In 2015, St. Louis Is Headed Toward the Most Homicides in Decades. How Can We Stop The Bloodshed?

In 2015, St. Louis Is Headed Toward the Most Homicides in Decades. How Can We Stop The Bloodshed?
Martin Malchev

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click to enlarge In 2015, St. Louis Is Headed Toward the Most Homicides in Decades. How Can We Stop The Bloodshed?
Kelly Glueck

3. Most Murders Aren’t Random
As Christman's tragic death illustrates, random homicides do happen in St. Louis. But statistically, Police Captain Mike Sack says, "More often than not, these are not random. The offenders are acquaintances of the victims."

Sack, who heads the Crimes Against Persons and Property Division, points to a key stat in a recent police data summary: Of the 57 cases his detectives cleared this year up to September 22, 45 cases involved victims and suspects who knew each other.

Granted, this may not be a representative sample. Perhaps sleuths were able to clear those homicides precisely because the victim and offenders had a relationship of some sort. After all, a truly random homicide that nobody sees and no surveillance camera captures will be hard to solve. That same police summary cited by Sack also listed a total of 95 cases in 2014 in which the relationship between victim and suspect was "unknown."

But it's safe to say that the "all hands on deck" response is most often triggered by a case that appears random — consider Sanna's shooting outside Busch Stadium, when Mayor Slay authorized unlimited overtime and city officials summoned the FBI. A case involving a victim chosen by chance — especially if that victim appears to be an upstanding citizen — is more likely to get significant resources, and more likely to be solved.

Still, there's another sense in which city homicides are not randomly distributed: The same demographic group is statistically much more likely to be both killer and victim.

According to data provided by the circuit attorney, 90 percent of murder victims from January 2014 through August 2015 were black. Eighty-five percent were male, and a plurality, 48 percent, were aged 25 and under.

As a group, homicide defendants very closely mirror the victim pool: Ninety-five percent of defendants in 2014 were black. Ninety-one percent were male, and 55 percent were 25 and under (see image at top of page).

There's another common thread, Sack says: In 2014, about 91 percent of homicide victims had a prior criminal history.

Now, that could mean a simple ordinance violation all the way up to more serious offenses. "That doesn't mean that somebody deserves it," Sack cautions. But clearly, homicide rates are "much, much higher" among people who are criminally involved, Rosenfeld adds — and, as far as he can tell, the surge in murder has mainly affected that group.

"There's no evidence that homicide has spread out to the general population," he says.

It's not only victims and defendants who are often linked to drugs, gangs and guns. A large proportion of witnesses who take the stand at murder trials either have priors or admit to illegal activity during their testimonies, says Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce.

"But that still doesn't make it right to have a homicide," she says, "so we go forward with those cases all the time."

4. No Large-Scale Drug War Has Erupted Between Gangs
It's hardly a secret that heroin is blowing up in the city of St. Louis.

A decade ago the local version of the opiate was diluted, and users often injected it via needles, says James Schroba, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Agency's St. Louis Division. But that changed in 2008, when drug traffickers such as the Sinaloa Federation began bringing high-quality Colombian and Mexican heroin into St. Louis. It was so pure — in some cases 90 percent pure — users could snort it. This made it more appealing to anyone squeamish about syringes. Plus it was cheap and highly addictive.

"Heroin has created a whole new market of drug user," says Schroba. "People flocked to it."

In local open-air markets, you can get a dose called a "button" for less than $15. And as with any illegal narcotics market, disputes often end in violence.

However, Schroba hesitates to guess how much the heroin trade has contributed to homicides.

"There's some data we just don't have," he says. Furthermore, it's not as though the city is the only market. Customers need not trek to a rundown block in north St. Louis to get their fix, Schroba says. Distributors abound throughout the metro area.

It's also a mistake to equate drug dealers with gang members and vice versa, according to Detective Sergeant Jatonya Clayborn-Muldrow, who heads the city police's gang unit.

St. Louis is home to 132 gangs with 8,600 documented members and associates, she says. They exist all over the city, from north to south, and engage in criminal activity from assault to robbery to auto theft.

But they're nothing like the hierarchical Bloods and Crips of the '80s and '90s, or even the gangs today in Los Angeles or Chicago. Here, they are small, loosely knit social networks that don't have the manpower or sophistication to move big volumes of drugs.

Clayborn-Muldrow says the current surge in homicides is not the result of any large, coordinated campaign of gang retaliation. Indeed, the police don't even track how many homicides are "gang-related," because the circumstances are often murky. For example, if one gang member kills a rival gang member over a female, that wouldn't be gang-related — even though both belong to gangs.

"The lines are so blurred now," she says. "Sometimes, it's just personal."

Mary Pat Carl, the city's lead homicide prosecutor, agrees that motive is difficult to pin down.

"What could've begun as a drug dispute later is just a respect dispute," she says.

In any case, she adds, state law does not require prosecutors to prove why a killing happened, just that it happened. "What we always say to juries is that we don't have to prove motive. Because a lot of times, we can't."

The issue of respect — or a perceived lack thereof — is a big one in St. Louis homicides. It might be a question of drug turf, girls or even something as petty as food, says Circuit Attorney Joyce.

Captain Sack offers an even bleaker assessment.

Of criminal defendants, he says, "We'll talk to these folks and they don't see any future for themselves. In five years they either see themselves in prison or dead. Your average 22-year-old thinks, 'I want to go to college, then get a job, get married, have kids.' These guys aren't thinking that. They're thinking, 'What am I going to do today?' And that's about as far as they're thinking.

"What other options do they have? They may not have a high school education or GED or job skills, so who's going to hire them? How are they going to get to work if they don't have a car? If they pop off at the drop of a hat, who's going to want them at a shop somewhere? So it's just a whole circle that is difficult to get out of. And once they move into a feeling of despair and hopelessness, they're just living for the moment. So their decisions reflect that."

And that has implications for policy.

"If I shoot you because you dissed me, I have low self-esteem," says Joyce. "And as talented as Sam Dotson is, he's not going to be able to 'police' self-esteem into a seventeen-year-old boy."

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