UPDATE: After a series of motions filed by his new legal team, a Mississippi County judge freed Cornealious Michael Anderson III on May 5, 2014. The judge counted the thirteen years Anderson was improperly free as "time served" and released him immediately. The Riverfront Times reported in February 2014 that the victim in the 1999 robbery forgave Anderson, a fact that was shared with the court. Anderson and his wife LaQonna walked out of the courthouse together and returned to their home in Webster Groves to be reunited with his children. This story was also turned into a segment for This American Life in February 2014.
Just after dawn on July 25, a phalanx of vehicles parked and blocked traffic on a quiet residential street in Webster Groves. Moments later a team of U.S. marshals piled out, pounded on the door of an unremarkable-looking suburban home and rousted Cornealious "Mike" Anderson from inside.
"You've got the wrong guy," blurted the 36-year-old contractor as the marshals, outfitted in tactical gear and helmets, swept his two-story home. The only person inside was two-year-old Nevaeh, Anderson's youngest daughter, asleep in her crib in the master bedroom. A marshal lifted her out, confused and crying, and carried her downstairs.
By now Anderson — still dressed in his pajamas and handcuffed on the front porch — was in a cold sweat. He warned one of the officers he might pass out. With no one else inside to take the little girl, the marshals allowed Anderson to dial his mother-in-law who lived just down the block. She arrived minutes later with Anderson's six-year-old son, Jorden, who had just awoken from a sleepover with his cousins.
The marshals handed over Nevaeh to her grandmother, and Jorden watched the marshals lead his tearful father away.
As officials were still sorting out where to take Anderson, one of the marshal's cell phones began ringing repeatedly. It was Anderson's wife, LaQonna, who'd been alerted of the arrest while away on a business trip in Oklahoma City. The marshal allowed Anderson a few moments to fill her in.
"Baby, I'm sorry," he told her. "This is something from thirteen years ago. I thought that this was over."
A few hours later Anderson arrived at Fulton Reception and Diagnostic Center, a facility 100 miles west of St. Louis that accepts new inmates and sorts them for their eventual permanent homes within the Missouri Department of Corrections. He's been there ever since.
As he sits in the prison's linoleum-floored visitors center, Anderson chokes up recalling what his children saw that morning seven weeks ago.
"I just tell 'em, 'I just got some business to take care of. I'll be home soon,'" he says. "I had to talk to my son. Once they arrested me, his eyes, the look of hatred. Kids don't know what hate is, but if a kid knew what hate was, he knew what it was that day."
For more than a decade, Anderson was supposed to have been in a Missouri prison cell. Instead, through some kind of massive procedural screwup, he was out walking among us. Finding him would have been a trivially easy task for police: He was possibly the worst fugitive of all time. He didn't change his name. He didn't leave town. In fact, his address is just two blocks away from the last one the court system had for him. It is where he built his house from the ground up — the home with the granite countertops and the trampoline out back. He registered his contracting business with the secretary of state to that address.
But until this summer the Missouri criminal-justice system seems to have simply forgotten about him, thirteen years after he was sentenced for his role in an armed robbery in St. Charles. Since that time Anderson has not gotten so much as a speeding ticket.
"Wow. That's insane," says St. Charles Prosecuting Attorney Tim Lohmar when he first hears the story. Asked if he has ever heard of anything like it, he says, "Never."
Regardless of the mistake, the DOC now says Anderson still owes time. To his friends and family, Anderson is an ideal father, church member and football coach, and he bears no resemblance to the 22-year-old who was convicted so many years ago. They say he belongs at home.
No one, not Anderson's attorneys nor several legal experts contacted by the Riverfront Times, is quite sure what Anderson's options are, or even if he has any.
"I don't have any clue what happens now," says Michael Wolff, dean of the Saint Louis University School of Law and former chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court. "I can see that a person wouldn't want to call up and say, 'Remember me? I owe you thirteen years.' And then the real question is: Should we take into account the fact that he apparently has been a good citizen?"
LaQonna Anderson says she knew very little about her husband's past crime until now. A soft-spoken 29-year-old with high cheekbones, she could pass for an even younger woman were the skin under her eyes not ringed with worry. She's not been sleeping or eating properly and has begun to lose weight. Little wonder: She's a suddenly single mother of four with a full-time job as a hotel manager during the day.
"School's starting tomorrow," she sighs one afternoon last month, looking across the kitchen table at her twelve-year-old son, JerQon. "A lot of kids have their mom and their dad on the first day. Mike was always there with them on their first day of school."
In the room that just weeks earlier swarmed with federal agents, JerQon tries to articulate how his father's absence is affecting him.
"He said that I'm the man of the house and keep up with the kids," he says. "Help 'em out and make sure they don't get on momma's nerves."
Although he says he's handling his new responsibilities all right, JerQon also says he is angry.
"At the people who locked him up," he says, almost inaudibly, a Cardinals cap pulled low over his eyes. "Because they waited so long to get him."
LaQonna and Cornealious met after their eldest children, both from previous relationships, started playing together. JerQon is LaQonna's oldest son, and Cornealious has a ten-year-old daughter by his first wife. He married LaQonna at a courthouse in 2007, and they held a formal church ceremony a year later.
It wasn't until the family's first meeting with attorneys after Anderson's arrest that LaQonna found out the whole story. Still, if she's angry at being kept in the dark, it's not apparent.
"The past was the past," she says firmly. "We were moving on to the future."
And that future was promising according to the friends, former clients and family who eagerly vouch for Anderson.
"I talk to him almost every day; that's why it kind of threw me for a loop when I found out," says Stewart King, Anderson's long-time best friend. "I always went to Mike for questions on my marriage. Over the last six, seven, even eight years, he's been a real church guy."
His business partner and friend Brian Mayer says Anderson was working 70 to 80 hours a week on the company he founded, Anderson Construction and Investment.
"He doesn't cuss. He doesn't drink. He's a family man," says Mayer. "The only thing he does is go fishing now and then. I hate that this is going on."
In the weeks leading up to the arrest, the family had blithely gone about their usual routine. Anderson tinkered with the Monte Carlo SS he keeps in the garage (license plate LM-4EVA — "LaQonna and Mike Forever") and took the kids to the park down the street on their bikes. The family celebrated the Fourth of July in matching red, white and blue outfits underneath the Arch.
Anderson's mother, Hazel McKinney, says her son told her the marshals had the house under surveillance for several days prior. (The local office of the U.S. Marshals would not comment on any aspect of the investigation.)
"They were just amazed at the type of family he had," she says.
Anderson's father, Cornealious Michael II, says that while his son may have had some problems in the past, the last thirteen years have proven that he does not deserve to be in prison.
"If the point of incarceration is rehabilitation, the job's already done."
On August 15, 1999, a manager at a Burger King in St. Charles placed the day's cash — in total a little over $2,000 in bills and coins — in two bank bags and made the short drive to the Mercantile Bank on West Clay Street. As he put his keys into the night-deposit box, he heard footsteps coming up fast behind him.
"Two black males came running up to my car with hand guns [sic] pointing them at me," the victim wrote in his statement to the police. "Told me to drop the bags or they were going to blow my fucken [sic] head off."
The manager dropped the money and put up his hands, and the men, their faces concealed, grabbed the cash and ran. After waiting a beat, the manager chased after them behind the bank and watched as they disappeared into a cluster of low-slung apartment buildings across the street. The victim ran out to busy West Clay Street, hoping to flag down a passing police car, but instead he watched a small blue vehicle race out from inside the apartment village. As it passed, he caught the license-plate number.
When St. Charles police arrived, a second witness confirmed the story: Two black males with masks confronted the night manager, then peeled out in a "light blue, 2 door Mitsubishi or Hyundai," according to the witness' statement. The police ran the numbers the victim scribbled down on the back of an envelope. The plate came back as that of a 1993 blue Plymouth two-door. The registered owner was 22-year-old Cornealious Michael Anderson III.
The day after the robbery, St. Charles police discovered Anderson's Plymouth in the parking lot of an apartment complex less than a mile away from the bank. Fingerprints left on the passenger-side door matched those of Anderson's friend Laron "Jay" Harris, whom police pulled over that same day after he cruised past the Plymouth in his own car.
Harris told the police he'd never been to St. Charles before and didn't know anyone named Cornealious Anderson. He declined to go with the police to headquarters for questioning. St. Charles police later discovered Harris was on probation for felony vehicle theft in San Diego.
Police didn't catch up with Anderson for another two months: They found him hiding under a blanket at his girlfriend's apartment. Anderson told detectives his car was stolen and filled out a four-page statement asserting that. But once he returned to the interrogation, the cops threatened to charge his girlfriend with hindering their investigation. Anderson crumbled.
"I was there when the robbery took place," he wrote in a new statement. "There was a BB gun being used that was provided by Jay Harris."
He told police that they were tooling around St. Charles in Anderson's car when Harris noticed bank customers making night deposits. Anderson insisted it was Harris' idea to pull over and rob a man they saw about to drop off his cash. Anderson said Harris pointed the BB gun. When the Burger King manager moved like he was going into his car for a weapon, Anderson says, he pointed his hand at him as if it were a gun and pulled his Rams sweatshirt up over his face. After they drove off, he ditched the car and called his girlfriend to come pick them up.
"I take full responsibility for my actions and my involvement in this crime," he wrote.
In the months that followed, though, Anderson began having second thoughts about his confession.
Anderson's father, Cornealious Anderson II, admits that his son was a rebellious teenager: "He did get into some trouble."
Anderson's parents split up when he was still quite young. As a teen in the late '90s, Anderson moved in with his father in California and began testing boundaries. He hated homework and rejected the notion of going to college, though he did show an aptitude for working with his hands, especially on old cars.
Young Cornealious also developed a taste for partying. One night of heavy drinking ended with Anderson and a group of buddies stealing a car. That earned him a trip to a boot-camp-style school in Nevada as one of the terms of his juvenile probation.
"After he came out of that I thought he'd turn it all around," says Anderson's father.
It was also during this time that Cornealious became close with Laron Harris, his father's girlfriend's son from a previous relationship. The boys were only three years apart and developed a friendship that lasted even after Cornealious' father and Harris' mother broke up. Although they were not related by blood, the two referred to each other as "brother." Family friends would later tell police they thought Harris was a "bad influence."
After he graduated high school in 1998, Cornealious moved back to the St. Louis area to live with his mother and stepfather in Valley Park. He worked at an AT&T call center and eventually moved into his own apartment in Maplewood. In the summer of 1999 friends recalled that Anderson was excited because his "brother" was coming from San Diego to visit.
Harris never admitted his role in the robbery the two committed that summer. Instead he chose to plead out and was sentenced to ten years in prison. (Attempts to locate Harris were unsuccessful.)
Anderson took another tack. He believed that by cooperating with the investigation he would get a year or two of probation. But as his attorney moved toward a plea deal, it became clear he would receive a minimum of ten years. In February 2000, Anderson called the lead St. Charles detective who handled the investigation.
"Anderson stated he was upset because his attorney told him that he and the prosecutor said that if he kept his mouth shut and played stupid like his brother is doing now, he wouldn't be where he is today," wrote the detective in a subsequent report. "Anderson stated he got caught up in the wrong place, the wrong time, with the wrong person."
Against the advice of the private attorney he hired, Anderson went ahead with a jury trial in March 2000. From the start, it was a disaster for him. While searching the Maplewood apartment Anderson occupied at the time of the robbery, police found a letter-size, glossy advertisement for Beretta semiautomatic pistols. St. Charles prosecutor James Gregory used the gun brochure as evidence that Anderson owned and used a gun in the robbery, even though police never recovered any weapons. When Anderson testified in his own defense, Gregory hammered him.
Gregory: Did you think Laron was going to shoot you?
Anderson: No, I did not think he was going to shoot me, sir.
Gregory: You all planned this robbery, didn't you?
Anderson: No, sir.
Gregory: You came all the way over from...St. Louis because you knew that area... you knew about, that they make night deposits, and that's a common thing that happens in California is robbing night deposits, isn't it?
In Gregory's closing argument, he called Anderson a gang member.
"You can't sleep, walk down the street without being mugged, or something? It's people like him out there," he told the jury. "He would rather party than work. And how do people live like that that don't have enough ambition to keep a job and work like we do? They get it by stealing."
The all-white jury returned swiftly with a guilty verdict. Anderson received thirteen years: ten for robbery and three for armed criminal action.
Anderson walked out of Fulton Diagnostic for the first time in June 2000 — ten months after the initial robbery. Using money scraped together from relatives, the family hired a new attorney to handle an appeal. After it was filed, Anderson bonded out — $25,000 paid for using a property owned by his stepfather as collateral. The bond was signed by St. Charles County Judge Lucy Rauch.
For the appeal Anderson's new attorney, Alan Kimbrell, argued that the Beretta brochure should never have been admitted into evidence or shown to a jury because it created "unfair prejudice" against Anderson. The Eastern District Court of Appeals judge disagreed and reaffirmed Anderson's conviction.
Kimbrell then appealed to the Missouri State Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case in 2002. In the meantime, Anderson married his first wife, became a father and was in training to become a journeyman carpenter.
In the court's opinion, issued in May 2002, Judge Michael Wolff wrote for the minority, "The brochure is the only corroboration of the state's understandably weak evidence. It is not at all cumulative and cannot be treated as harmless. Without the gun brochure, the evidence supporting armed criminal action is neither strong nor overwhelming."
Wolff wrote that Anderson deserved a new trial, but the panel of judges voted four to three to uphold the conviction. Kimbrell appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. It declined to hear his argument.
Most everyone contacted by Riverfront Times agrees that Anderson's bond should have been revoked or a warrant issued for his arrest at that point. Bafflingly, neither occurred.
"Obviously, I don't know what happened, but presumably there was a break in that line of communication," says St. Charles prosecuting attorney Tim Lohmar.
Wolff also expressed surprise when told that Anderson never again reentered custody.
"That's pretty special," he says wryly. "It goes back to the trial court. They're supposed to issue an arrest warrant or have him surrender."
It isn't clear who erred — the Missouri Supreme Court, the original appeals court or the St. Charles court.
"Most of the time the communication to us on the status of the appeals is pretty bad," says Carrie Barth, St. Charles' chief warrant officer. "I don't think any warrant should have come from us — at least not that I'm aware of."
Barth suggested the Attorney General's Office may have been responsible for the warrant, but Scott Holste — spokesman for Governor Jay Nixon, the attorney general at the time — said in a statement that the AG's office "does not have notification role in these matters."
In 2004, after four years of living and working in Webster Groves, Anderson filed a post-conviction appeal in St. Charles court with Judge Rauch. A new team of lawyers argued that Anderson received inadequate counsel at his original trial. The filing alleges that Anderson's attorney failed to challenge the prosecutor on a number of items raised in court, including the assertion that Anderson was a gang member.
The very first line of the post-conviction appeal filing reads, "Movant is not presently incarcerated." In several places throughout the filing Anderson's address is given as a home in Webster Groves; the address for Laron Harris, meanwhile, is listed as "Missouri Department of Corrections." No one apparently thought anything of this.
That final appeal withered in 2005. It was the last the court system would hear of Cornealious Anderson for seven years.
Early this summer, a blip of activity suddenly appeared in Anderson's dormant 1999 case file, long ago sent to archives in Jefferson City. The Missouri Department of Corrections was preparing for Anderson's release — that is, the release he would have been getting if he had in fact been incarcerated since 2000, as its records apparently showed. Nanci Gonder, a spokesperson for the attorney general, says the DOC contacted the AG's office and got the ball rolling on the warrant, which was issued by the Missouri Supreme Court.
Ever since his arrest, Anderson's family has been seeking information on how this could have happened and how to get him home as soon as possible. They are desperate to avoid the worst-case scenario: He will simply have to serve the remaining years of his sentence starting now. According to several criminal-defense attorneys contacted by Riverfront Times, this is a very real possibility.
"The other possibility, of course, is executive action — clemency," says Frank Bowman, professor at the University of Missouri School of Law and coeditor of the Federal Sentencing Reporter. "Say, 'Hey, governor, can you pardon him or commute his sentence in light of this error on the part of the state? This person has taken advantage of this great chance, has kept his nose clean and become a great citizen. After all, you have budgetary problems. What good is it going to do to stick this family man inside and pay for his room and board?'"
Nixon, however, is notoriously stingy with clemency. Since he took office in 2009, only one prisoner has received a commutation of sentence. That stands in sharp contrast to neighboring Illinois, where Governor Pat Quinn has granted more than 900 applications for clemency, pardon or commutation of sentence in the same amount of time.
In response to an RFT inquiry about Anderson, Nixon's spokesman Scott Holste writes: "We would not be in a position to comment about the possibilities of granting pardon requests, whether they are actual or, as in this case, hypothetical."
And then there are those who say regardless of his good behavior, Anderson still has a debt to pay. Attempts to reach the victim of the robbery were unsuccessful, but Lohmar says that while the circumstances surrounding Anderson's story are "crazy" to him, the situation is cut and dried.
"The jury heard the evidence, the judge upheld the sentence," he says. "As unfair as it may seem to he and his family, he's got thirteen years he owes the state. I don't think there's much more to say than that."
Seated at a slightly sticky table in the bright visitation room at Fulton Reception and Diagnostic Center, Anderson cuts a very different figure than the man in LaQonna's books of family photos of weddings and Christmas mornings. He is dressed in a dingy white T-shirt, gray pants and blue slippers. A scruffy, three-week-old beard grows from his chin. He is sleep deprived and emotionally fragile. In these undignified surroundings — a female guard yards away, a broken vending machine wheezily accepting and rejecting a phantom dollar bill in the background — he speaks in a soft, earnest baritone voice about his past mistakes. He admits he was "young and dumb" once, trying to fit in with a wilder crowd.
"Yes, I feel responsible. I could have stopped it," he says of the robbery. "A year or two in jail, yeah, I would have done that. I knew that I was there. I knew that something could have been done, but I ran. I was scared. But thirteen years for that? There are guys in here on attempted murder; they've been here for ten years, for taking a life."
Almost immediately, Anderson sheds light on a potentially important clue — at least one piece of the puzzle that explains his protracted absence from Missouri's correctional system. As part of Anderson's final appeal in 2004, an attorney named Michael Gross appeared on Anderson's behalf in Judge Rauch's court. They were joined by prosecutor James Gregory to update her on the status of the case — Gross had just filed the brief with the first line that read, "Movant is not presently incarcerated."
"[Gross] said the prosecuting attorney jumped up in court and said, 'Oh no, Mr. Anderson. We checked this morning. He's in Fulton Correctional Facility,'" recalls Anderson. "And so my lawyer thought that I had been arrested then. A day or two later, I called him up to see how court went, and he was like, 'Wait a minute, you're not in custody?' And I said, 'No!'"
Gross declined to discuss Anderson's case in depth but confirmed that Gregory "popped up" in court claiming Anderson was already in prison.
"At the time I assumed that he had more current information than I did, because it had been several days since I talked to Cornealious," remembers Gross. "That didn't prove to be the case."
Rauch's long-time court reporter tells Riverfront Times that this type of status update on a case would likely have been off the record. Therefore there is no transcript. Gregory, the prosecutor who allegedly made the mistake about Anderson's whereabouts, died in 2005 at the age of 71. Rauch retired from the bench last year. (Attempts to reach her were unsuccessful.) If true, Gregory's error is yet another link in the bizarre chain of procedural failure, but it does not explain why no one issued a warrant for Anderson in 2002, nor why no one from the department of corrections realized they were missing a body all these years.
"'Nobody wants you,'" Anderson recalls being told at the time.
At this point, attorneys for Anderson are still in the fact-gathering phase and have yet to file anything on his behalf. Anderson says he has paperwork for a petition for clemency in his cell. Aside from that, he's just waiting and praying that he is released. He has told his wife and family that he won't put them on the visitation list because he doesn't want them to see him inside. He says he does not think about the possibility of having to serve the full sentence.
"I still think right now, this is going to be a blessing. This is just something to get it over with," he says. "It sucks because I'm in here, and this place will drive me to the edge, but I just don't believe I'm going to do what they're asking of me to do. Because the God I serve is awesome. I just believe everything is going to work out."
Despite his faith, Anderson admits that this secret has been in the back of his mind ever since he was arrested in 1999.
"I felt like I had something hanging over my head every day for thirteen years. Every day. It sucks. Every time I'm driving and the police gets behind me," he says. "It made me appreciate spending time with my family, especially my wife. I love my wife. I just want to be around her at all times. It made me appreciate every moment that I have."
Cornealious and LaQonna began dating in 2005, roughly the time when Anderson abandoned his final appeal.
"Should I have told her?" he asks. "I probably should have. But I just didn't want to freak her out. It's at the back of my mind every day whether this is too much for her. Whether she can handle it. I'm believing by faith it's going to be over soon."
This all puts LaQonna in an odd position. If Anderson turned himself in back in 2002, they never would have started dating. They never would have gotten married or had their two youngest children.
"If he did receive a letter or if the attorneys back then said, 'Turn yourself in,' and he just didn't do it, and he let me know, 'I didn't turn myself in,' yes, I would have told him, 'You need to turn yourself in.' But that's not how it went," she says. "I still would have married him."
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