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

Boone County assistant prosecutor Richard Hicks has some familiarity with Knockout King. In 2009 Hicks prosecuted three young men for second-degree robbery; two pleaded guilty while one was convicted at a later trial. (Three additional attackers were juveniles.) As in the Nguyen assault, the attackers were accompanied by young women. "At least one of the boys admitted that they were playing a game called 'The Knockout King,'" says Hicks.

Flint Fowler, too, knows of Knockout King. For the past fifteen years, Fowler has served as president of the Herbert Hoover Boys and Girls Club, which offers daily empowerment programs to 9,500 kids between the ages of six and eighteen across the St. Louis area. "The kids at the club are aware of it," says Fowler. "It appears to have traction, born out of boredom and challenge to toughness. Unless it goes checked, it could get worse than what we've seen."

Despite Fowler's sense of foreboding, most local officials are all but oblivious. A couple of area schoolteachers mention "Knockout King" but decline to speak on the record. City court spokesman Matt Murphy says three juvenile probation officers have informed him of non-robbery cases that "perhaps fit the profile" but were presented in the courtroom as assault.

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.

"A kid arrested for assault may tell authorities it was a game because he doesn't want to tell anyone what the fight was really about," Murphy reasons. After passing along RFT's questions to middle-school social workers, Patrick Wallace, spokesman for the St. Louis Public Schools, would not confirm or deny that Knockout King is an element of middle-school parlance. The social workers, Wallace reports, "are not interested in talking about it." University City Police Department spokesman Mike Ransom says he has heard nothing of Knockout King and cautions, "We don't want to give people any ideas."

Among other shoulder shruggers: city and state judges, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch's office, St. Louis Family Court Judge Jimmie Edwards, the Missouri Division of Youth Services, the Missouri Department of Social Services, Missouri State Courts Administrator Greg Linhares, eight metro-east police chiefs and four St. Louis middle-school principals.

Some observers of juvenile behavior go further.

Mike Males, a research fellow at the nonprofit Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice and who runs the website, says the media have made habit of cherry-picking isolated instances of "knockout games" in order to gin up sensational stories that demonize youth. "This knockout-game legend is a fake trend," Males contends.

Given that 4.3 million violent attacks were reported by U.S. citizens in 2009, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey, Males says reporters should know better than to highlight a handful of random attacks by kids and call it journalism. It's the same thing as plucking a few instances of attackers with Jewish surnames who beat up non-Jews and declaring it a "troubling new trend," he argues.

Still, over the years a handful of reports of "knockout" have emerged from cities in Missouri, Illinois, Massachusetts and New Jersey. And most criminologists and youth experts agree that unprovoked attacks by teenagers on strangers are a real, if extremely rare, phenomenon. "Knockout King" might be a new name, but it fits right into the timeworn litany of drifting, aimless kids who travel in packs and accost the vulnerable. The infamous Central Park Jogger case of 1989 popularized the term "wilding." More recently in Britain, there have been accounts of "happy-slapping."

Reverend Richard Jackson, who counsels families of inmates through his north county-based program Manasseh Ministry, says the knockout phenomenon is "widespread across the country." But he's not surprised that many St. Louisans don't know about it. "There are some things that go on in certain circles that you won't hear about if you don't travel in them," he says.

Anecdotally, it would appear that St. Louis youths' predilection for sucker punching dates back at least a few decades.

"When I was growing up in the '80s, we called it 'One-Hitter Quitter,'" says Askia, a South Grand barber who grew up not far from where the Nguyens were attacked. "It was one shot," he elaborates, declining to divulge his last name for publication. "We'd be out in the club or something and pick a random person and drop him to see if we could knock him out."

Rarely, though, has the knockout routine been referred to as a "game." That might explain the visceral public reaction that followed Elex Murphy's arrest.

Chris Ferguson, a social psychologist at Texas A&M University who studies violent behavior, prefers to use the term "thrill assaults."

"For some reason everything involving teens gets called a game, no matter how little play behavior has to do with the motives," Ferguson explains. As an example he cites the "choking game," in which one youth will cut off oxygen to another's brain in order to produce euphoric feelings, in spite of the risks.

Captain Gerald Leyshock, commander of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department's Third District, has no interest in fine distinctions. "A kid's game is playing marbles," says Leyshock. "Anyone who would knock down someone else without warning and provocation would be a subhuman, antisocial, urban terrorist. This ain't no game."

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