On January 22, while her fiancé was still in jail for a brutal robbery he didn't commit, Nyeisha Muldrew found herself being stalked and chased through a south city neighborhood. Her pursuer was a plainclothes St. Louis police officer named Josh Hill.
Muldrew didn't know that at the time. The man just turned up at her house in Gravois Park that night, around 9 p.m., just as she was loading three of her kids into the family's truck. "He walks up to my window and says, ‘I’m a police officer, I’ve been watching you for a while,'" she tells RFT. He didn't give her a name.
She says that she asked him why he was watching her. "He was like, 'Oh, don’t worry about it. You’re in good hands.'"
That didn’t reassure Muldrew in the least, and she drove off with her kids in the backseat. The man followed her. Muldrew claims she sped through stop signs to escape, eventually making it to a nearby Quik Trip, where she begged for help. There, a group of concerned customers confronted Hill and managed to run him out the parking lot.
Muldrew’s mother, who had followed the chase in her own vehicle, pulled out her phone and snapped a photo of the license plate as he escaped. Muldrew called 911.
Hill's employment as a St. Louis police officer ended the next day. A police spokeswoman would not say whether he was fired or resigned. In May, he was charged with fourth-degree assault over the incident. (Hill's lawyer did not return multiple calls seeking comment.)
Last week, the former St. Louis cop pleaded guilty to the charge, a misdemeanor, and was sentenced to one year of unsupervised probation.
While the sentence has concluded the criminal case, Muldrew says she's still shaken. "He could have killed us," she says. Her family is traumatized. She says her kids are now scared of the police. "I really don't feel justice was served at all."
On a deeper level, for Muldrew, the past twelve months have provided a showcase of injustice — with trauma that began even before a creepy cop turned up at her house.
Two months before the incident, Muldrew’s fiancé, Danny Barnett, had been arrested and charged with second-degree robbery — accused of a particularly heinous crime that left a 66-year-old Vietnamese immigrant fighting for his life. Already on probation, Barnett was jailed on a $20,000 bond he couldn't pay.
Barnett ultimately spent more than eight months in jail before the Circuit Attorney dismissed the charges against him on August 4, three days before the scheduled trial. It took another month before a judge could resolve Barnett’s probation status. He was finally released on September 25.
Today, although Muldrew's mystery visitor has a criminal record and Barnett is a free man, the couples' questions linger. Both now wonder how the tentacles of the justice system could have gotten so tangled around a single family.
"The bottom line," says Barnett, "is I’m being framed and she’s being harassed by the same people that’s supposed to protect and serve."
On a weekday in October, Muldrew rests her head on Barnett's arm as he loads a video on his phone's web browser. He's pulled up a KSDK story from November 16, 2016, broadcast just days after Barnett was arrested and accused of punching Huan Le in the face on October 24.
"New tonight," the video begins, "a man is in custody accused of attacking and robbing a man in a popular business district. Now, the victim’s children say they hope their father will get justice."
News of the attack had shocked the Cherokee Street neighborhood. Le had come to America as a refugee in 1979, and on that Monday he had been taking a walk through an alley around noon, near Cherokee and Ohio Avenue, where he owned a store. According to police incident reports, surveillance footage shows Le trying to walk past a black male, described as about 6’2", thin build, medium complexion, wearing black pants, a black long sleeve shirt and a tan hat.
The cameras caught the man hitting Le with a single punch to the face, which knocked the older man to the ground instantly. The assailant then took Le’s wallet.
Barnett lets the KSDK clip continue to play. The report cuts to interview with Le’s son, Vu, expressing gratitude for the community’s help — a GoFundMe campaign raised more than $14,000 for medical costs — and that the culprit had been caught. This is justice, Vu tells the KSDK reporter. His father, "deserves to know who did this to him."
But Barnett says the cops got the wrong guy — and that they have their own shoddy work to blame.
"That was dirty, negligent cop work," Barnett says. "Instead of going to find the perpetrator, you lock an innocent guy up."
The case appears to boil down to one key witness, identified in a police report as a St. Louis Juvenile Court Branch security guard. The guard never claimed to witness the attack, but he did have access to one of the surveillance cameras that captured the incident. After seeing the footage, he claimed to remember seeing the suspect sitting across the street on the day of the attack, looking "suspicious and out of place."
In a supplemental report filed November 7, a city detective showed the security guard a photo lineup of possible suspects. The guard didn’t recognize any of the options.
Crucially, in the same report, the detective notes that the guard "advised me that he thought the suspect was already arrested." The reason for the assumption? The guard thought he had seen two police officers talking with a suspect in front of the juvenile building. He was "quite sure this was the person responsible for the robbery."
Following the lead, the detective spoke to the two officers. Like the guard, the pair believed they’d found their man, saying the man they spoke with seemed suspicious. "The subject lied about his identity and would not cooperate with officers," the report continues. One of the officers thought the man had similar shoes to the suspect on the surveillance video, as well as a similar "demeanor" and "walked the same way."
"He advised me to that he did not need to see a photo spread due to him seeing the suspect on video,” the detective writes. The guard said he'd already "got a good look" at the suspect when he spotted him talking to the officers.
Four days later, after police picked up Barnett on a warrant for a probation violation, the guard apparently changed his mind. He looked at the photo lineup that included Barnett — but the result was negative.
The guard "was unable to identify Danny B. based on this set of photographs," the report notes.
Still, within days, the St. Louis Circuit Attorney's Office charged Barnett with second-degree robbery, and shortly afterward upgraded the charge to first-degree.
It's possible that investigators uncovered additional evidence to make their case, but since the charge was ultimately dismissed, the case is now sealed. The incident reports that Barnett acquired (and subsequently provided to RFT) don’t mention any actual eyewitnesses. When then-Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce issued the criminal charge on November 13, the probable cause statement mentioned only that an officer "was able to speak with a witness who saw the robbery on surveillance video” — apparently the security guard — and that the witness was able to "positively identify" Barnett. Never mind that the security guard had been unable to ID Barnett in a photo lineup.
To Barnett, the police work was baffling. Why, he wonders, didn't the investigators didn’t do more to interview the victim? As the November 2016 KSDK report proves, while Le was badly injured, he was able to talk.
"Thank you very much everybody," Le says weakly to the camera. "I am better right now. Thank you so much."
"He could talk," Barnett says, replaying the clip. “Why didn’t they go back?”
Le died the following February. In an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, his grieving son, Vu Le, said he believed the beating left his father too weak to continue his cancer treatment. He wanted the charges against Barnett upgraded to murder.
But no additional charges were forthcoming. Instead, six months later, in August, the city’s new circuit attorney, Kim Gardner, delivered the news to the Le family in person: Her office was dropping the charges against Barnett.
Prosecutors never said they had the wrong man, only that they couldn't make the charges stick. In a press release, Gardner explained, "With the death of Mr. Le from cancer, any opportunity for identification evidence disappeared."
Vu Le was incensed at the circuit attorney's handling of the case.
“Kim Gardner’s office blamed my father dying as a cause of her dismissing the charge and letting the perpetrator go,” he told the Post-Dispatch. “It’s insulting to my family. My dad’s life mattered. My dad’s death mattered.”
But it’s not just the questionable investigation and last-minute decision to drop the case that have them angry. It’s Josh Hill, too. In interviews, Muldrew and Barnett raise the possibility that the ex-officer’s bizarre behavior was somehow connected to the robbery case.
“Lightning doesn’t strike in the same spot twice, we all know that,” Barnett notes.
In a response to questions about possible links between Hill and the case against Barnett, Circuit Attorney's Office spokeswoman Susan Ryan tells the RFT that Hill had nothing to do with it. She says “there is no connection as far as we can see” between Muldrew's relationship to Barnett and the cop's conduct. She also defends investigation that landed Barnett in jail.
In a statement on behalf of the Circuit Attorney’s Office, Ryan tells RFT:
We understand that Mr. Le’s family is grieving, and we are heartbroken over their loss. We, too, would like to hold the right person accountable for this terrible incident.As for Barnett, he actually agrees with Vu Le — to an extent. Had police done their jobs interviewing the elder Le when they had a chance, he says, they might have figured out they had the wrong guy.
Mr. Le had indicated to police that he didn’t see the perpetrator’s face either before or after the assault (the perpetrator assaulted him from behind). I can’t answer the question as to why police did not go back to interview to Mr. Le in the hospital to gather a follow up statement. If anyone has any information about this case, we encourage them to contact police or prosecutors.
"Two families were torn apart due to the injustice of poor police work," Barnett says. "On one hand, a man was attacked and the perp remains at large. On the other hand, a man was falsely accused and jailed."
Barnett and Muldrew are just beginning to put their lives back together. They were supposed to get married on December 29, but whatever savings they had went to Barnett’s defense attorney. Barnett lost his job, and Muldrew had to pick up a second one while raising three kids by herself this past year.
When Muldrew looks at what happened to her family, all she can feel is frustration and anger. She worries that anyone could Google Barnett’s name, see numerous news stories linking him to Le’s beating and decide to take matters into their own hands. She remembers people staring at her in the supermarket and on the street, treating her like a pariah, like the fiancé of a murderer. The stigma still holds.
And then there’s Hill, still out there on probation without even a requirement to check in with a parole officer.
"The justice system is total bullshit, that's exactly how I feel," Muldrew says. "They came to my house and took Danny away from us for a whole year, but this officer comes to my house and chases me and my kids down, and for a year he gets to have a probation?"
To Muldrew, Hill’s behavior still doesn’t add up. He didn't hit on her or make sexual advances when he showed up at her house. He was behaving like a cop on duty, with a “calm demeanor, bold, not afraid,” she says.
The closest she ever got to an answer came during a court hearing in July, for a restraining order she’d filed against Hill. Both Muldrew and Hill attended the hearing. She remembers the judge calling on Hill to explain his actions that day. She says Hill's answer was, "I'm a man, she's a woman and she's cute."
Editor's note: A previous version of this story referred incorrectly to what happened after a security guard failed to pick Barnett out of a lineup. He was then charged; he had already been arrested. We regret the error.
Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at [email protected]