Conyea Borroum Willis: Neighborhood Alliance Loses Volunteer to Murder

Jan 17, 2012 at 10:35 am
Willis was a dedicated volunteer at Better Family Life. - Norm White
Norm White
Willis was a dedicated volunteer at Better Family Life.

The morning before he was murdered, Conyea Borroum Willis was at 6017 Natural Bridge Road, listening to James Clark speak. He'd been a loyal soldier, one of the many "boots on the ground" since the early days of Clark's Neighborhood Alliance model, which RFT wrote about in the September feature story You Say You Want a Revolution.

Clark's earliest memory of Willis occurred soon after he started volunteering for Better Family Life, following a weekly "Put Down the Pistol" meeting. It was a scorching hot day and Clark had just finished picking up the volunteers from their posts around the city, where they'd been passing out flyers, and dropping them off at the Natural Bridge headquarters. Then as he drove away from the office, Clark saw a man standing on a street corner, a solitary figure still working with a slim pack of leaflets in his hand. He pulled up beside the man.

"Sorry brother," Clark said. "We never want to leave a man behind. Wanna come back to the office? Probably still some pizza left."

"No thanks, brother James," replied Willis. "I'm gonna finish this stack first."

Clark and his men had finished 2011 strong. In August more than 10,000 St. Louis residents got misdemeanor warrants cleared through Better Family Life. In September Clark successfully persuaded CBS Outdoor to take down two north city billboards promoting an upcoming gun show. CBS Outdoors, to show its support for the cause, put up "Put Down the Pistol" billboards in place of the ads. By December there were barely enough chairs to hold all the people attending the Saturday morning meetings. Many of those people wore freshly pressed "Put Down the Pistol" shirts.

On the final Saturday morning meeting of the year, Willis showed up with a video camera. He'd just bought it. He told the group that he wanted to make a video about the meetings and give it to his son. He hoped the shots of Clark preaching and the power of seeing a roomful of men and women striving to make the community better would encourage his son to attend the meetings.

In many ways, Willis was an outlier among Clark's band of volunteers. A self-employed roofer, he wasn't drawn to Better Family Life in search of a job. He wasn't a young street kid looking to turn his life around. He wasn't a community activist. He was simply a man, a working man, who wanted to help fix the neighborhoods.

So a few hours after the meeting, he was sitting in the pews of the Temple Church of God in Christ on Union Boulevard, for the city's candlelight vigil for homicide victims. Mayor Francis Slay was there. So was Police Chief Dan Isom, as well as Clark and many other city leaders. They commemorated the 114 people who were murdered in St. Louis in 2011. It was a sad and reflective evening, but there remained a air of hope. The number of murders in the city, Slay declared, had declined from 144 in 2010.

That vigil was the last time Clark saw Willis.

At 12:50 am, January 1, a man approached Willis as he was getting out of his car in the Walnut Park neighborhood. The man robbed Willis and shot him twice in the gut. It was the first murder of 2012.

Willis had two daughters, one son, four grandchildren, and one great grandson. He was 52 years old.

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