Battle Lines

Gangs keep their murderous hold on the streets of St. Louis. And kids like Lil' Robert Walker pay the price.

Robert Lee Walker

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The odds were stacked against him, but Robert Lee Walker was determined to get his life in order. An affable seventeen-year-old with almond-colored eyes, an engaging smile — and a toddling three-month-old son — Robert was finishing eleventh grade and intent on graduating high school. He'd recently completed a job-training course and told friends he planned to find a summer job to support the child born out of wedlock. Someday he hoped to begin a career designing and building homes.

But those hopes were shattered on a sunny spring afternoon, not long after Robert boarded a Metro bus on his way home from St. Louis Learning Center South High. From what Robert's friends tell his mother, Arthella Spence, the normally upbeat young man kept quiet throughout the ride. Then, two blocks before his stop in the north St. Louis neighborhood of Walnut Park, Robert inexplicably pulled the cord, signaling the driver to stop the bus.

The vehicle kept rolling, because the driver could only come to a halt at designated stops along the route. Seconds later — at 2:40 p.m. on Friday, May 5 — the bus arrived at the corner of Lillian and Emerson avenues. Several gunmen were in place. Waiting.

Robert had walked no more than a few yards down the street when the teenage assailants raced from around the corner, trapping him between the fury of their handguns and the bus. Two minutes later, the ambush was over. The shooters vanished and the bus driver, sprayed by broken glass, sped his bullet-riddled vehicle to the nearest police station.

Left bleeding on the street were Robert and two other neighborhood boys, ages fifteen and sixteen, who both survived their gunshot wounds. Of the several rounds Robert took to the shoulders, arms and torso, the shot to the back of the head — exiting between his eyes — guaranteed an instant death.

Police quickly labeled the murder a "gangland" homicide, adding Robert to the list of hundreds of young blacks killed in St. Louis as a result of gang violence over the past two decades. Though gang membership nationwide has dropped in recent years, crime experts say St. Louis gangs remain as strong as ever. And, notes criminologist Scott Decker, their numbers aren't likely to decline anytime soon.

"When you look at the level of social disadvantage these kids face — the unemployment, the single-parent households, the poor public schools, the poverty — their prospects are not getting better," says Decker. "That doesn't mean the number of gang members is going to increase, but it certainly makes these kids vulnerable."

In Robert's neighborhood of Walnut Park, the battle lines fall along Union Boulevard, two blocks west of where the bus made its fateful stop and within the boundaries of the 49 BAD Bloods, an acronym for the 4900 blocks of Beacon, Alcott and Davison avenues. To the east of the thoroughfare lies the Mark Twain neighborhood, a pockmarked enclave of crumbling brick homes and abandoned lots under the control of a group of young men who call themselves the Geraldine Street Crips.

In the days before Robert's murder, confrontations between the two gangs led to fistfights and gunshots. Things came to a head May 4 when members of 49 BAD allegedly shot a Geraldine Street Crip — a kid known in the neighborhood as "Four Foot." Robert's death was retaliation. "They wanted vengeance," says Carlos Ross, supervisor of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department's gang unit. "They were going to shoot any kid getting off that bus, and hope they got a gang member."

Robert's mother swears her son was not involved in a gang. But Ross says he and his officers knew Robert from their patrol of the neighborhood and considered him a documented member of 49 BAD.

Hours after coroners carted off Robert's body, a makeshift memorial rose up surrounding the crime scene. By the end of the weekend, the street signs and lamp poles on the corners of Emerson and Lillian were awash with stuffed animals, balloons, eulogy notes — and gang graffiti.

Written on red bandanas and spray-painted onto the walls of nearby buildings, the messages swore testimony to 49 BAD — and to Robert, known in the neighborhood as "Lil' Robert" or "Short Dogg." Several missives vowed revenge, with the names of the rival gang crossed out or stamped with the letter "K," indicating more killings to come. Others suggested that whatever association Robert had with the gang extended into the afterlife. "Life Blood Gang," read one message. "RIP Homeboy Lil' Robert," read another.

By Monday the amount of graffiti prompted St. Louis police to dispatch a clean-up crew to the neighborhood. The markings would only return the following day. "I'd never seen so much gang graffiti go up overnight," recalls Ross. "Was Robert a violent member of the gang, and did he deserve what happened to him? No. But based on all the love they showed him, he was definitely associated with the gang. And it's like I tell every kid — an association is enough to get you killed."

Robert Walker's funeral brought more than 300 people to the huge limestone edifice of Eastern Star Baptist Church in north St. Louis. Billed as a "homecoming celebration," the service had a decidedly casual feel. Older adults sang spirituals and nodded their heads to the eulogies that poured forth inside the sanctuary. Outside, a few dozen teenagers mingled and joked on the steps leading into the church. Several wore T-shirts bearing a silkscreen image of Robert posing for the camera, his arms crossed before his chest in a cocky, self-assured stance. Others dressed in sweatshirts, ball caps and athletic gear. Black may be de rigueur at most funerals, but among these kids, the fashion statement of choice this day was blood-red.

It wasn't until well into the second hour of the service that the funeral hit a dour note. As mourners shuffled single-file past Robert's waxy corpse, shrill screams bounced from the rafters of the Depression-era church. One of the boys, who moments ago was horseplaying outside, collapsed in a convulsion of tears and cries. As pallbearers carried Robert's casket to the waiting hearse, the boy's friends struggled to console him.

"Don't tell me he's sleeping!" he yelled. "He ain't coming back."

Arthella has yet to come to grips with her son's murder. She sees him in the faces of the kids in the neighborhood and imagines the day he shows up at her front door, awakening her from a protracted nightmare. Seated on her neighbor's front porch on a July afternoon, Arthella is clad in a pair of the medical scrubs she wears as a caregiver at a Kirkwood retirement home — a nearly two-hour bus journey from Walnut Park. She shares with Robert the same high cheek bones and soft, round face.

Next to Arthella sits 94-year-old Katie Jordan. As the neighbors discuss how Arthella is coping with the murder, their conversation turns to the neighborhood. Arthella recalls how, in 1975, her family was the fourth black family to move onto Beacon Street. Now the street and surrounding area are almost entirely black — and notoriously dangerous.

Jordan points to a house directly across from the two-story frame home where Arthella lives with her mother and four remaining children. Last April a car crashed through the fence of the home after the driver was shot to death during an alleged drug deal. Three days earlier, a 21-year-old University of Missouri-St. Louis student was fatally shot in his car one block away. Police say drugs were also involved in that murder.

"Drug dealing is all you see in this neighborhood," says Jordan. "If the police did their job, maybe none of this would happen. Something's got to be done."

But Robert, insists Jordan, was different from the other kids in the neighborhood — respectful and quiet. A devout Christian like his mother, Robert attended weekly services at the Walnut Park Bible Church, a clapboard sanctuary located just behind his home. He sang in the choir and played a Wise Man in the Christmas pageant. The day before his murder, he made sure to complete his weekly chore of mowing the grass at the church.

That side of the story, Arthella says, was never told by the television crews who scurried to the scene to report on the brazen daytime attack and its perceived connection to gangs.

"What do they mean by 'gang murder'?" asks a bemused Arthella. "He was not a gang member. I don't believe it." Equally perplexing, she adds, is the way Robert's friends and acquaintances have moved on. "They don't seem to talk much about Robert. They've hardly said a word to me."

Indeed, just down the street on this blazingly hot July afternoon, it's almost as if Robert never existed — at least to the assembly of kids hanging out on the corner near Robert's home. "Man, you still talking about Robert?" asks an incredulous 22-year-old who calls himself "B." "That's over. Everyone wants to say it's about gangs, but Robert wasn't in no gang. It was about territory and respect."

B wears a white T-shirt, long khaki shorts, high-top sneakers and a scruffy goatee. Down the length of his left jaw spills a long scar where he was scalded as a baby. With him on the corner of Alcott and Lillian avenues are two young men in their late teens. Like B, neither is willing to divulge his name. The smaller of the two has a pair of stars tattooed on each cheek. Jutting up from his low-hanging shorts are a pair of bright-red boxer briefs. The other kid wears a bright-red Cardinals cap with a Phillie blunt tucked under the brim. Fastened to his teeth is a fang-toothed grill so ridiculously full of gems that his smile radiates like a strobe light.

The three of them pass around a marijuana joint as they wait for other kids to gather on the sidewalk outside of Walbridge Elementary School. One block away is the corner where Robert was gunned down. A few of the tattered teddy bears surrounding the crime scene still remain.

"It wasn't meant for Robert," continues B. "It could have been any of those motherfuckers getting off the bus that day. God called Lil' Robert home. Yeah, it's too bad, but we got babies getting shot up here, and you know they innocent."

Soon a few girls come up to the playground fence. It doesn't take them long to rattle off a handful of boys they've known from the neighborhood who've been shot and killed in the past five years.

B predicts that the body count is just beginning. "Them dudes on the other side of Union, they all jealous cause we got the 'cake,'" he says as he brandishes a fat roll of dollars. "But I tell you this: They got one of us, but we gonna get ten of them. We like family. There's gonna be retaliation."

Inside the granite walls of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department headquarters hangs a bulletin board the cops use to track gang homicides. Installed in 1999, the board today overflows with the mug shots of nearly 150 juveniles and young men killed as a result of their gang affiliation over the past six years. Above the bulletin board a banner reads: "Live like a gang member, die like a gang member."

Standing in front of the board, gang unit supervisor Carlos Ross points to the photographs of a dozen kids he and his gang unit have hauled in. "I had him in my office, and him in my office and him and him," says the soft-spoken Ross, his mouth barely able to keep pace with his finger pecking its way across the photos. "None of them ever think they'll be on this board."

Ross' office is part Barney Miller, part P. Diddy. Among the law-enforcement certificates and placards lining the walls hang a half-dozen posters of rap artists — Nelly, Notorious B.I.G. and C-Murder. Ross grew up in East St. Louis in the '70s and '80s when it regularly made headlines as one of the nation's most crime-ridden cities. He managed to avoid gangs but had plenty of friends who fell under their sway. Several of his officers share similar backgrounds. "We want kids to feel comfortable when we're talking to them," explains Ross. "Yeah, we're the police, but we also understand where they're coming from."

Conceived in 1989 as a way to help police battle the rising scourge of youth violence in the city, the gang unit now comprises six officers and a sergeant. Its mission: to gather intelligence on gangs and pass that information onto other divisions — including juvenile, narcotics and homicide. A database kept by the cops currently lists 1,500 documented gang members in St. Louis, belonging to some 100 gangs.

Like the officers who serve under him, Ross wears street clothes to work. On this early June afternoon, he's sporting a Cardinals jersey, jeans and red-and-blue Nike high-tops. As they prepare for the day's events, the officers discuss gang members with the gusto of sports fans tracking player movements. A kid named JoJo is implicated in a possible gang murder. A guy named Old Boy is wanted on a narcotics possession. Little Willie is headed to the slammer.

Propped against a wall is a map of St. Louis marked in grids of blue and red, representing known gang territories. A laminated cover over the map allows officers to alter the ever-changing boundaries and allegiances. In recent years, gangs — primarily a north St. Louis problem — have migrated south. On this early summer day, the cops are planning a "jump out," in which they'll drive unmarked cars through several south-city neighborhoods in an attempt to identify and document gang members.

But, as is often the case, their first stop is the new Vashon High School on Cass Avenue. Since first opening its doors in 2002, the school has been a constant staging ground for fights, in part because the building lies smack in the middle of territory claimed by rivals gangs the JVL Bloods and 26-MAD Crips.

Summer classes are over for the day, and outside the school stand a group of fifteen teens. Although Vashon requires a dress code of khaki pants and neutral polo shirts, several of the students accent their uniforms with red undershirts and sneakers. At least two of the boys are on suspension and banned from being on school grounds.

A cop on street patrol claims one of the juveniles just threatened to shoot at him. As Ross questions the kid, officers work to disperse the crowd. Soon all is quiet again. The boy who threatened the officer is being carted away to the station, and Ross and his men are making their way to south St. Louis.

Outside a gas station at Arsenal Street and Lemp Avenue, the cops convene to suit up in bullet-proof jackets and determine their route. Riding in the lead position is Ross, followed by the three cars containing his gang unit. The cops are particularly interested in tracking the whereabouts of a new gang calling itself the Winnebago Boys. But Ross can't even get to Winnebago Street before he pulls his white Ford Excursion onto the sidewalk in front of a dozen kids ages eleven to sixteen.

The officers trailing Ross do the same, pulling their unmarked sedans — a Pontiac, Buick and a Chevy — alongside the curb on Ohio Avenue. Within seconds the officers have the youth lined up on the sidewalk. "What are you all doing here?" asks Ross, and his question greeted with mute stares. On the stairs leading up to a brick tenement lies a bottle of NyQuil abandoned by one of the kids. Ross says a popular high these days comes from mixing the cough syrup with codeine.

Several of the kids are familiar faces, having already been entered into the gang database, and the officers quickly needle them for information on their friends and ask that they lift their shirts to reveal any tattoos. "I know you," says Jeff Pickering, a tall, hulking cop with stringy, shoulder-length hair. "Yeah, I had you into the office a couple months ago."

But the boy — a thirteen-year-old in baggy black shorts and a long white T-shirt — denies Pickering's allegations. The cop soon moves his attention to the fifteen-year-old seated next to him on the curb. Etched onto the teenager's backpack is the gang name "3200 OCG" — Ohio Crips Gangsters. "Are you in a gang?" Pickering asks. "It's not against the law to be in a gang. You can tell us." The kid comes clean moments before his mother arrives out of nowhere.

"What's going on?" she yells. "Is he being arrested? What did they do?" Pickering tells the mother that he's with the police gang unit and her son had just admitted to being in a gang. But the mother won't have any of it; she adamantly denies that her son is in a gang.

"Ma'am," says the officer. "He just told me he was in a gang. Many of these kids that he's hanging with here are in a gang. We're not going to arrest him. We just want you to know."

As Pickering continues to engage the mother, the other officers record the names, addresses and home phone numbers of each kid seated on the curb, as well as taking a picture of them. Ross and his officers will later use the phone numbers to contact their parents and inform them that their child was hanging with known gang members. The photos will be stored in the gang unit's archives.

"The first people homicide calls when they find the body of someone under 25 is the gang unit," explains Ross. "More often than not we got a photo that can ID the body."

In 1991 rapper Ice Cube released his single "Summer Vacation," a song describing how Los Angeles gangs established drug networking outfits in St. Louis. In truth, says criminologist Scott Decker, there's little evidence to suggest any affiliation between St. Louis Crips and Bloods and gangs with the same names in California.

"In St. Louis it was the 1988 movie Colors and the popularity of gangsta rap that had the biggest impact on local gangs," says Decker, who for years chaired UMSL's Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice and has written several books on youth gangs. Of the 99 St. Louis gang members he interviewed for his 1996 book Life in the Gang, Decker says, only one of the subjects had ties to California, having moved to Missouri in part to escape gang life in LA.

"It would make sense with East St. Louis right across the river that there'd be more influence from Chicago gangs in St. Louis, because criminals across the river are going to the same prisons as the Gangster Disciples and Vicelords of Chicago," adds Decker. "But what you see is that gangs all over the world emulate those in Los Angeles. They've got this huge publicity machine via rap music and movies to promote their lifestyle."

What makes St. Louis different, Decker continues, is the highly disorganized and fractionalized makeup of gangs, with more and more groups claiming control of smaller pieces of turf. "The public image is that they're well-organized and fiercely loyal, but in regard to gang murders in St. Louis, more Bloods kill Bloods and more Crips kill Crips than they do each other."

It's the highly disorganized nature of gangs that make them particularly difficult to prosecute, says St. Louis Assistant Circuit Attorney Chris Hinckley. In 1993 the Missouri General Assembly passed a criminal street-gang statute that allows courts to tack on as much as four years to sentences involving known gang members. But in more than three years of prosecuting gang members, Hinckley has effectively used the statute only once.

"The problem is you have to prove a hierarchy," says Hinckley. "The jury wants to see a real close connection, and most of them are so loosely organized it's impossible. As a prosecutor, do I want to press the gang issue that might damage my case, or do I want to go with what I got — the drug charges or assault charges that landed them in the court in the first place? With our case load, it's just too difficult to press it."

Back on the street, Ross and his officers never do find the Winnebago Boys. Instead, they come across a new gang lurking outside a corner convenience store on Nebraska Avenue. An interrogation begins of three fourteen-year-old boys. One of the kids sports a tattoo that reads "Ace MOB Crips." The kid is only too happy to tell the cops that MOB stands for "Money Over Bitches," and that the gang controls the 3500 block of Nebraska. The boy's smile fades when Ross informs him that the name Ace Mob is already taken, belonging to a gang in north St. Louis. The number of gangs in St. Louis, it would seem, has exhausted the list of available names.

"You think they're going to take kindly to you stealing their name?" asks Ross. "Tell me, what do you think people are going to say at your funeral?" The kid just shrugs his shoulders. After taking down the kids' names and numbers, the police let them on their way.

Curtis Royston's sixteen-year-old daughter, Jasmine, should have stepped off the bus with Robert into the hail of gunfire. "By the grace of God, she found another ride home that day," says Royston, a thin and bespectacled man who heads the community education center in Walnut Park's Walbridge Elementary School.

Royston got to know Robert from the basketball tournaments hosted at the center and the job-training course he completed shortly before his murder. On hearing of Robert's death that Friday in May, Royston and his colleague Gary Hayes began contacting neighborhood kids in an attempt to quell any retaliation. By the following Tuesday they'd organized a candlelight vigil in honor of Robert.

Among the hundred or so people in attendance that night were such dignitaries as Harold Crumpton, president of the St. Louis chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Reverend Elston McCowan, pastor of the nearby Star Grace Mission Baptist Church. But of the many speakers that night, none were as moving as the grief-stricken Arthella, who implored the community to stop the violence. Choking back tears, Arthella told the crowd: "I don't want anyone to feel the way I do right now."

But in Walnut Park, Robert's murder is just part of a larger pattern of violence. In 2005 the neighborhood led all other city districts with 18 homicides, according to police records, and reported some 280 incidents of aggravated assault. Seated inside their office at Walbridge Elementary, Royston and Hayes trace the wave of homicides back fifteen years — to 1991, when a seven-year-old boy was shot dead while playing inside his home. Police pinned the drive-by shooting on youth gangs battling over crack cocaine.

Walnut Park's close proximity to Interstate 70 makes it prime real estate for drug-dealers, says Royston, with buyers able to quickly exit the freeway, score drugs and return to the highway. For several years Royston and Hayes helped organize bi-monthly drug marches in which residents and police staged protests outside known drug houses. They came to an end, though, when dealers, anticipating the demonstrations, vacated the crack houses before the protestors arrived. Still, Royston says he and others aren't about to concede defeat.

"We're not going to give up on the neighborhood, and we're not going to be run out," he says. "Gangs are just a small group of the people here, but unfortunately they're a loud group."

In the St. Louis Post-Dispatch article reporting Robert's murder, First Ward Alderman Charles Quincy Troupe blamed Robert's death, in part, on the lack of resources for young people in Walnut Park and other neighborhoods in his ward. "The kids have nothing to do," Troupe told the paper. "The environment is killing them. They don't think they're going to live past 21 years old. They don't have a future, so they don't have anything to live for."

More recently the lawlessness directly impacted the alderman: Over the Fourth of July weekend someone shot up his garage. Walking the perimeter of the concrete-block structure a few days after the incident, Troupe points out at least two distinguishable bullet holes. His neighbor across the alley fared far worse. His garage door looks like a slice of Swiss cheese.

"They shoot up and down the alley to lay out their territory," says Troupe, whose ward encompasses parts of the Walnut Park and Mark Twain neighborhoods. "Once in a while, when a new gang comes into the neighborhood, you'll hear automatic fire. It's like an advertisement: 'Hey look, I'm here.'"

On a trip through the First Ward in Troupe's burgundy Cadillac El Dorado, the alderman takes a moment to expound on Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs." "On the bottom of the pyramid you have food, shelter and water — the basic physiological needs," recites Troupe. "Some of these kids don't have that. Then the next level is the safety of employment, family structure and physical safety. Well, many of these kids got none of that."

As evidence, Troupe points to the prostitution, drug dealing and row after row of vacant and decrepit buildings rolling past the windows of his Cadillac. In his ward alone, Troupe says, the city's Land Reutilization Authority owns more than 200 vacant lots and buildings, many of them caught in a slow-motion implosion.

At the corner of Ruskin and West Florissant avenues, Troupe pulls over to survey the former Sixth District Police Station. Troupe has plans to turn the limestone building into a family resource center that he hopes might provide kids some alternatives to gangs. But he says it will take much more than that to erase, as he puts it, "40 years of neglect" in north St. Louis.

"I used to think it was racism," adds Troupe, in reference to the blight affecting the predominately African-American neighborhoods of north St. Louis. "But I don't anymore. I just think people are oblivious. They don't give a shit." n the Monday after Robert's murder, police arrested fifteen-year-old LaShawn Jordan in connection to the killing. For the past three months he's languished in jail awaiting trial. Prosecutors have scheduled a hearing October 2 to ask the courts to certify him as an adult. If this happens and he's found guilty, LaShawn could face a life sentence on charges of murder and assault.

Police consider LaShawn a documented gang member — something that his mother, Shanda Jordan, vigorously denies. She says her son did not commit the killing but knows who did. To date, however, LaShawn has yet to reveal the name. Jordan says he fears retaliation against his family if he offers up the identity of the true gunman and the others involved.

Several years ago Jordan moved to north St. Louis County to get her family away from the gang violence taking place in the Walnut Park and Mark Twain neighborhoods. She doesn't doubt that LaShawn had friends who were part of a gang. "That whole area has gone to the gangs," she says. "You can see the divide when you enter the neighborhood. The Crips are all on the street wearing blue and white, and just a few blocks away all the Bloods are in red. The kids have taken over." Robert's mother, Arthella, takes some comfort in the fact that the police have arrested LaShawn Jordan but wonders why police haven't arrested the others involved in the assault. She understands LaShawn being reluctant to talk. "He's trapped like Robert — between the bullets and the bus," she says. "I don't doubt that if he tells the whole story, his friends will be after him."

Arthella too has left the Walnut Park neighborhood. In recent weeks the St. Louis City Building Division condemned the home where Robert grew up. Arthella has since moved her family to a house in University City that she purchased from her brother. She has no plans of ever moving back to Walnut Park.

"Too many bad memories," she says.

Robert's son, Elijah, is now seven months old and lives with his mother, Courtney O'Donnell, in Ferguson. He's learning to crawl. The sixteen-year-old Courtney met Robert two years ago when her family moved to Walnut Park. "It was love at first sight," she recalls. "We were supposed to grow old together. A week before he died we talked about living together as soon as I turned seventeen — of being a real family."

Courtney is confident that life outside Walnut Park will afford her son more opportunities — and safety — than it did Robert. But she worries about raising Elijah without a father. More than that, she dreads the day she has to tell him how his father died. The horrific afternoon of May 5, meanwhile, still doesn't make sense to her. "It's not like you can say wrong time, wrong place," she says. "He was coming home from school. He was where he was supposed to be. He wasn't doing anything bad."

For police, though, the circumstances of Robert's death is no mystery. Next to the bulletin board, rife with mug shots of dead gang members, is a list of victims for whom the police have no photo. Near the bottom of that list someone has written: "Robert Walker, 49 BAD, 5/5/06."

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