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."