The police department's version: It began after dark on April 3 as an undercover drug buy at Lee and Turner avenues, near Fairground Park in North St. Louis. Two men were arrested, and police were loading them into a police car when a red Ford Escort came flying by carrying three young black males, one of them leaning out the window and firing at the police. Two officers in a car chased the Escort, which led them east on Lee for a couple of blocks, then turned left on Fair Avenue and left again on Carter Avenue, past Harris Avenue. Then the two passengers jumped out and the Escort continued west on Carter to Red Bud Avenue. The cops, who were in civilian clothes, stopped their car at Carter and Harris, jumped out, identified themselves as police and ordered the young men to stop. Instead, the two men kept running. They ran west on Carter toward Red Bud. One of them turned and fired. Police, now chasing them on foot, fired back. By this time, two officers in an unmarked vehicle had arrived at the scene. Police shot one of the men seven times, and he fell; the other escaped. A .22-caliber pistol was recovered from the fallen man. Six weeks later, that man, 16-year-old Jerome Johnson, is still in the hospital, still not well enough to talk. He has been charged under the juvenile code with four counts of first-degree assault and four counts of armed criminal action.
The problem with the police version of events? Jerome may have been an innocent bystander.
I spoke with six residents who saw parts of what happened around the corner of Red Bud and Carter avenues, and they say Jerome -- or J.R., as he is more commonly known -- didn't jump out of any red car, and he had no gun. J.R. was hanging around on the sidewalk with a friend, and dozens of people were out on porches and sidewalks. They say J.R. was running, as others were, from gun-toting figures who started firing after jumping out of cars that screeched to a stop at the scene. Nobody knew at the time that these were undercover drug cops working as part of the department's Street Corner Apprehension Team. They also say that after J.R. had been shot seven times, a couple of the men with guns kicked and stomped on him.
Although these witnesses have told attorneys for J.R.'s family that they will testify in court, if necessary, they all told me they have not -- and will not -- talk to the police. The reasons they give boil down to this: There is nothing to gain but trouble by talking to the police, because the police never admit when they are wrong.
He's a tall, slim man with deadpan eyes, a thin goatee and a raspy voice. For most of the time we are talking, here in the 4400 block of Red Bud, a cigarette dangles from his lips, the rising smoke causing his eyes to crease in a permanent squint. The word is that Goatee Guy has dabbled in selling small rocks every now and then, not enough to warrant carrying a gun or a cell phone. He came up to me after he heard I was looking to talk with anyone who had witnessed what happened when J.R. was shot. Assured that I was with the Riverfront Times and not the police, he eagerly launched into a play-by-play account. He was standing on the sidewalk at about 9:30 that Tuesday night, he says, talking to a female friend outside her house. Dozens of people were out on the streets, including J.R. and his friend. Goatee Guy says he saw J.R. cross the street and go through a gangway, heading toward his home, a few blocks east. Next he saw a small red car drive by, heading north on Red Bud. Less than a minute later, he says, a van came down Red Bud the wrong way, heading south toward Carter. It slowed down.
"That's when a passenger jumped out and said, 'I'm gonna kill all you motherfuckers.'" he says. "No flashing lights, no police indication at all. So I grab the female, like this, and go down to the ground [behind a car]." His friend ducked and ran into her home. "I'm still on the ground," he continues. "I never once surface myself for anybody to see me -- I'm steady tryin' to peek out, peek out. Heard gunshots. So I get back down." He feels compelled to emphasize that he and the others assumed these weren't cops in the van. "Look at where we at. This is the 4400 of Red Bud -- be for real, St. Louis city, Mo.," he says. "I mean, we gotta tell the truth because of how it is out here on the street; that's for real ... gang-related territory, gang-related street, gang-related individuals."
The van, Goatee Guy says, stopped at the corner of Red Bud and Carter, and then the gun-waving passenger and the driver were both outside the van. A gold Dodge Intrepid came east on Carter and pulled up across the street from the van. Two more men with guns joined the first pair. "I still don't see no lights, I still ain't heard nobody say no 'Police!' so I still don't come out," Goatee Guy says. "I stay on the ground."
Then a black Buick Regal came down Red Bud, past Carter, toward where Goatee Guy was lying low. "Whoever these guys were on the street start running up to the black Regal, start banging up on the window with their gun," he says. "They never said, 'Freeze! Police!' They said, 'Get out the motherfuckin' car, pull this motherfucker over' -- this the terminology they're using -- 'Pull this motherfucker over, stop this motherfuckin' car, I'll blow your motherfuckin' head off!' Whoever these people are in this car don't feel too comfortable with these people that are talkin' to them. So, instead of pullin' over, he kinda drives kinda crazy backward, hits a parked car on the corner of Carter and Red Bud, spins around and goes [west] down Carter.
"Now, after that, police sirens are coming, and it's kinda being known it's the police," he finishes. "So I go into the house and come back 20 minutes later, and it's a full-fledged police scene."
As Goatee Guy wraps up his account, a 6-foot-tall teenager comes rolling by on one of those newfangled motorless scooters. He wants to tell me about what little he saw. He's 15, and he considers J.R. his best friend. He says he doesn't know Goatee Guy. On that Tuesday night, he says, he and J.R. had been hanging out for about an hour on the sidewalk, right about where we are standing now, in front of a house at 4410 Red Bud. He says he noticed the red car zip by, after which J.R. told him he was heading home and crossed the street. Next, the van came down the wrong way, and Scooter Kid split, heading west down an alley. "I just ran down the alley, and that's when I heard the gunshots, maybe 14 or 15 shots," he says. He had no idea at the time that seven of those bullets had hit J.R.
Around the corner on Carter, between Red Bud and Harris, a whole lot of shooting was going on. I find five teenagers -- four boys and a girl who is busy chatting on a wireless phone -- hanging around a porch on Carter, about 10 feet from where J.R. went down. I ask whether any of them saw anything that night, and two of the boys and Phone Girl say they saw J.R. get shot. One of them -- a skinny baby-faced 16-year-old with narrow eyes and a black do-rag over his head -- says he was standing on the sidewalk in the middle of the block when he saw J.R. come down Carter, heading east toward him. J.R. half-jogged past him, saying he was heading home, says Do-Rag Kid. Suddenly a dark-colored car came speeding west on Carter and screeched to a halt at Harris, a half-block in front of J.R. Two men jumped out from the car. Both were dressed in dark shirts and jeans, and both were black, he says. Both had guns drawn.
"J.R. turned around and started running [west on Carter] 'cause they stopped so hard," he says. "He ran right by me, and by that point, they started shooting." Do-Rag Kid says shots began ringing up and down the street, and he turned around in time to see J.R. go down. "They pursued J.R., and they walked up on him, and they kept shooting and shooting, and they shot him and shot him. One of them, as he was walking up, he was shooting -- pow! pow! pow! -- and I could see J.R.'s body jumping, and I said, 'Aw, shit!' and then I ran through there," he says, pointing to a narrow gangway between two houses. "And they shot at me while I was running."
As we are talking, the teens spot a patrol car three blocks away, heading toward us, and all five slowly shuffle toward the porch, avoiding eye contact with the passing policeman. Phone Girl, who says she grew up with J.R., tells me what she saw from the second-story window of her mother's bedroom on Carter, directly above where J.R. was running when he was shot. She says she heard a car's tires screeching and turned out the lights. "I looked out the window, and the man jumped out of the car and he said, 'Stop!' and he never identified himself as being a cop," she says. "And as they were saying, 'Stop!' they were shooting, and J.R. didn't stop -- he was running from them. And then, when he got right here, I think he got hit, because he slowed down and then he began running and they hit him again, 'cause he jerked, and then he fell in the middle of the street. And the black cop, he ran up to him, stood over him and shot maybe three or more times."
Another 17-year-old -- a tall, chubby, soft-spoken shy kid -- is coaxed by the others to tell me what he saw. He was in his second-story bedroom, across Carter from Phone Girl's window, with a view through his back window, looking west down Carter. He heard the car's tires screech, but he couldn't see the vehicle. He saw J.R. running west and getting shot as he ran. Then, he says, the black cop walked up to J.R. and fired a few more times into him, after which he and another black cop beat J.R. while he was down. "They started stomping on him and slamming him," Shy Kid says, "kicking him and slammin' him against the curb."
In short, the account the witnesses give me is different from the police version on all the major points. J.R. was not in the Escort but hanging out with friends on the street. He took off running when men with guns jumped out of a car. The cops never identified themselves. J.R. had no gun. The cops stomped him when he was down.
Somebody is clearly lying. It's either the police or the witnesses.
Besides the basic highlights of the version given earlier, the police department isn't saying much. And Nels Moss, a former city prosecutor now representing the police officers involved, says he's afraid that if police reveal any more details, it will result in "the molding of the stories" by the witnesses. Suffice it to know, says Moss, that J.R. jumped out of the red car, and he fired first. "The long and short of it is, he shot at 'em, they returned fire," he says. "He had a gun, he came from the car, he shot at them -- nobody kicked him. A gun was kicked out of his hand, but nobody kicked him."
As is routine in all shooting incidents, homicide detectives are investigating the events of April 3, says Lt. Col. Raymond Lauer, deputy chief for the Bureau of Investigations. He says that none of the witnesses has come forward to the investigators. Until they do, he says, the investigation will not be complete and police will not reveal any further information. This has led to an odd stalemate: The witnesses will not talk to the police, and the investigation won't be completed until they talk to the police.
Lauer says he understands that many people don't trust the police, but he wants them to know that "the homicide detectives that work for me are investigating the incident, and those aren't the people involved in the shooting. If they have fears about coming here, I'll meet them on neutral ground; I'll be there to witness their testimony."
Meanwhile, pertinent questions remain unanswered, such as: Where, exactly, did police find the gun that J.R. allegedly used to fire on them? Were any of the bullets fired from that gun found in the vicinity? Has anyone, besides the officers involved, told police they saw J.R. with a gun? Just how many shots did police officers fire? Where did the bruises on J.R.'s face come from? Was anyone arrested or charged in the undercover drug buy? Has the red Ford Escort ever been seen again? Who were the officers involved, and has any of them been involved in shooting incidents before?
Brad Kessler, the lawyer hired by J.R.'s mother, is a former St. Louis public defender and one of the more prominent criminal defense lawyers in town. I have known him as a friend for the past 10 years. He acknowledges that the cops "were not up there just to shoot anyone who's on the street." He has a theory about what may have happened: It wasn't J.R. firing at the police; it was other police officers at the other end of the block. "They catch J.R. in a crossfire," says Kessler. "The police had already started shooting from Harris, west down Carter, so it is clear that they're taking fire, but the only people they're taking fire from are the police that are down that way, and then they start shooting back. There's no reason that the police should be shooting at each other, and it's clear that that's what's happening; it's clear that they're directly in each other's line of fire."
He and Dan Diemer, another lawyer working with him on this case, have interviewed 11 witnesses, most of whom have agreed to testify in court if necessary. But Kessler and Diemer have been given no information from the police department, nor are they entitled to any of it yet. On May 18, a hearing will be held at which J.R. will either be certified as an adult and prosecuted or remanded to juvenile court.
Moss accuses Kessler of discouraging the witnesses from talking to the police. "Here's the bottom line," says Moss. "He has talked to them; he doesn't want them to talk to the police or me. This is just getting his case together." Kessler's business cards are all over the neighborhood, says Moss, and some people have told investigators that Kessler told them they don't have to talk to the police.
"I didn't produce them, you know -- these are people who came to us," Kessler responds. "We went up there, a couple of white guys walking around, and people, most of whom realized we weren't police, coming up to us telling us what happened. This is not a situation where we paid people. These aren't our people. I can't tell them not to talk to police. I don't represent them. I don't control them.
"Of course, what do you expect the police to say? They've created a situation, and they need another scapegoat," Kessler says. "They've already made J.R. a scapegoat; now I have to be a scapegoat for why they can't do an investigation. But they've created a problem way before this case. They created a situation where these people won't come to them. They created a situation where these people don't trust the police. I didn't create that."
All the parties -- Kessler, Moss, Lauer, the witnesses -- agree on one thing: In many neighborhoods, particularly those where poor African-Americans live, a huge rift gapes between the cops and the community. And the chasm spreads wider each time blacks are injured or killed by men in blue. Among the more publicized incidents in the metro area are the alleged beating by city police that resulted in the death of burglary suspect Julius Thurman in April 2000; the deaths of drug suspect Earl Murray and his friend Ronald Beasley in a hail of gunfire from undercover cops at a Berkeley Jack in the Box last June; and the death of Annette Green of Wellston, killed in February by St. Louis County cops executing a search warrant at her home.
Despite the fact that in some incidents, such as J.R.'s shooting, the officers and the victims have both been African-American and in some others the victims have been white, the issue has taken on a decidedly racial tone, perhaps with good reason. The racism isn't between individuals -- a cop and a suspect -- as much as it is between police departments and African-Americans in general.
The official actions so far are not very heartening: Two weeks after J.R.'s shooting, in a somewhat odd gesture, St. Louis Police Board president Eddie Roth announced that he is stepping down as president in July and that the Rev. Maurice Nutt will take over. Roth is white, Nutt black. Roth candidly told reporters that with Francis Slay as the new mayor, Jim Shrewsbury as the new aldermanic president and Roth as police-board president, "all of the visible leadership is white. We're interested in uniting the community." Roth and the board also knew that three of the four candidates to replace Chief Ron Henderson were white. It was announced on Friday that Henderson, who is black, will be succeeded by Lt. Col. Joseph Mokwa, who is white. And, following in the footsteps of St. Louis County, the city police board will formally look into setting up a citizens' review board to investigate allegations against police officers.
Prosecutors know too well the problems that result when residents of a neighborhood don't trust police. Moss, who spent 30 years as a prosecutor before going into private practice, says he regularly dealt with witnesses who wouldn't talk.
Not surprisingly, Moss has sympathy for police officers, who face danger while on duty. "There is a lack of appreciation in the community for the dangerousness and just the difficulty of being a policeman," he says. "When you're sending somebody out there to be the enforcer, which is what you're doing with the police, to expect them to be a Casper Milquetoast, I'm sorry. You send a guy out there with a flak jacket on, with muscles, whose job it is to take the lumps, whose job it is to get punched out sometimes, whose job it is to get shot at and to shoot back at people.... I don't know how to describe it. Something has to be done to change the attitudes."
Lauer declines to address the issue, saying it would be more appropriate for the police chief to do so; outgoing Chief Henderson didn't return calls.
Kessler says he routinely sees distrust -- if not outright hatred -- of the police among his clients. "And it doesn't matter if the police are black or white -- that's not what the racial issue is," he says. "The racial issue is the attitude of the police toward them." "Them," of course, means African-Americans in low-income neighborhoods. "I would defy you to find a similar attitude towards the police in Ballwin or Creve Coeur," Kessler says, "because they don't have negative experiences, they don't have the experience where, if the description is for a black male 16-20 years old running down the street, every single person is potentially a suspect."
The anti-police perception is much more common among young people than among the middle-aged or the elderly. Seeing a friend or neighbor or family member being arrested or questioned or roughed up by police is not that uncommon. It's a short stretch to seeing police as the oppressors rather than as protectors.
Moss doesn't buy any of it. "There's a mentality going on that is anti-police, that is not dealt with by parental control or advice, that is not dealt with by schools; it's not dealt with probably as effectively as it could be by the police department," he says. "I don't know what to do about it."
Kessler has a suggestion for the police: Admit when you are wrong.
"If you look at how many people have been killed by police in this city in the last 10 years, not once have they acknowledged that they made a mistake," he says. "They won't do that. That's why they're not trusted."
In the Jack in the Box shooting, for example, Murray was the intended target of the drug buy, but before it was over, his friend Beasley was dead as well. "There is no question, no question, that a guy who did nothing was killed by the police," says Kessler. "Not a question. Not an apology. Not a 'We're sorry that this happened.' That would change a lot of people's attitudes. How about 'We're sorry' to the family -- not of the guy who was supposedly driving and trying to kill the police, whether it's true or not, but the guy who was just sitting in the car who gets blasted 21 times? Had he been a white guy, and I don't want to try to make this a racial thing, but had he been a white Jewish guy from Clayton or Ladue, there is not a chance in hell that you wouldn't have heard something more than you heard about in this case. So that's the institutional racism that occurs."
The other thing the police could do, Kessler says, is not engage in street shootings. "The point is, you don't just start shooting," he says. "Up there where J.R. was shot, the value of life is apparently cheaper. They didn't care. There were dozens of people on the street and sidewalk and porches who could have been hit -- dozens of people. If you're in Clayton or Ladue or Manchester, it's not that they have better police, it's not that they have a better class of criminal, it's that they use more caution.
"It's not a problem that they want to fight crime; it's a problem that everyone is a potential suspect," he finishes. "They're treated in a certain way, so they respond in a certain way."
Back on the street, that response is evident. No one I talk to, including some elderly residents who did not witness the events of April 3, has any affection for police.
To the witnesses, who all say they won't talk to the police, I ask a simple question: Why not?
"Why should I talk to them? They were shooting at me!" says Do-Rag Kid.
Scooter Kid tells me he is simply afraid of cops, and the fact that they shot his best friend seven times hasn't done much for his courage.
Goatee Guy's answer is worth contemplating: "Why should I? They know what happened, just like I do. All of them know what happened, all of them know what they did, all of them know -- they don't need me to tell 'em."
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