In the fall of 2017, Jeffrey Amick bought a house in south St. Louis. Renovating it seemed at the time like an interesting, and potentially profitable, side project. But it soon came to define the last years of his life.
Then 40 years old with a shaved head and trim goatee, Amick was nearing the end of one major venture — finishing law school in Chicago — and looking for a new one. He paid $3,500 that September for 2401 Indiana Avenue, according to city property records, and immediately started making plans for a complete overhaul.
The interior was a gut job, and the exterior would need to be tuck-pointed at the least. He imagined new floors and new appliances, maybe granite for the kitchen counters. He planned to do the work himself while he studied for the bar exam.
"That house, for some damn reason, was like his dream," friend Judy Ford says.
The old brick duplex sat on a corner lot in the McKinley Heights neighborhood, an often overlooked wedge of land between Gravois and Jefferson. There was a Family Dollar to the south and a scrubby tree on the side. Amick's closest neighbor was a warehouse across the alley from his backyard. Until the 1970s, the building had been a multistory Chevrolet dealership. These days, it features shop and office space for a variety of ventures, a luxury loft apartment and a rooftop wedding venue called Jefferson Underground.
For Amick, renovating the duplex had probably seemed like an interesting diversion in the beginning. At times, he mused that he could either live there or flip it for a nice profit as he began his law career. But Amick's plans for his future collapsed for a variety of reasons in the years that followed, and even as he began to recognize the house as an albatross around his neck, it also seemed like his only hope for finding his way back to his dreams.
"The only thing he had left in life was that house," Ford says.
Just about a month ago, on June 5, Amick was rambling around behind his property. It was a few minutes before 8:30 a.m. and sunny. In surveillance footage from that morning, 39-year-old Joshua Lundak steers a black Chevy Tahoe out of the neighboring warehouse and into the alley between the two properties. Lundak, who owns the Soulard bar Henry's, was one of the warehouse tenants. On this morning, he pulls a trailer full of lumber behind the Tahoe as he drives north. Footage reviewed by the Riverfront Times shows Amick step into the alley, his arm out and thumb extended, as if hitchhiking. The Tahoe stops.
They're at a distance from the camera, but police say in a probable cause statement that the men exchange words. Amick turns and throws something against the brick wall of the warehouse.
"At this time, [Lundak] is out of his vehicle, and uses the driver side door as cover and fires multiple shots at the victim," a detective writes in the statement. "The victim is hit and falls down."
The warehouse is to Lundak's left, and a garage door opens. He ducks inside and returns with what police say is a shotgun, firing on the wounded Amick before walking back toward the open bay. For a moment, it appears it's over, but then Lundak returns.
"The defendant then walks back to the building, turns around and notices [Amick] is still not dead, so he walks back and shoots the victim again," the detective writes. "The victim was unarmed."
Lundak goes back into the warehouse briefly, apparently to drop off the gun, and then he's back in the Tahoe. He backs the trailer all the way down the alley, and then he's gone. It would take three weeks for police to take him into custody.
In the video, Amick lies still on the pavement. His house is off to the right, out of the frame.
If a complete overhaul of a 120-year-old duplex seemed daunting for a newbie, Jeffrey Amick had reason to believe he could turn wreckage into success. He had done it with his own life.
In his twenties, Amick had been a small-time criminal, with myriad convictions ranging from assault, to possession of controlled substances, to multiple DWIs. His first arrest was in 1994 at age seventeen for second-degree burglary and stealing. In 1996 in St. Charles, he was arrested for assaulting a police officer. The next year, he was found guilty of assault and armed criminal action in Maplewood. In 2000, he was arrested in Cole County for bringing drugs into a correctional facility. Again and again, he was locked up, released and arrested.
That began to change after a potentially disastrous incident in the early 2000s, according to those who knew him. Amick was once again incarcerated when three other inmates attacked him. He claimed he was forced to defend himself with an improvised weapon. The incident led to new assault charges — and the potential for a longer prison sentence — but Amick decided to challenge the charges in court. He pored over the legal books in the prison library and assisted the public defender in his defense. No time was added to his sentence.
His success as a jailhouse lawyer inspired him to work toward becoming the real thing. After his release, he enrolled at Webster University and earned a bachelor's degree in legal studies, followed by a certification as a paralegal from St. Louis Community College.
"He was so intelligent that you almost had to have Google to talk to him," his friend Judy Ford says. "Really you did to understand what he was saying. I can't count the times I had to be like, 'Okay, can you bring it back down to my level?'"
By 2013, Amick was taking classes at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, working for a landscaping company and regularly attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. It was a hectic schedule, made even more difficult because he had at least three convictions for driving while intoxicated and was barred from having a driver's license. That led to Amick's next big case.
Representing himself, he took the state to court, arguing he should be given at least limited driving privileges. People enrolled in drug court programs were often allowed to drive to work and treatment programs, and Amick argued it was unconstitutional not to provide him the same opportunity. He managed to take it all the way to the Missouri Supreme Court, and while the justices ultimately ruled against him, just making it to the state's highest court was more inspiration. He was accepted to the University of Illinois at Chicago's John Marshall Law School shortly after.
The law school years were some of Amick's happiest. In little more than a decade, he had gone from an inmate fighting it out with other prisoners to a legitimate scholar. He studied until he could recite case law and precedent, almost like a parlor trick.
"Jeffrey knew the law inside and out," recalls a person close to him.
Amick was three months from his juris doctorate when he bought the house on Indiana. He considered it "a graduation present to myself," he would later write.
It started off fine. Amick had picked up a variety of carpentry, plumbing and electrical skills through various jobs over the years, and he soon set to work tearing out whatever he couldn't fix. But he claimed it wasn't long before he began to have problems with his neighbor, Jefferson Underground's owner John Carter.
Carter, according to the wide-ranging lawsuit Amick filed against him this past January, wanted the property and repeatedly tried to strong-arm him into selling it for rock-bottom prices. When Amick refused, he claims his well-connected neighbor retaliated by siccing city building inspectors on him, blackballing him with local contractors and pressuring a potential business partner to cut ties.
Reached by phone, Carter declined to comment for this story.
Amick continued with his project. And then, early one morning, he crashed his car.
Amick had struggled for years with alcoholism, and he was coming home from a night of drinking in July 2018 when, according to the Missouri State Highway Patrol, he took an exit ramp too fast in Bonne Terre and careened off the road. His 2004 Acura rolled, flinging him through the windshield and nearly killing him. It took months to heal, and some acquaintances say he never fully recovered.
"I hate saying this, and I never told this to him, but when I said that you needed to have Google to know what he was talking about, that was before his wreck," Ford, his friend, says. "After the wreck, he still was very intelligent, but he was at a point where I think he'd lost a lot of his knowledge. He was struggling with that."
Amick's lawsuit against Carter also named city departments, city employees and an electrician, but he saw the warehouse owner as his primary nemesis. At times, the civil complaint reads like the work of a mind that has fallen out of step with reality.
He refers to himself as both "the plaintiff" and in the first person, at times in the same sentence. He describes Carter as having an "odd looking face" and walking in an "angry cockeyed, zigzagging fashion" after one of their encounters. Two long paragraphs detail Amick being lured outside the building in his underwear by the police in what he says was an effort to humiliate him in front of the neighbors.
In a June 23 memorandum and order, a federal judge writes that Amick would need to amend his suit to fix some disqualifying errors.
"Rather than provide a short and plain statement, plaintiff's complaint is long, repetitive, and filled with irrelevant and extraneous information. More than that, substantial portions of the complaint are devoid of factual allegations," U.S. District Judge Ronnie White writes. "Instead, plaintiff engages in speculation, guesswork, and the making of legal arguments."
But White adds that Amick's claims were plausible enough to move forward if he cleaned up the filing. Despite the often slippery language of his civil complaint, some of the claims the would-be lawyer outlined can to some extent be verified. Amick writes that he "planned to do an air bnb out of both sides of the building, and eventually the basement too, and that he had worked out a contract with Elders' Antiques on Cherokee street" to help him furnish it.
Cheyenne Pfeiffer of Elders Antiques says there was no contract with Amick but that they talked frequently about the planned bed and breakfast.
Amick claims that this potential business relationship was ruined by city officials at the direction of Carter: "city official Barb Potts had also defamed him (Amick) by going to meet the owner of Elders Antique Furniture ... and falsely relaying that claimant was the target of a major federal criminal investigation at 2401 Indiana."
The RFT asked Pfeiffer if this was true. "The Neighborhood Stabilization Officer said there was some shady stuff going over there and for me not to be running around over there," Pfeiffer says. The officer suspected Amick was doing heroin, about which Pfeiffer says she's skeptical. Pfeiffer says that she could see how Amick viewed this as a sort of conspiracy. "It kind of was," she adds.
"He was a real sweetheart to be honest," she says. "To me, he's always been nothing but good ... real chill, real laid back. I can imagine [him] getting in an altercation, though. I've seen him vent. He's told me a lot of stories. I know he had a lot of problems with the guy who owned the property next door. That was an ongoing, long-term thing."
The warehouse still has the guts of the old Chevy dealership, including an interior car ramp and garage space. Joshua Lundak, the man who would ultimately kill Amick, used the space to work on his collection of old cars and other projects.
The 39-year-old considered himself pretty handy. In that way, he and Amick were similar. After taking over the Shanti in Soulard, Lundak completely renovated the old hippie bar and renamed it Henry's, a family name on his mother's side. It was common to see him on the back patio, crawling over the summer roof with an electric drill or reworking the outdoor bar. He hauled in an old Corvair and an out-of-commission sailboat and turned them into Instagram-ready seating booths for Soulard's late-night meat market.
Impressions of Lundak from friends, fellow bar owners, Henry's patrons and former employees vary wildly.
"I know Josh," says Tiffany Hutchinson, who used to own a south-city bar. "I know he's a good guy."
Luke Reynolds, who owns Molly's a few blocks from Henry's, is good friends with Lundak. Aside from being a fellow bar owner, he lived for a time in a loft apartment at the warehouse on Jefferson. "Josh is not a violent person," he says. "If he did do this, it's hard for me to believe."
But others say Lundak could be volatile. One regular recalls him berating and even firing employees in front of customers. A 24-year-old woman who tended bar at Henry's says he was a nightmare as a boss.
"He cycles through bartenders like nobody's business," says the woman, who asked the RFT to withhold her name. "He was cruel to me and to other employees. He cursed at me and accused me of stealing. My experience was not an isolated one. Every other bartender experienced similar treatment."
She added: "He mentioned on a couple of occasions that I did not bring in as much revenue as my coworker because I wouldn't take my shirt off. He's a bad guy, straight up. He's a bad man."
One incident in particular stands out in the context of the shooting outside the warehouse. The woman says she was working after midnight one morning when the sound of gunshots rang out across the street. Lundak pulled a gun from his waistband and ran outside, she says.
"He came back in with his shirt off, crazed-looking," the woman says. "He hadn't actually seen anything, but he had his shirt off, gun out, and was running around. It was very strange."
After killing Amick, Lundak took off. In court records, a detective writes that the bar owner told an off-duty police officer he shot someone. He was advised to turn himself in but refused, and the detective worried he was a flight risk, given that he had boats in Miami and a number of properties.
For more than two weeks, Lundak remained on the loose. The killing initially got little media attention. It happened during a weekend of more than twenty shootings in St. Louis and seemed to get lost in the shuffle. Lundak was still in the wind on June 10 when the circuit attorney filed charges of first-degree murder and armed criminal action, but that too went virtually unnoticed, overshadowed by that day's funeral of a retired police officer shot outside a pawn shop by looters in north city.
In an interview on June 19, Lundak's attorney Scott Rosenblum tells the RFT his client was just "getting his affairs in order" and would surrender "any day."
"When it's all said and done, I feel pretty confident in the defense," Rosenblum adds, declining to go into detail.
Finally, on June 23, Lundak turned himself in at St. Louis police headquarters. He's in jail without bond.
It's not clear what led to the confrontation between him and Amick, or if the men even knew each other.
Additional attorneys for Lundak sent a neighboring business a demand for 30 days of surveillance footage leading up to the June 5 shooting, apparently searching for any previous incidents involving Amick and the warehouse. In his lawsuit, Amick claimed Carter was telling people that he was selling drugs out of 2401 Indiana to make him look bad. He had little left by then. His criminal history had made navigating the path toward becoming a lawyer all but impossible, and he had grown disillusioned with the renovation. At one time, he thought he might live there, because he liked the neighborhood and his grandmother used to live nearby.
But code violations meant he wasn't even technically allowed to go inside the building anymore. The city boarded it up.
Amick slept on friends' couches some nights or slipped back into the house and stayed in the shell of what had once seemed like such a vibrant dream. In his lawsuit, he writes that he fell into a "tragic depression" as his plans crumbled.
"For the most part, plaintiff was couch surfing, because he couldn't live in his own home and many times when he couldn't find somewhere to sleep, he'd find a place to park and sleep in his car," he writes.
Some nights, he would build a fire in the backyard and sit there in his lawn chair.
Amick had determined that he would give up on the house and sell it — never to Carter, but to someone who could take over the renovation. The duplex would be someone else's project.
He wrote the real estate listing himself in typical fashion, advising potential buyers not to waste his time with any "low ball offers" or "silliness." It's a defiant, if somewhat defeated, note. He concludes with a description of what he loves about the house — the history, its "unique architectural design" and location on a corner lot.
"It sits directly behind Jefferson Underground," he writes, "which is an event venue and they have rooftop music that can be heard from the backyard on the weekends up until the evening and sets a good ambiance for just sitting up some chairs and relaxing in the backyard."
Ryan Krull is a freelance journalist and assistant teaching professor in the department of communication and media at UMSL