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

Roger Hart, one of Murphy's house parents, says the boy had a gentle soul. "He was real sweet, real kind, always generous," recalls Hart, who would take Murphy home for Christmas and watch him play and color with his young kids.

On his Facebook profile page, Murphy projects himself as something of a romantic, posting poetry, confessing his love for a girlfriend and describing his passions for singing, church and helping others. One friend said Murphy enjoyed surprising girls with flowers and cards.

Yet that sweeter side was sometimes overshadowed by his internal demons, which he manifested through lies, defensive reactions and a fierce temper that, when provoked, led to fights. And Murphy, who is listed in court documents as five-foot-eleven and 186 pounds, usually won those fights. "Elex was pretty strong," says friend Austin Burlbaw. "I don't know if I'd punch Elex."

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 he turned eighteen, Murphy moved back in with his mother in north St. Louis, but this past winter, at the urging of her landlord, McCuller kicked him out.

Murphy eventually made his way to Dutchtown, where he slept in alleys and shelters and sometimes begged for food. By then he'd reinvented himself with falsehoods, telling people his mother was dead, that he attended Washington University, that he worked at Applebee's. He also pretended he was from Atlanta, claiming "ATL" as a nickname.

"He's not a bad kid," McCuller says in her son's defense. "He just needs help. Mental help. He hasn't had any medicine."

The teenage nomad eventually found some semblance of refuge inside the White Castle at the corner of Grand Boulevard and Gravois Avenue, where he'd sit at a table till late in the evening, writing poems and sketching in a notebook.

When news broke of Murphy's confession, his acquaintances seemed flummoxed.

"If you compared him to the other little guys at White Castle, he seemed like he didn't belong," says Dutchtown resident Damietrice Davis, who describes Murphy as mild mannered. "He didn't seem like the type to crack someone 'cross the head."

Says another acquaintance, who allowed Murphy to sleep for three nights inside a car parked in his back yard: "I don't think he was into Knockout King."

White Castle general manager Andrea Gagne, who watched Murphy doodle in his notebook nearly every night and eventually befriended him, says she cried when she heard of his arrest. "I was devastated," says Gagne, describing Murphy as gentlemanly. Sometimes after dark, she adds, Murphy would offer to walk her to her car.

But in the weeks leading up to the Nguyen attack, the enigmatic young man visited the restaurant less frequently, Gagne says. A few days before the murder, he displayed cuts up and down his arm. "He said he'd fallen off his bike, but it looked like someone had been scratching him," she says.

Gagne says she's still in shock. "Some kids come in here and — ugh. But he wasn't one of them. Out of all the kids who come here, he was the last one I thought could do this."

A week after her husband's death, Yen Nguyen still carries the shiner that resulted from her attack. The right side of her face is swollen and filled with nicks from her broken glasses, and the white of her eye remains blood-red.

The living room of her daughter Lan's apartment in south St. Louis County contains a shrine dedicated to Yen's late husband. The framed photograph of Hoang Nguyen serves as a reminder of happier times, when the Nguyens believed they were living the American Dream.

"My dad really loved it here," says Kenny Nguyen, acknowledging the irony. "The quality of life was good. Everyone has human rights, the freedom to do everything they want."

The Nguyen tragedy is part of a spate of crimes that have gripped the Dutchtown neighborhood in recent months. In March U.S. Marshal John Perry was killed in an exchange of gunfire with a drug dealer; not long after Nguyen's murder, a resident, Paul Reiter, was shot to death while interrupting a robbery next door to his home.

Members of the Vietnamese community continue to be targets of assault. Two weeks after Nguyen's attack, 59-year-old Khanh Pham was punched in the head and mugged inside his Chippewa Street laundry business. In the days after the Nguyen murder, Tower Grove South Alderwoman Jennifer Flowers says, she was told anecdotally of four knockout-related attacks; Dutchtown Alderman Shane Cohn reports one more.

In response, police have made an effort to reach out to citizens, particularly the Vietnamese, to help put their fears in perspective.

"We caught one guy, and we're going to catch the other," says Joseph Calabro, the neighborhood's community-outreach officer, speaking to a handful of immigrants at the Carpenter branch of the St. Louis Public Library on South Grand Boulevard. (At press time, police spokeswoman Schron Jackson said the department had leads on the other suspects.) Calabro is here to educate residents about how to avoid becoming victims, and urging them to report crimes to police.

Chief Dan Isom has made appearances in the neighborhood, pledging his commitment to the community, and the department recently opened a new Dutchtown substation, manned by a full-time officer. The neighborhood's citizen patrol, launched earlier this year, is now manned by about 80 volunteer members, according to Alderman Cohn. Residents were told they'd be given high-powered whistles and received a free class in self-defense.

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