By Sarah Fenske
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Danny Wicentowski
By Jessica Lussenhop
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
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.
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."
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."
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.
"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."
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.
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.
"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 YouthFacts.org, 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."
The Nguyen attack in particular seems far removed from play activity, given the ages of the alleged attacker and the victim. Most kids say Knockout King mainly involves younger teens whose preferred punching bags are twenty- and thirtysomethings. Murphy is 18 (far stronger than a seventh grader), Nguyen, 72 (much frailer than most pedestrians).
Former player Brandon Demond says that during his Knockout King days, old men were off-limits. "The new generation is doing it stupid, 'cause they hit old heads," Brandon scoffs. "You're supposed to hit young people or people in their mid-twenties."
Fourteen-year-old Jason, too, was surprised when he heard about the attack on the Nguyens. "We ain't never hit no old person," he maintains, adding that killing isn't the purpose of Knockout King.
"That wasn't Knockout King," Brandon says of Hoang Nguyen's murder. "That was plain, straight-up dumb."
While some middle schoolers say Knockout King is still played around the city, crime statistics do not indicate it's a rising trend. None of the victims RFT interviewed was attacked during 2011; most incidents they described occurred during 2009 and 2010. Several sources point to one school, Alternative Education–South, in Carondelet, as a onetime Knockout King palace, but it shut its doors last year.
Nationally, youth violence is down significantly from previous years, while misdemeanor youth assaults have held reasonably steady, according to FBI data.
In response to a public-records request, St. Louis police provided Riverfront Times with spreadsheets containing complaint logs from September 2003 through May 2011. During that period there have been 1,315 instances in which a lone male was the victim of an assault perpetrated by one or more males aged sixteen or under. Victims ranged in age from 4 to 81; the median age was 24. Only 29 of the victims were over age 60.
All but two of the ten victims RFT interviewed were white (one was black and was Latino), and all of the players were black. But Knockout King does not appear to be bounded by race. Jason, from St. Louis County, says two white friends were part of his punch-out crew. One Dutchtown woman, agreeing to speak on the condition that her name not be published, says police caught her son, who is white, playing Knockout King two years ago, when he was sixteen. He and some friends had been hiding between buildings on Gravois Avenue, and he popped out to club a bicyclist who'd come rolling along.
"It's not a black thing, it's a kid thing," the woman says. "It's teenage kids trying to be cool. My son's as white as can be. He doesn't have a black bone in his body."
Rather than sweep the race issue under the rug, Saint Louis University criminologist Norman White says Knockout King should be viewed with a broader lens that captures the social disparities of the city. The issue, he says, is less about acts of physical violence than it is about the dearth of opportunities for disadvantaged — and mostly black — youth. He calls that population "our blind side."
"It's the place we can make fun of and talk about, but not really pay attention to," says White. "I talk to my students in the context of it being like a Third World country. Until we recognize the magnitude of that deprivation, the crimes in this city won't get better."
Others agree that juvenile sucker punchers aren't the root of the problem. "Kids are stupid," says Melissa Sickmund, chief of systems research at the Pittsburgh-based National Center for Juvenile Justice, who doesn't seem fazed by a description of the phenomenon. "That's why we don't let them do things like sign contracts."
Chris Ferguson, of Texas A&M, isn't surprised by Knockout King either, but he cautions that such behavior shouldn't be considered normal. "People who assault strangers tend to be psychologically different from the average teen," Ferguson says. "In general they tend to have mental-health problems, particularly depression. They're not well-adjusted, they're not the physics majors taking time off from AP class to go beat people up. They're aware of the harm they're causing, but they just don't care."
At eighteen, Elex Murphy should have known better, agrees Sickmund. But she and others question whether the state's social-services system adequately did its job. "If he's spent the majority of his time in state custody, is the state not culpable for his behavior?" she asks. "Probably a little bit."
As a child growing up in the West End, Elex Murphy frequently got into fights at school. At twelve, his single mother, Anissa McCuller, turned him over to state custody. That same year he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which was treated with a cocktail of medications including lithium and antidepressants.
At group homes Murphy showed a different side, staying out of trouble for the most part and making several friends, who still portray him as a kindhearted, if conflicted, kid with creative talents, a love for animals and loyalty as a confidant.
"He was a pretty good guy, an honest guy," says Dakota Counts, who befriended Murphy at Valley Springs Youth Ranch in the eastern Ozark Mountains. "A lot of people with personal issues would talk to him. Socially, everyone got along with him."
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."
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.
"The police chief has told us he is trying to improve the safety environment of the community, and that is the first step to healing," says Nhon Dang, president of the Vietnamese Center for Community Activities, located just outside Dutchtown in Tower Grove South.
That healing process will not include one former resident. Yen Nguyen has quit her job as a seamstress and moved in with her daughter in south county. At her husband's funeral, she expressed forgiveness toward the man who murdered him. "I just hope we have a peaceful life from now on," she says.
"We should gather together to understand each other more," adds Kenny Nguyen. "And I hope police can work harder so no more people can get hurt from this sick game."