow Allen, demanding he provide proper security.
East St. Louis city code is clear: No strip clubs allowed. But it does permit "sexually oriented" businesses. Dancers at such places must keep their nipples, buttocks and genitals covered.
Yet such establishments cannot also sell liquor. So how did City Nights offer both "hot girls" and "cold beer," as its sign suggested?
City Nights was "basically a bikini bar," says Parks, where girls were properly covered and "sex wasn't the main thing on the menu."
The mayor adds that he had discussions "many, many, many times" with the Allens making sure they honored the city code. He also personally checked in on the club to make sure it was following the rules.
Responding to accusations that City Nights disallowed blacks, Parks avers that the bar did employ black females and had black patrons "from time to time."
"If Woody Allen is a racist, he fooled me pretty well," he says.
In addition to his mayoral duties, Parks also currently serves as the city liquor commissioner. He doesn't know what the Allens have in store for the new structure they've erected at the former City Nights location. (The building is made partly of empty freight containers.)
But he says the city has denied the Allens a new liquor license pending the outcome of the Rice case.
Parks himself recently viewed the footage that the bar's four surveillance cameras captured on the night Anthony Rice died. The mayor declines to say whether the video implicates Reggie Allen.
But he offers this: "If it's proven to be intentional and unjustified, [the Allens] will not have a liquor license again in that location, and I'd be very hard pressed to allow them to have a liquor license anywhere else in the city of East St. Louis."
He says his heart goes out to the Rice family. "I've given them everything I can give them. The city has given them everything the city can give. The only thing we're waiting for at this point is for officials beyond East St. Louis to make a decision."
When East St. Louis police detective Marion Riddle arrived at the crime scene on October 4, 2009 — just minutes after Anthony Rice was hit — he wasn't expecting a murder case.
A City Nights employee reported the event as a carjacking, Riddle confirms.
"They were trying to misguide us," recalls Riddle, a fourteen-year veteran of the force. "I didn't have all the facts I have today. Nowhere near it."
Riddle is a tall, long-limbed man who speaks in deep, strong bursts. Seated at his desk wearing a police baseball cap and rectangular spectacles, he looks out the window and filters his words with care.
After all, he says, "You cannot jeopardize justice."
The Rice family has been particularly active in pushing this case. They even sent a private investigator to Miss Kitty's last March.
"They made our job harder, yeah," Riddle says of the Rice family. "But we didn't let them get in our way."
Riddle and his counterparts at the Illinois State Police have submitted all their reports to the state's attorney, many of which required close review.
"Folks watch too many hourlong shows, where you get DNA results back in twenty minutes," he says. "It doesn't work like that in real life. It takes time. Sometimes it takes longer than a year."
Justin Meehan, however, has grown impatient. For most of 2010, he argues, the case sat on the desk of former state's attorney Robert Haida, who frequently met with the Rices and vowed action. Yet by the time Haida was elected to circuit judge in early November — thirteen months after Anthony Rice's death — no charges had been filed against Reggie Allen.
"There's no question in my mind that Haida was misleading us and stringing us along in order to avoid getting involved in a controversial case right before an election," Meehan fumes. (Haida did not return calls seeking comment.)
But political insiders don't buy Meehan's theory. First, Haida ran unopposed for circuit judge. Second, he ran on the Democratic ticket, which dominates in Illinois' 20th circuit. Third, charging a white man for a black man's murder would've played well in the all-important voting bloc of East St. Louis.
And even area Republicans admit that Haida enjoyed popularity on both sides of the aisle.
"Haida was going to win anyway; he didn't have any competition," says Ed Cockrell, a Republican member of the St. Clair County Board. "But I'm starting to hear from some law enforcers that the change at the state's attorney's office was welcome, because if Haida didn't have a slam-dunk case, he wasn't gonna pursue it."
Indeed, several individuals involved in the criminal-justice system, all of whom declined to be named, expressed frustration that Haida seemed more interested in his conviction rate than locking up dangerous people. That, they complain, resulted in leniency for repeat offenders such as Reggie Allen.
Not true, says Jim Piper, a St. Clair County assistant prosecutor who worked under Haida for fifteen years. He denies that his former boss went easy on bad guys.
"That's an urban legend," he says. "When he felt a case had a reasonable likelihood of conviction, he had no problem issuing charges."
Piper, who is now assistant chief to new state's attorney, Brendan Kelly, says the City Nights case is "still under advisement."
Meehan promises that he and the Rice family will give Kelly a chance, just like they gave Haida a chance. But they won't wait forever.
"We hold the justice system partly accountable for letting this guy run wild in the streets," says Meehan. "Someone like Reggie Allen should be wearing a muzzle and kept in a cage."
On the night of February 6, 2010, seven bullets blasted into the front of Reggie Allen's home in Dupo. His two young children — he has custody of both — were inside at the time. He told police the next day that he couldn't name a culprit but blamed a Metro East newspaper for printing his address and "claiming he is a racist."
The Allens declined to comment for this story. The reason: The Rice family has sued them, alleging battery and negligence, with a demand of $250,000.
Yet a sworn statement in that civil case reveals the Allens' version of events: They claim that the Rice brothers and their friends "instigated" the whole thing.
"It's unfortunate how it turned out, but if you bring a gun and start shooting, bad things happen," says a man speaking on the phone from Gail Allen's residence in Dupo. A friend of the family for twenty years, he declines to have his name printed for fear of retaliation.
He points out, correctly, that Andrew Neal initially lied to detectives, denying knowledge of a gun. Neal now admits that he shot into the air, drove off and ditched the firearm. (It was registered to him, but Neal feared that stashing it in his car was illegal.)
Wherever Neal pointed his weapon, the family friend says, Reggie "felt he was being fired at" and peeled off in his truck. "To this day, Reggie doesn't think he hit that kid [Anthony Rice]."
The man adds that certain strangers, passing by the new building on the City Nights lot, have recently threatened to burn it down. Some have made silent gun gestures with their fingers.
"You don't know the tears that have been shed at this table," the man says. "Everyone at this house cried over it. Someone died. He was a young man. [But] what we say is the truth."
Asked about Reggie Allen's violent criminal record, the man says: "We're not denying his history, but it has no bearing on what occurred."
Several friends of the Allens — both black and white — take umbrage that the family has been likened to "Nazis." One young black man, who lives in Washington Park and wishes to remain anonymous, called the RFT to defend the Allens.
He says that Woody Allen once donated a trash truck to that predominantly black municipality. As for Gail Allen's strip club, Miss Kitty's, it was among the area businesses that has bought turkeys for families on Thanksgiving and funded back-to-school picnics.
The young African American man also went to high school with Reggie Allen.
"Reggie's not gonna let you push him over," he says. "But he's still a good friend to me, regardless of whatever they say he did."
Leaning forward at a conference table in Justin Meehan's office on a recent Sunday afternoon, 24-year-old Aubrey Rice skims the autopsy report and explains his brother's many tattoos.
For example, doctors examining Anthony's body after his death noticed crosses with prayer beads on both upper arms, and the face of Jesus on his left arm.
"My brother is a Baptist," Aubrey says. He still refers to Anthony in the present tense.
Aubrey is asked about the tattoo of a baby with a halo, and the name "Jahmad."
"That's my auntie's son, who died at the age of two," Aubrey says.
And the words "Fighting 4 My Brother"?
"All the men we come into contact with, we don't call 'best friends,' we don't call them 'homeboys.' That's our 'brother.'"
And the happy and sad faces? "Laugh now, cry later." He glances away.
Meehan later points out that this interview is the first time Aubrey has spoken — to anyone — about the City Nights incident in more than a year.
"I keep it inside," Aubrey says, quietly, eyes lowered to the table. "And it's eating me up on the inside. I can't even look at my momma and tell my momma the truth. My momma still don't know to this day what happened."
He says he's been haunted by second guesses: What if he'd done something differently? Watching the surveillance tape, at least, settled much of those doubts.
"Before this tape was seen, there were a lot of open doors," he says. "Since I saw that tape, it'll close a lot of doors. And it's given me a good idea of how to move on with it."
He's enrolled at Southwestern Illinois College for the spring semester. Maybe, he says, he'll become a lawyer.
"Even if they convict Reggie tomorrow, and I die the next day, I'd be happy. Because then my job is done. My job is to bring justice to my brother and my momma. Our granddaddy and daddy used to say, 'We only got two things, our name and our word.'
"I'm gonna live up to mine."