Out-of-control shoplifting at the St. Louis Galleria. Violent attacks in the Delmar Loop. Is MetroLink a vehicle for crime?

Aug 20, 2008 at 4:00 am

St. Peters alderman Don Aytes remembers well the fears some of his constituents expressed back in 1998, the year MetroLink supporters tried to bring light rail into suburban St. Charles County.

"I thought for sure it would pass, and then someone on the MetroLink campaign made the decision to advertise that the train would connect Mid Rivers Mall with East St. Louis," Aytes recalls. "That pretty much killed it right there. Soon you had people saying MetroLink riders would come to St. Charles by train and leave by car — stolen car."

Ten years later and a growing number of Saint Louis Galleria and Delmar Loop merchants worry that St. Charles voters may have been right: that maybe MetroLink actually enables criminals, especially teenage lawbreakers.

Ask virtually any store manager at the Saint Louis Galleria about shoplifting, and you'll invariably get two responses: One, it's out of control; and two, it's gotten exceedingly worse since August 2006, when MetroLink opened a stop just 500 yards from the high-end shopping center.

In the first six months of this year, Richmond Heights police made 345 arrests at the mall. That's nearly double the number of arrests made in all of 2005, before MetroLink opened its Shrewsbury line.

More alarming are the numbers of juveniles (kids under the age of seventeen) arrested at the mall. This year police are on pace to take 276 juveniles into custody for shoplifting and other offenses — a sevenfold increase over the 39 kids arrested at the Galleria in 2005.

"I know it's not politically correct, but how else do you explain it?" comments a frustrated Galleria store manager who, like many Galleria shopkeepers interviewed by Riverfront Times, says her employer prohibits her from officially speaking for the company.

"Anyone can see all these people crossing Brentwood Boulevard from the MetroLink station," the manager continues. "Most of them aren't here to shop. They're here to hang out and cause trouble."

Mall workers say it's not just shoplifting that's causing problems. In November 2006 police arrested five juveniles and four older teenagers following a fistfight at the Galleria that involved dozens of minors.

Four months later in March, another fight in the mall — this one involving up to 100 teens — led to three more arrests and the Galleria imposing new sanctions on teenagers. The so-called "Parental Guidance Required" policy, put in place in April 2007, prohibits anyone under age seventeen from entering the mall after 3 p.m. on weekends without an adult chaperone.

"It's not as bad as it used to be on the weekends," states another store manager. "But come here any weekday while school is in session — it looks like there's an entire high school class here for a field trip. Instead of going to school, they come to the Galleria."

Now — eighteen months after the Galleria curfew first went into effect — many store owners in University City speculate the ban has resulted in pushing troublemakers six stops up the MetroLink line to the Delmar Loop. Police in University City confirm that they first noticed large groups of teens congregating in the Loop in June 2007, two months after the Galleria imposed its curfew.

In recent weeks dozens of those same teens have been implicated in violent attacks that have hospitalized people working and living near the light rail stations in the Loop and the nearby DeBaliviere neighborhood. On July 26 a group of at least twenty teens assailed a family as they left the platform at the Forest Park-DeBaliviere station. That same night another group, according to police, attacked a person at the Delmar station.

MetroLink officials contend that the same group of teens was involved in both attacks. Moreover, the transit agency vigorously denies that the commuter train has anything to do with the assaults in the Loop or the spike in shoplifting and juvenile misconduct at the Galleria.

"What we do for the Galleria is take them their employees and shoppers," stresses Metro spokeswoman Dianne Williams. "With the Loop incidents, we and our passengers were the victims. These kids aren't traveling there by Metro. They're coming by car or walking. They're not coming by Metro."

Police testimony, however, tells a different story. The two seventeen-year-olds implicated in the group assault of the family were apprehended on the MetroLink platform. The teens told police they were on their way to their homes in Jennings and St. Louis City after spending the night hanging out near Loop restaurants and bars.

Several teenagers who gather at the Galleria and in University City connect MetroLink with the rowdy behavior. "We used to hang out in the Galleria, but when MetroLink opened it got too crazy there," notes Johnnie Fields, a senior at Gateway High School who met with friends on the sidewalk of Delmar Boulevard on a recent weekend.

"We started coming to the Loop last summer," says Corey Stewart Glaze, an eighteen-year-old student at CBC High School. "Then more and more people started coming. Now, it's a lot of the same people from the Galleria who hang out in the Loop. It's like you have two groups. There are people like us, and then there are the dropouts. I don't know where, or if, they go school. But they're ruining it for all of us."

University City Police Chief Charles Adams says the possible tie between the Galleria's curfew and the increased teenage crowds in the Loop has not escaped the notice of his officers.

"We definitely noticed an upswing, but to us it really doesn't matter why they're here," comments Adams. "Our concern is that they behave themselves, which for teenagers is sometimes hard to do."

Such was the case Saturday, August 2, says Adams, when a larger-than-normal group of teenagers converged on the Loop. Near midnight Adams and his officers started to enforce the St. Louis County curfew, which requires that anyone under seventeen be off the streets by 12 a.m. on weekends. Some of the crowd then crossed Skinker Boulevard into St. Louis City limits and ended up in front of The Pageant, the concert venue located a block from the MetroLink station.

"There must have been 400 teenagers," estimates Tony Huelsmann, a bartender at the Delmar Lounge, which sits on the city's border. "They streamed by our windows for fifteen minutes. The University City police had a K-9 unit out pushing the kids along, and it's a good thing, in my opinion. These kids are ruining the neighborhood. You can't walk the Loop without getting hassled by them. They clog the sidewalks and won't get out of the way. I've heard numerous reports of them jumping innocent people."

After arriving in front of The Pageant the crowd quickly turned violent, according to police. In an adjacent parking lot a group assaulted an employee of Pi Restaurant, at 6144 Delmar Boulevard, and robbed him of his cell phone. Minutes later a similar throng of unruly youths jumped another Pi staffer outside the restaurant.

Witnesses report a half-dozen police cruisers arriving minutes later, complete with wailing sirens and swirling lights. A police helicopter circled over the neighborhood. Captain Jim Moran, commander of the St. Louis Police Department's Seventh District, reports that the Pi employee believed he was attacked by as many as twenty people.

"I can tell you that when we arrived the crowd just scattered," recalls Moran. "I don't know if they ran to MetroLink or what. But I do know that several people were assaulted, and that bothers me. We're not going to take it."

Three days later, the August 2 attacks remained the buzz of the neighborhood, though several store owners do not want to talk about it with a reporter.

"Don't write a story," implores Peggy Hou, owner of Chinese Noodle Café, located next door to Pi on the eastern edge of the Loop. "You'll scare away business. Everything is fine." (Pi owners declined to comment altogether.)

One business owner willing to speak is Rubina Patton, proprietor of Diversity Gallery and the Culture Café situated directly across the street from The Pageant. An African American and a licensed clinical social worker, Patton says it pains her to know that many of the teenagers involved in the attacks in the Loop are black. "I don't care what color you are, you need to behave," she says. "I don't want this blown out of proportion, but it needs to be addressed."

Finally, five days after the assaults outside Pi Restaurant, news of the melee landed on the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The August 7 story includes interviews from the family beaten in the July 26 assault near the Forest Park-DeBaliviere MetroLink station.

"I think they were just out to pound people," said the father, whose son suffered a fracture eye socket in the fight. "They were just having fun."

During a hastily called press conference at St. Louis City Hall a day later, Mayor Francis Slay vowed to add more police officers near the MetroLink stations and encouraged Metro to beef up security as well. "Nothing outrages me more to see thugs assault people trying to go about their business," the mayor said. "People looking to cause trouble need to know that we're not going to tolerate it."

On the evening of Friday, August 8, the Forest Park-DeBaliviere and Delmar MetroLink stations resemble something out of a Lethal Weapon film. Four MetroLink security guards walk the Forest Park-Debaliviere station, while uniformed St. Louis police officers stare down at passengers from an outpost along the stairs.

Up the track at the Delmar station, fifteen passengers — including a handful of teenagers — depart the train and head toward the Loop. Looming on the street just outside the station is the St. Louis police department's Mobile Command Unit, a Bi-State bus outfitted with all-terrain tires, satellite feeds and a half-dozen computer monitors.

Farther up Delmar two bike cops cruise through traffic while dozens more walk the pavement and man the street corners. Hovering above the street, a police helicopter aims its floodlight over storefronts and sidewalk diners.

In University City, the fire department has been called in to provide an additional presence. Despite all the recent media coverage, Loop patrons are out in force on this unseasonably mild night in August. The same cannot be said about the number of teenagers.

"It's pretty dead tonight," notes Morgan DeBaun, a soon-to-be freshman at Washington University, who says she started hanging out in the Loop after the Galleria imposed its curfew and Tropicana Lanes began to charge teens a $5 cover. "I think all the attention scared people off tonight," continues DeBaun. "I know my parents didn't want me to come here."

Soon a University City police officer approaches DeBaun's group and tells them to move on. "You've got to keep walking," warns the officer. "No standing or sitting."

On the other side of Delmar Boulevard, University City residents Nicolette Rich, fifteen, and her fourteen-year-old sister, Ariana, wonder where everyone is. They say they weren't in the Loop last weekend to witness the fights, though they're not entirely surprised by the violence. The Loop, they say, is an occasional staging ground for fisticuffs between their classmates and rivals at Normandy High School.

More pressing to the Rich sisters is what they'll do if the police continue their crackdown on the teenagers on the Loop.

"Where else are we going to go?" asks Nicolette. "There aren't a lot of places where we can hang out."

One need not look farther than the nearest computer to keep tabs on crime and shoplifting at the Galleria. Since 2006 the Richmond Heights police department has kept online records of nearly every arrest made at the mall.

A scan of these police reports reveals that as many as half of the shoplifting and disorderly conduct arrests made at the mall these days involves teenagers. And although most of the crime summaries provide little more than the name of the victim and age of the offender, a few go into greater detail.

In a summary from July 8, for example, Richmond Heights police reported arresting three adult males — ages 23, 29 and 31 — implicated in a string of thefts earlier this summer. According to Macy's loss-prevention officers, the men would enter the department store, conceal merchandise under their clothes and then hightail it across the Galleria parking lot to the MetroLink station. By the time Macy's officers realized what had been stolen, the men were already on a train out of town.

Alerted last month that the men were again at the mall, Richmond Heights police set up command west of Brentwood Boulevard near the MetroLink stop. Sure enough, two of the three individuals soon came running out of Macy's in the direction of the train station. Police arrested them and found several hundred dollars worth of stolen goods tucked under their clothes. Background checks revealed both men had previously been charged with theft and drug possession.

Metro spokeswoman Dianne Williams calls the July 8 incident an exception to the rule. "We bring increased traffic to the Galleria," says Williams. "Now if part of that is a criminal element, then we need to do something about that. But people intent on bad behavior will get there some way."

In 2007 MetroLink boasted 22 million boardings — up five million from 2006. And while ridership continues to increase owing to high gas prices and Highway 40 construction, Metro's reputation remains dogged from the loss last year of an $81 million lawsuit against the construction managers on the Cross County MetroLink expansion.

The failed suit cost Metro $27 million in legal fees and led to the firing of the agency's then-president Larry Salci. In February, Metro pulled a half-cent tax hike off the St. Louis County ballot for fear that angry voters would reject the measure. The initiative is slated to reappear on the ballot November 4. Without the additional public funds, Metro claims it will face a $45 million deficit by 2010.

With so much riding on the line, the agency doesn't want voters worrying about safety.

"Just as we don't blame the automobile industry if someone commits a crime with a car, you need to be careful about blaming the mode of transportation for some of these recent isolated incidents," says Dianne Williams.

The Metro spokeswoman grows particularly testy when presented with allegations that MetroLink has led to increased crime and juvenile arrests at the Galleria. "Last time I checked, you didn't have to be sixteen to get a ride to the mall with your friends," says Williams, who contends that most teenagers arrive at the mall by car — not MetroLink or the transit agency's bus service.

Arrests at the Galleria hit record levels in the late 1990s when several department stores enacted "zero tolerance" policies that prosecuted offenders, even for the pettiest of crimes.

Since then arrests at the Galleria have declined from a high of 902 in 1998 to a low of 183 in 2005. In 2007, the first full year the Shrewsbury line was in operation, the number of arrests jumped to 396. This year, Richmond Heights police are on pace to arrest 690 people at the mall.

Sergeant Jim Bowie, who patrols the Galleria full-time with three other Richmond Heights police officers, has no explanation for this latest crime surge. "Who knows?" says Bowie. "Perhaps it's the downturn in the economy. Or maybe it's the need for teens to feel like they have to wear the latest fashions."

Bowie says his officers rarely, if ever, ask suspects how they arrived at the Galleria. "It's just not something we do. There's no check box for it on the booking sheets," he says. "Besides, it could be that they tell us they took MetroLink when in reality they arrived in a stolen car."

Richmond Heights prosecutor Stephen O'Brien acknowledges that Galleria-related incidents now consume half his caseload — and that doesn't include charges against juveniles, which are handled through the St. Louis County Family Court. O'Brien declines to speculate as to why crimes are on the increase and says it's "half-assed reasoning" to blame the uptick on MetroLink.

"I think that's a bit of a knee-jerk reaction," states the prosecutor. "The connotation with that theory is that MetroLink brings urban black youth into Richmond Heights to commit these crimes. That's not what I'm seeing in court. We're prosecuting blacks and whites."

It is a Tuesday afternoon in late July and Maggie Schoenberg, an assistant manager at retailer Jimmy'Z at the Galleria, is ecstatic after catching a group of teenagers trying to steal several pairs of jeans.

For Schoenberg, dressed in cowboy boots and an airy sundress that reveals ribbons of tattoos blanketing her arms, the apprehension itself is no big deal. She catches thieves looting the store every day. What makes this bust so spectacular is that Schoenberg says she's finally figured out how they do it.

"They leave their backpack unzipped just a bit," Schoenberg elatedly tells her fellow manager, Spencer Mozee. "Then their friends follow behind them, stuffing merchandise into the bag as they walk through the racks."

Schoenberg stops debriefing her colleague when she sees two young males enter the store. "See that guy with the dreads," she says. "He's a repeat offender. We've caught him in here stealing numerous times."

Schoenberg approaches the men with a smile. "Do you guys ever leave the mall?" she asks. "No," replies one of the men. "We're mall rats."

For the next five minutes, until the men leave the store, Schoenberg is at their side, offering assistance and watching their every move. "That's the way we're supposed to do it," she says. "Kill them with kindness. We see them conceal a piece of merchandise, and we ask: 'Could I get you something to go with that shirt you just stuffed down your pants?'"

Merchants including Macy's, Dillard's, Hollister and Claire's (a jewelry store for teens) frequently take shoplifters to court, but just as many retailers elect not to prosecute shoplifters.

"It's not worth the hassle," says the manager of another Galleria store. "If I want to prosecute someone, I have to call the police and spend an hour filling out reports and then another couple hours at court some night. Meanwhile, that leaves just one other clerk in the store to keep an eye on things. In the end, it's just easier to get the merchandise back and tell them to get on their way."

Galleria general manager Earl Dorsett maintains he doesn't keep crime statistics on the basis of an offender's age or other demographics. He claims to have never heard a complaint from mall tenants blaming the MetroLink station for increased shoplifting and arrests at the mall.

"MetroLink is just another way to get here," states Dorsett. "I'm not sure how those people would know if someone came to the mall by MetroLink or car. The conjecture may differ from the truth."

As for the mall's Parental Guidance Required policy, Dorsett says it was designed to create a "family-friendly atmosphere" at the mall, not serve as a crime deterrent. "It lets everyone know the code of conduct we expect of our customers," says Dorsett. "It's not meant to suggest that crime was committed by any particular age group or anything like that."

Try telling that to twelve-year-old Dante and his friends Recee, sixteen, and Unique, nine. On a recent Friday evening the three friends from North St. Louis County are walking through the mall when they're stopped by Galleria security and escorted to the door.

As he leaves the mall property, Dante takes a moment to stomp the life from a begonia plant spouting from the Galleria's manicured flower beds. He hurls a traffic cone into the street and tosses a sandbag from a construction site onto the sidewalk. "I'm angry," concedes Dante. "How are they going to kick me out of the mall? It's racist."

As they wait on the MetroLink platform, a security guard approaches Dante and his friends and asks to see their tickets. Together the three youths can't scrounge up more than the two dollars required for a one-way fare. The guard briefly lectures them about the fines they could face for riding Metro without a valid ticket, but the warnings fail to cause the kids any concern.

State law prohibits Metro from fining anyone under seventeen caught riding the train without a ticket. As the train arrives at the station, Dante and his friends walk past the guard and climb aboard. The doors close, and they're gone.

Joe Edwards sips an Old Fitzgerald bourbon and watches pedestrians shuffle past the windows of his landmark Loop restaurant, Blueberry Hill.

In the span of just 30 seconds, a couple walks by pushing a baby stroller down the sidewalk. A group of college students meander toward Ben & Jerry's. Teenage girls march up and down the street vying for attention. An elderly couple strolls toward the Tivoli Theatre.

"Where else in St. Louis can you find so many different people all in the same place?" asks the ponytailed Edwards. "I love sitting here and just watching it all. It's one of my favorite things to do."

It wasn't always this way. When he opened Blueberry Hill in 1972, Edwards says Delmar Boulevard was a down-in-the-heels string of boarded up buildings and a frequent cruising spot for motorcycle gangs and related thugs. "Back then I almost went out of business a couple times because I banned so many people from the bar," he recalls. "Eventually word got out that we weren't going to tolerate rude behavior. People changed."

Lately, Edwards has been thinking a lot about those early days on Delmar. Should people be scared away from the Loop as a result of recent violence, Edwards — more than anyone — would have the most to lose.

Since founding Blueberry Hill some 30 years ago, the unofficial mayor of Delmar has gone on to open the Tivoli Theatre, Pin-Up Bowl and The Pageant. Last year, the American Planning Association named the Delmar Loop one of the "10 Great Streets in America." This coming April, Edwards will open his biggest Delmar venture yet — the $20 million Moonrise Hotel.

Edwards says he doesn't know what the connection may be between the teenagers and the attacks in and around the MetroLink stations, but he believes public transportation is crucial to the growth and vitality of the city. He also notes that the Galleria and the Delmar Loop are two of just a handful of places in St. Louis where blacks and whites intersect.

"People have made the Loop what it is by embracing diversity," he says.

At a meeting of the Delmar Loop Business Association last week, Edwards asked store owners whether they would be in favor of a teenage curfew like the one at the Galleria and other malls. By a show of hands, Edwards says most people at the meeting voted in favor of a Friday- and Saturday-night curfew beginning at 10 p.m.

"Right now, we're just looking into it," says Edwards. "I'd hoped that it wouldn't come down to this. But then, after 10 p.m., there isn't really a lot for a juvenile to do in the Loop. And we're not going to let a few people ruin it for everybody."