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

Harder for 27-year-old Johnny Saint, a musician who five years ago was assaulted while strolling through the Benton Park neighborhood. "Three cats came up from behind," Saint recounts. "One guy clocks me in the back of the head, and I fall forward. Then all three guys say, 'Put your dukes up.'"

Harder for Jack, a 30-year-old who declined to give his last name; he was punched in the head last year while walking along Washington Avenue and ended up in the emergency room. "I went down, then got back up, and they punched me in the nose and gave me a black eye," he says.

Harder for Doyle McClellan, 40, who, two weeks after moving from Rolla to the Marine Villa neighborhood, was whacked in the jaw as he was working in his front yard. "Welcome to south city,'" he quips now. "Where I'm from, they bring you a plate of cookies."

Elex Murphy shortly after his arrest.
Elex Murphy shortly after his arrest.

These victims, along with four others who provided accounts to RFT, were not robbed, just sucker punched without provocation or warning. All were unaware of the Knockout King phenomenon before being attacked. But a few of them learned about the ritual after sharing their stories with others. The same day he was hit, McClellan was approached by a young man familiar with the assailants who told him the attack had been "part of 'the knockout game' — and that they'd done the same thing to other people," McClellan says today.

City officials have begun to recognize the problem. St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce acknowledges the existence of Knockout King, based on admissions by five defendants. Most of those defendants were charged with misdemeanor assaults, Joyce says. One incident transpired in Tower Grove Park, another in Carondelet. A third involved a kid riding a skateboard who attacked a woman in the Central West End. "He just blindsided her," says Joyce. "She was seriously injured."

The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, too, knows of the violent ritual. "The 'knockout game' is played by a group of kids who, as outrageous as it sounds, go around with the goal of knocking people out, for apparently no reason," says Chief Daniel Isom. The department came to that determination about a year ago, says Isom, who adds that he doesn't consider the violent activity to be widespread. "Based on our intelligence, we believe it's an isolated group of maybe five to nine kids," he says.

Local teens say it's far more popular than that.

"I'd say maybe ten to fifteen percent of kids play Knockout King," says Aaron Davis, who's eighteen and lives in south city, adding that he never took part. "It's not a whole school, but it's a nice percentage."

Some former participants maintain Davis' estimate is too low.

"Everybody plays," says eighteen-year-old Brandon Demond, a former participant who provided only his first and middle names for publication.

"It's a game for groups of teens to see who can hit a person the hardest," explains Brandon, who's standing with a group of friends on Grand Boulevard as a police officer listens nearby. "It's a bunch of stupid-ass little dudes in a group, like we are now. See this dude walkin' up behind me?" — Brandon gestures to a longhaired man walking toward him on the sidewalk — "we could just knock him out right now."

Police and perpetrators say Knockout King isn't gang-related. Gang-recruitment crimes usually involve money, explains Mike Byrne, who oversees gang intelligence for the St. Louis County Police Department's North County Precinct. It makes little sense, notes Byrne, for gangs to tempt fate by randomly sucker punching strangers; they've got drug deals and turf wars to worry about.

Nor is the game related to the gang called the Knockout Boys, which formed about six years ago in north county. "The Knockout Boys are a documented gang, but they have no relation to this game," asserts Byrne.

Much of the city's violent crime is associated with rougher pockets of north city; for example, 111 of the 144 homicides in the city last year — roughly 77 percent — occurred north of Delmar Boulevard. But Knockout King goes on more frequently in south city, as well as in other neighborhoods that see heavy foot traffic, such as downtown and the Delmar Loop.

A variety of factors make it impossible to quantify how many assaults can be attributed to Knockout King. For one, police often categorize such attacks as attempted robberies; though participants say theft isn't the motive, they've been known to add larceny to injury when the opportunity presents itself. Moreover, because victims usually don't get a good look at their assailant, incidents seldom result in charges. Many of the most vulnerable victims don't file police reports, either because they fear revenge or were taught in their native countries not to trust police.

"If immigrants are being attacked, then it would really be the case where this is being underreported," says Joyce.

Kids list various motivations for taking part: glory, boredom, peer pressure and showing off one's toughness. For most the game eventually loses its luster. "It got old on me," fourteen-year-old Jason says. "I'd been playing for a long time — I can't even count.

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