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

"We don't know why we did it," he goes on. "There's no reason to do it. We never thought about how [victims] feel. After a while I felt guilty, like, 'Dang!' I couldn't sleep."

Sixteen-year-old Anthony Johnson can relate. "I used to play, but now that I think about it, I put myself in a person's shoes and ask myself, 'What if that was me that was getting knocked out?'"

Others remain unrepentant. Now seventeen, Dominique Hudson looks back on Knockout King with fondness. "When you knock 'em out you gotta tell 'em to get a pillow and a blanket, 'cause you just put 'em asleep," Hudson boasts. Cops would chase him, he says, but they never caught him: "I don't stick around for long."

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.

Brandon Demond says the game proved his manhood.

"I know now I shouldn't have hit 'em," he says. "But I did hit hard."

As Hoang Nguyen cried out in the alley south of Chippewa, his attacker touched the old man's right cheek and pushed his face to the side, as if to create a clear target for his fist, Yen Nguyen remembers.

The assailant cocked his fist and unloaded. When Nguyen went down, his head hit the pavement, according to police testimony. His attacker, meanwhile, directed his attention toward Yen Nguyen, hitting the tiny woman in the right eye, fracturing the eye socket, breaking her glasses and knocking her to the ground.

She struggled to rise. With her uninjured eye, she could see the other young man in the group rushing toward her husband and delivering the first of what police would describe as a series of kicks, as the two young women stood by. By the time Yen Nguyen was able to pick herself up, the attackers had fled. She used her cell phone to call her son Kenny, then crouched over her motionless husband and tried to revive him. Kenny says that by the time he arrived, his father's lips were blue.

Later that evening police announced that Hoang Nguyen was dead.

Three days later they apprehended eighteen-year-old Elex Murphy, who'd been identified in footage from a nearby business' surveillance camera.

According to the police department's probable cause statement, Yen Nguyen told detectives that "[t]he defendant approached them, grabbed her husband's jacket in the front and punched him in the head. As a result of that punch, Hoang Nguyen immediately fell to the ground, striking his head on the pavement."

The statement goes on to assert that Murphy "made a statement which placed him at the scene and gave information that this attack was a by-product of the 'Knock Out' game, which involves unprovoked attacks against innocent bystanders."

Murphy now denies having said anything of the sort. "That's a bullshit-ass lie," he says by phone from the City Justice Center, where he's detained without bond on four charges, including first-degree murder. "I kept telling them, 'How am I going to give you information when I wasn't even there?'"

Murphy says he was asleep when the attack occurred. He denies all knowledge of Knockout King, though he concedes that neighborhood kids in south city frequently spoke of "knocking people out."

He says his interrogators tried to coerce him into making certain statements. "They said, 'All we want you to say is that we were playing this game,'" he asserts, alleging that detectives offered to charge him with the lesser count of second-degree murder if he confessed. "I didn't agree, that's why I'm on murder-first," he reasons.

Murphy's credibility, however, is compromised by his criminal history. Matt Murphy, public-information officer for the city's 22nd Judicial Circuit Court, says Elex Murphy was charged in 2006 for unlawful use of a weapon (a knife) in a case that got transferred to St. Louis County, where his mother was living. Earlier this year police arrested Murphy for larceny and trespassing, though neither charge was prosecuted. Murphy served one day in the St. Louis County Jail this year after failing to pay court fines resulting from four separate MetroLink violations; three days after his release, he was cited for a fifth.

Murphy spent the majority of his adolescence in group homes operated by the Missouri Department of Social Services. While he was in state custody, he pledged allegiance to the Murphy Blair branch of the Blood gang, named for the apartment complex north of downtown St. Louis — but "that was all an act," says his nineteen-year-old brother, Terrance Murphy. (Incidentally, Terrance acknowledges that Knockout King has been played since he and Elex were kids.)

When Elex Murphy turned eighteen last year, he returned to St. Louis. But his mother kicked him out of her house not long afterward. Over the three months that preceded the attack on Hoang and Yen Nguyen, Murphy lived on the streets of Dutchtown.

Murphy spent the two nights immediately following the Nguyen attack partying at the apartment of Tuffy Bland, who lives on the 3700 block of Chippewa, a literal stone's throw from the murder site. On April 19, three days after the killing, Bland, Murphy and a couple of other men headed out to the Gray Fox Pub in Tower Grove South. Shortly after arriving, Murphy stepped outside to use the phone. Minutes later he was spotted by police, who apprehended him.

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