Mel Harlston thought something didn't smell right when he read the news story about the shooting of a 23-year-man over Labor Day Weekend -- and that was before he even knew that the dead robber was his nephew.
"The headline caught my eye: 'Off-duty officer kills robber who wounded two,'" says Harlston. The Post-Dispatch article did not identify the dead man, only said that he had tried to rob two vendors selling stuffed animals from a mobile concession on the corner of Natural Bridge and Marcus avenues. Both vendors had been shot and wounded; the assailant, in turn, had been shot and killed by an off-duty cop, Kevin Jones, who chanced to be on the scene. Seemed like standard crime-blotter fare for a holiday weekend. But not to Harlston.
"I thought, 'What a strange thing that a robber would find no better target than people selling stuffed animals in the inner city of St. Louis,'" he says. "I supposed that they probably wouldn't have a lot of cash, because I tend to think of folks who do that as down-and-outers. I also thought the robber was particularly vicious to have shot the down-and-outer stuffed-animal salesmen, and probably, like most people, I thought, 'What a stroke of fortune that an off-duty police officer was in the vicinity.'" Later that evening, Harlston learned from his family that the dead man was his 23-year-old nephew, William Darnell Harlston. And he was told that it wasn't a robbery but more of a retaliation against the vendors, whom William Harlston felt had cheated him while gambling with him earlier that day.
"There was no question that my nephew was dead and no question that he was assaulting the vendors," says Harlston, 41, "but there were questions as to what this was actually about." An administrator for a local law firm, Mel Harlston put on his detective hat and went to the scene of the crime two days later.
Contrary to the Post report, Harlston learned from passersby that the shooting had not occurred at the vacant lot at the southeast corner of Marcus and Natural Bridge but at the Shell station across the street. Harlston, a large man with a moderate Afro and a liking for open-necked shirts and gold necklaces, crossed Natural Bridge and, on the east end of the Shell lot, found a bloodstained patch of asphalt.
"I was there for an hour-and-a-half, talking to people," he says. "I stopped an elderly man, asked if he knew what had happened. Yeah, he knew about it, what it was, and by his estimation it had been there a week, maybe 10 days -- an open and notorious gambling operation." Harlston spoke with eight or more people that evening. "The story didn't deviate much," he says. "They all described a trailer with stuffed animals attached on the Natural Bridge side and a sign reading 'Racing Souvenirs.' On the other side, the side facing away from traffic, is where they were running a game, described to me as a carnival-like game involving numbered balls tossed into a box. But most importantly, they described a very high cost for playing the game, and when I asked, 'Why would people pay such large amounts of money for stuffed animals?' the reaction was: 'Well, people weren't trying to win stuffed animals. People were trying to win money.' At that point, a light went off in my head."
And that was before he learned from witnesses that the illegal gambling operation may have been protected by a cop -- the same cop who shot and killed his nephew. Not only was the officer working security for the game's operators, said the witnesses, he was trolling for customers.
Three young men take up two sofas in Sheila Warren's living room in a neat little home on Farlin Avenue. Occupying one sofa by himself is a 300-pound hill of flesh named Tiny. The 20-year-old sprawls back, gazing at the ceiling. He seems listless at first, perhaps reticent, but once Tiny gets wound up, he has a lot to say. The other sofa holds Jonathan, 19, serious and somber, and 24-year-old Big R, the most mature of the trio. Tiny is a student at a local barber school, Jonathan attends community college and Big R occasionally works construction. All either live in or frequent this Penrose neighborhood, and all choose to use fictitious names for the interview. Sheila Warren, 37, a home-health-care nurse and the mother of the man shot dead by Officer Jones, sits in a chair near the hallway. Her surviving son, Jerome, who looks as though he belongs on the Rams front line, comes and goes during the interview.
On the Thursday [Aug. 30] before the shooting, Jonathan and Big R's younger brother went to the booth, played the game and walked away $200 lighter. Tiny and a friend also played the game several times that day. Counting their own money, plus an emergency loan from Big R, the young men gambled away $1,000. Tiny is worried that his mother will find out about the money. Nevertheless, he is indignant as hell, as they all are, and they are ready to talk about it.
Tiny starts out, explaining the game: "They had a carnival booth with all these stuffed animals just to draw your attention. And once you go up there, they give you a cup that holds five balls. You throw them on a board, and they land in these little pockets, which are numbered. Then they add up the numbers where the balls landed, real quick-like, and they look at this chart, like a bingo card, and whatever your numbers added up to, they tell you what it is -- might be an extra roll, might be double-your-money or may be, say, you rolled 25 points. You get to keep those points toward the 100 you needed to win the jackpot."
"They had black spots," Jonathan puts in ominously. "Your throw adds up to a certain number, that's a black spot. Your throw didn't count, you didn't get no points."
Four white men ran the operation. "They looked like hillbillies," says Tiny. "Three of them ran the games, while a younger guy, a kid about 18, walked around the service station, handing out cards for a free game." After the free game, which often won the player some small prize, the price of a throw began at $5. "They tell you if you start playing with $5 you can win $20," says Tiny. "Or if you play with $10 you can win $40, and $80 win you $1,600 -- that's if you hit 100. The whole time they working up to the scam. 'You don't lose until you quit,' that's what they keep saying. So as long as you had the money to keep playing, you could win. But the stakes keep going up. Like, you can run for $40, hit the double and win $80, but then the stakes go up. Now you have to bet $80 to play the game. I played from $5 for one roll to $20 to $40 to $80 to $160!"
This is no longer an orderly interview. Tiny has left his supine position and is now leaning forward, waxing more and more animated. The guys are talking over each other, competing in volume and herky-jerky gesticulations to explain the game.
"The game I witnessed," says Jonathan, "a guy walked up and asked how to play. The man said it was $5 a shot, but he let him have a first roll for $2. And he told him he had to get to 100 points to win the souvenir. Every time he'd roll, the man would stamp the points on this little card they give you. The guy won $20, and then the stakes went up, and that's when he started losing. I watched him run through all the money he had in his pockets in, like, five minutes, and he left looking for money to borrow. Everybody I talked to who played that game, they always left looking for money."
Was that the promise, that if you broke 100, you would double your money? "Either you could get a stuffed animal or money," answers Tiny, "and who's gonna take a toy over money? Even if you did break 100, I guarantee you by the time you count what you paid out your pocket, you haven't won much."
But getting to 100 wasn't easy. The closer players got to the mark, the lower the scores on each throw. In hindsight, the guys are certain that the operators had predetermined the outcome of the game by knowing what combinations of numbers were needed to get the players near the top but not over it. The operators, possibly skilled carny men who had worked sideshows, also employed sleight-of-hand.
"They count the balls real quick, and then they snatch 'em up before you have time to count them yourself," charges Tiny.
What if they had challenged the guy on the count? "We tried that," snorts Jonathan. "He say, 'It is what it is,' and he hurried and got them balls off the board."
"You on a $20 throw," says Tiny. "They say, 'Oh, 17, that's a bonus.' Now your stakes are up to $40, and then you hit a black spot. Or you might keep hittin' real good ... I got up to 95 points at $160 a throw, then I started getting all ones and twos. He had me lingering around 100 so long, so long, I said, 'I got to hit.' We had 98 points. How the hell can I not get 100 if I had 98 points? Thirty-two hundred, that's how much I would have won. Instead, I lost a G."
Big R found he couldn't even buy the wares outright. "They had a picture, like one of them velvet pictures of dogs playing poker. It was a big rottweiler and two little bitty rottweilers. So I walked up: 'How much for them animals?' I know they gonna charge me $150 or so, but I wanted them: 'Let me buy them.' 'No sir, you can't get 'em. You gotta play the game for these.' I ain't gonna spend money on no game! After that, me and my girlfriend walked around the block, and when we came back, they [Tiny and his friend] was losing. I seen him [Tiny] rolling balls and sweating. He started begging me for money: 'Oh, Big R, lend me $160. I'm at 90-some points.' I said, 'Man, listen. You know all this is a scheme. You know they gonna get you.' He said, 'Gimme the money anyway.' I gave him the money. That last throw, he was at 98 points. He threw the balls in there. We never did get to count the points. Whatever it came out to be, the man just said, 'You lose! Rack the balls up.'"
"I got two teddy bears for my $1,000," huffs Tiny. "He didn't even give me the ones I wanted."
As Tiny, Jonathan and Big R recall, the four white men pulled up in a trailer about 3 p.m. each day and took an hour to set up. They operated the booth until about 7 p.m., then left before dark. There was also a fifth man, an African-American, regularly on the scene -- mostly off in the wings, watching, sizing people up but quick to make his presence known when things looked as though they might get hairy.
Tiny only played the game once, but he was there every day, watching with interest. "I go by the Shell station every day, [and when] I see someone sitting in a car, no license plate on the front, I'm thinking, 'That car's either broke down or stolen.' But each day, it was the same black man in the same forest-green Infiniti. Every day they [the gaming operators] were there; he was there. First time I seen him, there was me and five other dudes. We standing around watching the action, and he came out of the car and told us to back up if we not playing the game. I'm, like, 'Who is you to tell us to back up?' And he flashed this badge, a real police badge. He had a gun, too, but he was real cool, nonchalant. Sometimes he'd be in the crowd talking to the people, sometimes in his car. When he seen people losing a lot of money, like when I started losing, he got out of the car."
"It wasn't when you walked up there that he was worried about you," says Jonathan. "It was when you left and came back." There are three pay phones just off to the side of where the concession had stood. "He had a cell phone," continues Jonathan, "but he was on those pay phones a lot."
"That was his little spot where he could see the action," says Tiny. "I understood that."
"He had an ID card hanging from his rearview mirror, so everyone know he was a police officer," says Big R. "But everybody from the neighborhood know him. He stay right up the street."
Says Jonathan, "When I went down there and at first didn't want to play the game for real, me and a friend, we asked this officer how's the game work, because he's a brother and these guys white and we was worried [that the game was crooked]. And that officer, before we even started playin', he's eggin' us on: 'I seen people win big.' And we like, 'Day-amn, po-lice in on this, too!'"
"For sure!" chimes Big R. "That young white dude was going up to people's cars: "Here, free game. Wanna play?' And that po-lice officer, he was telling people to play the game, too. He had a cheat sheet with people's names on it, and he's saying shit like 'These people won $600!' Newspaper say he was a po-lice officer, just happened to be on that lot. Man, he was there every day."
"Someone paying him," conjectures Tiny, "'cause he know the odds of what's going on. He wasn't gonna risk his life for free, I know that."
The three guys gathered in this small living room were not at the toy booth when the shooting occurred. They presume that the cop they saw there day in and day out was the same cop who shot their friend. They know him by face, not by name. They know he's a cop because, they say, they have been stopped by him on the street and searched. And they know where he lives -- some six blocks from where they now sit. Big R is the most emphatic: "I've seen that man at that house for years, coming and going, sometimes in his own car, sometimes in a po-lice car. Some woman -- his wife or mother or sister -- stay there, too."
The house in question is a modest two-family flat on Marcus Avenue, scant blocks from the Shell station where the shooting occurred.
A forest-green Infiniti is parked out front. The license plate is registered with the state under Kevin L. Jones at the Marcus Avenue address.
It is a warm October day. The front door of the house on Marcus Avenue is open. A few smart raps bring a woman, about 30, with a toddler in tow.
"Is Kevin Jones in?" After a moment's pause, she says, "No, but he'll be back later."
The woman takes the business card offered to her. Would she please have Kevin call?
"Oh," she exclaims, genuinely excited, "are you going to write a story about him?" Jones never calls back.
Mel Harlston called his nephew Will. His mother, Sheila Warren, called him Darnell, but to his running buddies he was Duck. Described as quiet and industrious, Duck had attended Gateway Institute of Technology and learned construction with YouthBuild Services. Later, he worked as a custodian for the Parkway School District. Somewhere along the line, he had had an accident and was drawing a disability check. In the last few years, he had formed a business, complete with advertising fliers and a truck bearing the inscription "Harlston's Lawn Care Service." He also had a knack for repair. "He was a wizard," says Big R. "Anything I needed fixed, he fixed it -- a toaster, a broken chair. If my car broke down, he'd fix it, make it run like new."
"If your finger broke off, he'd put it back on," adds Tiny.
Duck had spent the last of his teenage years in the house on Farlin Avenue and had moved to South City, on Potomac Avenue, where he lived with his girlfriend, Gwendolyn Wilkes, 24. Just two days before he was killed, the couple had brought their second child, Trevon, home from the hospital. Besides Trevon, there was little William, 4, and Dasha, 6, Wilkes' child from another union. They all lived together. "He loved kids -- not just his kids but all kids," says Big R. "You know, I cuss a lot, and Duck, he would always say to me, 'You don't have to swear like that. You can use other words.' See, he was used to being around kids. He didn't swear around them, and he didn't want others to, either."
Duck was no altar boy, though. He had been arrested once, in 1997, after a domestic-disturbance call involving Wilkes. But Wilkes dismisses the incident as just one of those things that happen with young couples. "Yeah, I called 911," she says. "We used to get into it, for sure, but we stayed together -- we were cool."
"He'd call each day or come by," says Warren. That Sunday, Sept. 2, was no exception. "I talked to him at 3:45," she recalls. "He was at the car wash. The plan was that I would go to Wal-Mart, get some things for the new baby, and he would come by later and pick them up. He came by at 4:30, but I wasn't back yet." Sometime before 5 p.m., Duck went to the Shell station, four blocks away. He had seen the carnival game in the parking lot, and he had heard how his friends had gotten "schemed" there and lost a lot of cash. He was going to check it out. A neighbor who had been talking with Duck just before he left would later tell Warren that the last thing Duck said to her was "I'm going over there to win a bear for my baby."
"I had gone to the mall that Sunday to buy some jeans," recalls Tiny, "and when I came back from the county and saw all those police lights and the street blocked off, I thought, 'Somebody done robbed them people.' Then everybody said, 'You know what happened? Duck went up there, lost 100-some dollars. They say he felt like they schemed him. They say he went up there and just started shootin', and then the po-lice shot him."
His family figures that after losing the money, Duck got a gun and went back to the Shell station. He didn't say anything to anybody about what he intended to do. A posthumous police photo of Duck, now in a Homicide Division file folder, shows him with a bandana over his face, like a holdup man.
As Duck's friends continue to mourn, it is obvious that they see him as a kind of Robin Hood figure. They had all been scammed, to their embarrassment, but he was the guy who did something about it, something his principles required. "He's just a young black man who could've had a future," says Tiny, pausing for reflection. "But it ain't just about being black, and it ain't just about being young. It's about being a man, period. If you feel like somebody took something from you, you gonna react. It wasn't a robbery, you know. He didn't demand no money -- Duck could make money all day long. He felt played. He looked at it like somebody hustling him on the street, and that's what they were doing, an organized hustle. So he went up there to lay his point down."
According to Richard Wilkes, a spokesman for the St. Louis Police Department, the off-duty Officer Jones happened to be at the scene, seated in a chair behind the stuffed-animal concession and talking to one of the operators, when he heard "a series of gunshots" and somebody yelling, "Give me your money!" Jones reacted by drawing his weapon and walking into the situation. When he confronted the assailant and identified himself as a police officer, Wilkes says, "the gun was turned on the officer, and the officer shot the assailant twice, once in the center of chest." Homicide was called at 6:20 p.m. and the growing crowd of onlookers was treated to the processing of yet another crime scene.
Jones, 31, is a patrol officer in the 5th District, and has nearly six years with the department.
Duck wounded two concessionaires before being shot. Robert Royal, 59, of Tennessee, was shot in the hand and grazed above the hip. Michael Haisch, 48, of Florida, was shot in the abdomen, groin and arm. Royal was treated and released that evening; Haisch spent nine days in Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Efforts to reach them in their home states failed; their whereabouts are now unknown.
Meanwhile, two hangers-out at the corner of Marcus and Natural Bridge remember the colorful concession that stood there a month before. Both know of the game with the balls and numbered pockets -- "like bingo," they say -- and are aware that a man had been shot there. "It was bound to happen, just a matter of time," says Tony Williams, 35. "We knew that game was shaky -- people going around sayin' they got ganked."
"We not supposed to have that stuff down here," says the other man disapprovingly. "That breeds trouble."
Williams agrees: "The owner of that station was wrong for lettin' it continue."
The station's owner, Dave Chung, expresses great reluctance to talk about the incident, citing disruption of his business. He does, however, say that he was approached sometime in August by an African-American police officer who showed him a badge and asked whether he would be willing to lease the far end of his lot. "You talk to police about this," Chung keeps saying. "Not me."
The "toy salesmen," as it turns out, had set up shop in another nearby location, the Phillips 66 Service Center at 3720 Kingshighway, a few blocks west of Chung's Shell station. Thomas Puckett, owner of that station, says he was initially approached by a go-between, a local preacher whose name he cannot recall. "He offered to rent the lot for these guys," says Puckett. "He say, 'Let us set up here, we pay you $50. They'd come on a weekend -- three, four white guys -- and then I wouldn't see them for a month or two later." Puckett says he's sure the concession on his lot was the same one that set up "down there at the Shell lot when they had that trouble. But no, I never saw no gambling, nothing like that here. Long as they sat down there on the lot and done they stuff, I didn't have no complaint about them."
Puckett says he saw a vending license displayed on the concession but didn't pay much attention to it. Tiny, Jonathan and Big R say the same thing: They saw some sort of license displayed. This intrigues Stan Piekarski, the city's chief deputy license collector. Piekarski says that neither Haisch nor Royal had a vending license. It's a moot issue anyway, says Piekarski. Under the vending ordinance, revised in 2000, sidewalk or street vending is permitted only in special vending districts. The intersection of Marcus and Natural Bridge is not one of them. Nor may vendors set up shop on private property, he adds, "not unless they have a business license and an occupancy permit."
"It is obviously not a day-in, day-out operation," surmises Mel Harlston. "It looks more to be a roving crap game. Look at the sightings. We know about Marcus and Natural Bridge. We know about the Phillips 66 on Kingshighway. And I've been told [they were operating at] Lillian and Goodfellow. I've been told Grand and Gravois, the Vickers Station on Jennings Station Road, and the Post says that these people had been in East St. Louis. So if you got a map and put some pins in it, you've plotted out some of the lowest-income neighborhoods around. I mean, nobody has seen them in Creve Coeur, in which case they would really have to sell toys. These guys are real predators. You can imagine them grinning at these silly kids running around emptying their pockets to play this fixed game. And look at all the money it's separating from people. The foolish mind is out $300-$400 before they've even caught their breath, just because they had it in their pocket."
Matt Hely, a local sideshow performer, spent three years with Ringling Bros. Circus and, more recently, the Bobby Reynolds Sideshow, which performed in February at the City Museum. He has seen and studied carnival fraud in its various manifestations. Told of the game, he nods knowingly. "It's an old carny hustle," Hely, 42, remarks, "a sophisticated version of three-card monte. You don't see it worked too much anymore -- all the big carnivals these days are pretty much legit. But Royal American Shows used to do that stuff, and one of the last times they came through town, there was a guy got beat out of $1,000 on that scam." Hely says that the people who run such games travel from town to town and are called alibi agents. "An alibi agent is a guy that comes up with an alibi to convince you that, even though you're sure you won, you didn't. They're fast-talk artists, and they do their bit with the numbers real fast, and there's no way you're ever going to beat them out of the big prize, whatever that may be."
"It's really outrageous, when you think about it," says Mel Harlston. "It should have been shut down by the police. Instead it's protected by one under the color of his authority. How audacious is that? I mean, you wouldn't have a cop working security on a crack house. Why is this any different?"
In early October, the RFT asked St. Louis Police Chief Joseph Mokwa about the gambling game on the Shell station lot, as well as the allegation that one of his officers was complicit in the operation. Mokwa, who had been on the scene just after the shooting on Sept. 2, said this was news to him: "It's illegal, if that's what was happening, and that's why a lot of these kind of shows like Royal American that came into town 20 years ago are no longer allowed. I've never heard that this was happening, and I don't know that it was, but I'm going to find out."
Then he asked whether the witnesses would come forward to talk about the game and the officer's purported protection of it. They would be in no trouble for telling the story -- even though they did break the law themselves by gambling. Nor would they be checked for bench warrants, and so forth. The meeting could be held in any place of their choosing, and they could talk to him, the chief, personally.
Big R and Tiny took the offer. The meeting was set for 10 a.m. Oct. 4, but Big R overslept and stood everyone up. Mokwa could not make the rescheduled meeting, set for 1:30 that afternoon -- he was talking to a grand jury -- but he sent top guns Sgt. Ron Klier and Lt. Colonel Stephen Pollihan of the Internal Affairs Division to the table. The interview was held around a big, polished conference table at the police headquarters on Clark Street downtown, with a grand view of City Hall on the north. There were sodas and notepads all around. The guys gave their real names -- no aliases -- and in animated fashion told the investigators the same story they told the RFT. The investigators chuckled over Big R's tale of how he tried in vain to discourage Tiny from losing all his money. This was, officially speaking, the opening of an Internal Affairs investigation regarding Officer Kevin L. Jones.
On Oct. 11, Sgt. Klier said they had questioned Officer Jones, who denied that any gambling had taken place at the concession or that he encouraged anyone to gamble. According to Klier, Jones said he had brought his child there to win a bear. Once there, he got to know the operators of the booth and began to spend time there socially. Further, Jones said that yes, he displayed his badge -- but only once, to break up an argument. "He thought he defused something," said Klier.
And Klier also caught up with Haisch, in Florida, who denied that any off-duty officer was working security during their stint there. Haisch also said people could buy the plush animals but might also play a game of chance to win them. Said Klier, "He said the most anybody had lost trying to win a teddy bear was $40."
Klier lamented that no one came forward when the alleged wrongdoing was happening. "We have the ability to get in on the ground floor," he said. "Unfortunately, we don't get invited. The problem is, people come to us with their stories a month later, when the operation is gone and everybody's scattered."
The investigation, Klier stressed last week, was in its infancy. Yet, five days later, on Oct. 16, Lt. Col. Pollihan calls the RFT to say the investigation is over. Haisch and Officer Jones have denied that Jones was working for the vendors, and despite what the witnesses told police on Oct. 4, Pollihan says it isn't enough to bring charges against Jones. "This is a case where we consider there's not enough evidence to sustain the allegation," he says. "We can neither prove nor disprove it."
The allegation Pollihan says he can't prove is whether Jones was unofficially working for the vendors. But police have already been told by two witnesses that there was an illegal gambling operation, and they could certainly canvass the neighborhood to see whether more people would attest to that. Do they believe that the vendors were engaging in an illegal gambling game? "We don't know," says Pollihan. Do they believe that Jones was hanging around the concession stand? "We know he was there, a lot," says Pollihan.
Nevertheless, he says, the Internal Affairs investigation is over and Officer Jones, in essence, has been cleared of any wrongdoing.
Sheila Warren isn't happy about the open-and-shut investigation of her son's death. "They didn't look far enough," she says. "I understand why they're closing the investigation, because otherwise they would have to say their own officers should have shut down the animal booth. I'm not saying William was right for going up there so angry and with a gun, but if the police had shut that operation down like they should have, then maybe this would have never happened."
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.