Knockout King: Kids call it a game. Academics call it a bogus trend. Cops call it murder.

Knockout King: Kids call it a game. Academics call it a bogus trend. Cops call it murder.
Timothy Lane

On the blustery morning of April 16, Hoang Nguyen and his wife, Yen, left their Dutchtown apartment to go grocery shopping, a Saturday routine. After bidding goodbye to their 25-year-old son, Kenny, the couple strolled east on Chippewa Street, crossing Spring and Giles avenues, then headed south on Grand Boulevard toward their market.

Hoang, a 72-year-old retired schoolteacher and avid painter, immigrated with his wife to St. Louis three-and-a-half years ago from their native Vietnam. The couple wanted to be closer to their daughter, Lan, who'd married an American and settled in south county. Kenny joined his parents six months later. By now the Nguyens were fixtures in Dutchtown's growing Vietnamese community and active parishioners at Resurrection of Our Lord. Recently Hoang had begun taking English classes at the International Institute of St. Louis nearby.

The Nguyens ticked off the items on their shopping list — fish, vegetables, noodles — filling their pushcart with grocery bags. Security-camera footage shows the diminutive husband embracing a friend at the cash register as his 59-year-old wife laughs nearby.

In the months that preceded the attack on the Nguyens, Elex Murphy (at Valley Springs Youth Ranch) had reinvented himself with falsehoods, telling acquaintances that his mother was dead, that he was from Atlanta and that he attended Washington University.
In the months that preceded the attack on the Nguyens, Elex Murphy (at Valley Springs Youth Ranch) had reinvented himself with falsehoods, telling acquaintances that his mother was dead, that he was from Atlanta and that he attended Washington University.

When the Nguyens left the grocer at about 10:30, they took a shortcut home through the alley that parallels Chippewa to the south. They'd been taking this route for months; though it made Yen nervous, the alley's gradual slope made it easier for her elderly husband to maneuver their pushcart.

Midway down the alley, Nguyen's cart stopped suddenly — seemingly for no reason. "It was like it was a sign saying we shouldn't go that way," Yen says in hindsight. When Hoang got the wheels moving again, they looked up and saw two young men and two young women approaching.

Moments later, one of the men charged.

Hoang stepped in front of his wife to protect her, she recalls. The man grabbed Hoang's jacket as he pleaded for mercy, shouting, "No, no, no!"


"Jason" considers himself a typical fourteen-year-old. "I got a good family background," he asserts by phone from his mother's house in St. Louis County, on a morning when he decided to skip school after oversleeping.

Jason, who asked RFT to use a pseudonym, recently moved to the county from south city, where he attended Fanning Middle School, near Grand Boulevard and not far from the Nguyen household. It was during his middle-school years that he was introduced to Knockout King.

"I always hit 'em hard," he says. "If you don't hit 'em hard, they don't go far."

Jason is talking about a ritual — those who participate call it a game — that has been adopted by young teens across the St. Louis area. Once an elusive phenomenon that flew under the local radar, the game exploded onto the collective consciousness with the media reports that followed the attack on Hoang Nguyen.

Along with a generalized sense of fear, there was befuddlement: What would drive a young person to sucker punch a defenseless stranger purely for sport?

"It was just a little game," says Jason. "We used to walk to where a lot of people be at and hit 'em. If one of the homeboys didn't knock him out, then the other would come. Whoever knock him out would be king."

The rules of Knockout King are straightforward, according to Jason and other former players interviewed for this article. A lead attacker is chosen from among a group of boys, usually young adolescents. Next a target is picked out. Then the attacker either charges the unsuspecting victim or motions for his attention. When the target turns or lifts his head, the attacker strikes. If the victim is felled by the punch, the group usually scatters. But if the target withstands the blow, other members of the group may follow up with their fists to finish the job. "Some people kick, but I ain't used to kick," says Jason. "I just punched."

Jason says he began playing when he was about eleven and that his group once knocked out five people in one night. Did victims ever lose consciousness? "Probably," he concedes. "I would think about it afterward, but then the thoughts go away, like it never happened."

For some victims of the assaults, the memories eventually fade away as well.

Others find it harder to forget.

Harder for 80-year-old Rafael Quiroz, who was hit on the back of his head last year while standing on a corner of Michigan Avenue in broad daylight. The blow knocked him to the ground and bloodied him. "Physically he's OK now, but mentally he won't go on walks like he used to," says Quiroz's granddaughter, Lucy Rosales.

Harder for John Stuhlman, 36, who was hit in the head last year while walking home from work, leaving him with dizzy spells that persisted for two weeks. "I freaked out and took off down the street, and he tried to chase me," recalls Stuhlman, who now avoids walking the streets late at night. "He was upset because I didn't fall down. He even said something like, "I hit you, and you fall down.'"

Harder for John Henry Muhrer, 35, who was assaulted by a group of kids in near Tower Grove Park a few years ago. The lead attacker distracted him by tossing a small bike in his path, then swooped in. "He hit me pretty hard," says Muhrer. "Never saw it coming."

1
 
2
 
3
 
4
 
5
 
6
 
7
 
All
 
Next Page »
 
 
Loading...