Stolo Street

A young girl. A stolen pickup. A tragedy on Evans Avenue.

Dec 17, 2003 at 4:00 am
Evans Avenue runs smooth and wide. From Vandeventer to Newstead, it's a flat stretch of concrete, yellow lines and black skid marks. Along either side, shabby homes, some bursting with several families, stand beside condemned dwellings whose bricks crumble over rotted floors visible through missing walls. Vacant lots, filled with litter, offer bleak oases from the decay.

The east-west road a block north of Page Boulevard is nestled in the north-side neighborhood of Vandeventer, named after one of the main arteries feeding into it. While other St. Louis residential areas boast about being "colorful and charming" or "dynamic and thriving," the best spin mustered for Vandeventer on the city's Web site is that its residents "strive to improve the area and reverse the current deterioration trend."

That trend encompasses not just buildings but also the lives of the people who live there. During the past two years, the neighborhood has generated more than 50 drug-related felony and misdemeanor charges and almost 30 assault cases, most of which are domestic-violence matters but which also include assaults on police. There have been arrests for sexual assault and prostitution; charges for tampering with motor vehicles, stealing and trespass.

"This is a block," declares a young man, standing in front of a two-family house where just a month earlier a young girl was killed.

On the street, he explains, a block means more than just a square on a map. It's a place where drug dealers store "keys" of dope in their mamas' basements and where car thieves tear up and down the road in "stolos," or stolen cars, in a showy ritual akin to strutting in the end zone after a touchdown.

"It's like your territorial spot, what they trying to do is hold it down." he says. "So that's why they up and down the street joyriding and everything else -- because it's Evans. They feel like it's their block and the police can't do shit. Nobody can do shit."

But Evans Avenue is also a place where little girls like ten-year-old Annalyn (her name has been changed for this story) and her twelve-year-old friend Ketrease Murphy liked to sing about apples, cream and butter while double-dutch jump-ropes snapped on the ground beneath their feet.

If they weren't jumping rope with the other children on the block, the two might meet at the tiny TMT Mini-Mart on the corner of Pendleton Avenue and Page, which boasts a full line of groceries and fresh meats and accepts food stamps. On Friday, October 24, that's just where Annalyn, a skinny girl with large brown eyes and a whisper-soft voice, says she "went to buy me some chips."

Ketrease, called Treasy by her parents, was also at the market that afternoon. She "went to buy her a orange soda and some sour-cream chips," recalls Annalyn, who was worried about bees. Ketrease had to throw away her soda. "And I told her I'd give her some of my chips if she give me some of hers. And we both traded chips."

But after a while Ketrease left the store to go home and grab a sandwich. Annalyn soon grew bored, as well, and headed toward her friend's house a block away. She saw Ketrease in the front yard near the chain-link fence outside the house. She often played on the swinging gate, Ketrease's father, Cortez Murphy, would later say. It was shortly after four.

A stolen pickup truck, allegedly driven by a thirteen-year-old, was heading east on Evans in the same direction Annalyn was walking. As it sped past, she says, "the tire hadda busted. It popped."

The driver lost control and the pickup careened across the yellow line, leaving a trail of skid marks. "He had to hit the curb," Annalyn recalls, "and then he hadda to got on the sidewalk. She flew up in the air and hit her head on the window again, and then she fell down."

Ketrease's body, and the stolen truck that assaulted it, came to rest in the middle of the vacant lot next door. Annalyn says a boy she knows jumped out of the truck and ran away. "I asked him why he hit her for." But he kept running, "and he was laughing."

Ketrease was on the ground. "She was laying down, breathing hard."

Annalyn remembers that her playmate "had a big ol' dent up in her head. And then when she got hit, blood came out of her mouth and....the sandwich." Tears seeped from the corners of Ketrease's eyes and left streaks on the edges of her cheeks.

The child's body had landed in a twisted heap; her feet were pointing the wrong way. Holding up her slender hands about six inches apart and making a slight twisting motion, Annalyn demonstrates how she tried to put her friend back together again. "I tried to move her leg, her leg moved over and then laid back down."

She remembers running to the front door and urging Ketrease's older brother to tell his parents that Ketrease had been hurt. But she couldn't convey, and he couldn't comprehend, the seriousness of the situation. By the time someone called an ambulance, folks had gathered around the girl on the ground. "My momma said she paralyzed. Her whole body hadda broke."

The ambulance took Ketrease.

Police officers took Annalyn.

The little girl gave a statement to the authorities. The alleged driver, a boy named Dominick who lived nearby (his name has been changed for this story because his identity is protected by law), was arrested and taken to the juvenile detention center on Vandeventer.

Later the police drove Annalyn up to the hospital to see her friend. "They bring her back alive," she adds softly. She won't say anything more about the visit.

Ketrease hovered between life and death for four days at Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital. But her injuries were too extensive, and three days before Halloween, she died.

The lives of three children were forever changed. One girl was killed. A boy sits in juvenile jail, facing second-degree murder charges and prosecution efforts to try him as an adult. And Annalyn is the third casualty of neighborhood crime that adults can't seem to stop. She's left with the memories of her friend's violent death, a tragedy that has torn an already tense community.

Ketrease Murphy's white bow matches her white coffin, which is lined with pink satin. Pink lilies and pink and white carnations surround the casket at the front of the chapel at the Ronald L. Jones funeral home on Delmar Boulevard. There's a guest book and, outside, a black empty hearse awaits -- her limousine ride to Pleasant Green Missionary Baptist Church the next day, Tuesday, November 4.

Pleasant Green is one of the oldest black church communities in St. Louis. In 1945, Pleasant Green moved into its current home, a former synagogue near the intersection of West End Avenue and Page. Inside the church and behind the altar, a large mural depicts three disciples kneeling before Jesus while Moses and Elijah stand at his side.

Three preachers watch as mourners stream in and take their seats. The casket lid is closed. Ketrease's grieving parents, Cortez and Detrease Murphy, as well as siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins sit in the front. The church is filled to capacity; there aren't enough programs for all those in attendance, and people share their copies. Amid the photos of Ketrease at various stages in her life is a dedication from her parents:

"You brought joy to our lives as well as being our best friend and our baby girl. Treasy you are so special to us. You will always be in our hearts and in our touch. You will be missed and always loved. You will always be mom and dad's baby girl, as well as daddy's little angel."

The service opens with testimonials as guests make their way up a side aisle to a microphone and share memories and words of support for the family. A girl in braids, wearing the light-blue uniform shirt of Pruitt Military Academy, reads a poem. Ketrease attended the magnet middle school for sixth grade and had just started seventh grade. Her uniformed classmates, among them a young girl clutching a teddy bear in the crook of her arm, occupy several rows of pews in the middle of the church. When the seventh-grade team leader approaches the microphone, the children rise and, at her order, snap to attention in unison and salute the coffin.

One of the reverends stands before the congregation and launches into a "life reflection" for the benefit of the young people in his midst. "You young people, God is trying to get your attention," he says, his voice booming with urgency. "God wants to speak to your life today."

The message: "Slow down." But he's not talking about the cars speeding along Evans Avenue. He's exhorting his young listeners to accept Jesus, just as Ketrease had the previous summer at Bible camp.

The second preacher picks up the same thread: Because Ketrease had turned to God, she resides in Heaven. "She can't come to you when you call her now. But you can go to her." In the audience, a woman clutches the Bible in her lap; her "amen"s and "that's right"s mingle with other affirmations from the audience.

After a song, the funeral breaks from tradition. Ketrease, the little girl who loved Jesus, also loved cheering with her junior Rams squad at football games, and a group of the cheerleaders performs a cheer in her honor.

The final eulogy offers a stern reminder to the crowd. "You don't have to be old to die," cautions the preacher. "Learn to number your days. Learn to value your time so you can use it for the Lord."

When he finishes, attendants open the casket for viewing. They drape white gauze over the raised lid and mount a gold lamp on top, the last bit of light that will shine on Ketrease before she is lowered into the ground. As the congregation files down to say farewell, a soloist begins the song "I'll Fly Away."

Inside the church, the mood is one of grief and hope. But out on Evans Avenue the sentiment is different. On the street, there's outrage. Three weeks after the funeral, anger and frustration are still palpable, directed toward both the people stealing cars and the police.

A thin man with bloodshot eyes who looks close to 50 is walking west on Evans. When he's asked about the day Ketrease was killed, he stops long enough to shout angrily, "I saw the baby! That was a stolen truck! It killed that baby!"

Although the Murphys moved shortly after the funeral, their former landlady and a group of neighbors are mingling about in front of the place where Ketrease was mortally injured. While they're rehashing that day's events, a van full of men speeds down the street. The former landlady yells at them to slow down. It's a stolo, someone says: It's new and it's flying down the street.

On the day of the accident, they say, the stolen truck and police officers played cat-and-mouse. In one version of events that has spread through the neighborhood, the police pursued. The driver, a man known for stealing cars and selling them for parts, sped up and outran the officers, who gave up the chase. He then turned the keys over to neighborhood kids, boys perhaps like Dominick. In another version, the police chased the truck until it stopped in an alley and the occupants scattered. The truck wasn't towed, and the thirteen-year-old climbed in.

"It's the police fault that little girl got killed," says Annalyn's mother. "They shoulda' caught the little boy."

"The police know everything that go on over here, but they just slacking," says Annalyn's brother, who is one of the group gathered there. He's drinking beer, though it's only midmorning. "They just slacking on their ass, eatin' doughnuts, ain't trying to do shit," he says.

St. Louis Police Chief Joe Mokwa says the department is trying to combat the problem of stolen cars. He says he's not aware of a pursuit that may have occurred between officers and the stolen car earlier that day.

"Somebody was killed," Mokwa says. "It's a real tragedy. There's a young girl that's been hurt and people are angry as heck. And so now they speculate that they see all these stolen cars and they see all these circumstances, none of which most people can document that they did anything about. If we knew there were stolen cars driving up and down Evans Avenue, we'd have a dragnet."

He points to the measures he unveiled with Mayor Francis Slay at a November 19 press conference. They announced that 50 full-time detectives were now working to stop car theft and that three more "bait" cars had been added to their fleet of one. Since the department started using bait cars a few months ago, officers have made more than 100 arrests.

In addition, the police chief and mayor unveiled the HEAT (Help Eliminate Auto Theft) program: City residents can choose to put stickers in the front and rear windshields of their cars that give the police permission to pull the vehicles over between 1 and 5 a.m. and check ownership. "If you're not in your car," according to the mayor's press release, "whoever is will be in trouble."

But on St. Louis Coptalk, the Internet message board for St. Louis police officers, the reception has been frosty. It isn't just because posters think the methods are ineffective; cops are also chafing at the department policy banning high-speed chases, some of which have ended with the deaths of innocents and at least one lawsuit. (For more on the topic, see Bruce Rushton's story, "Carnage," in the June 11 issue.) In St. Louis, as in many cities around the nation, if a suspect speeds away from an officer attempting to pull the car to the side of the road, the pursuit is terminated. And a number of officers think the ban only encourages car theft.

"The sticker is a waste of time unless the department changes the pursuit policy," writes "Mark." And "Renegades of Funk" is more pointed. ".... if the sh**bags don't stop in a reported stolen vehicle, what makes the city think they are going to stop in a reported stolen vehicle they just stole in order for us to check ownership? Not to mention the fact that all these yutes know we aren't allowed to pursue...."

"It's like bringing a box of Band-Aids to a leper colony," writes P.O. Mullanphy. "It's not going to do a damn thing."

Chief Mokwa says he understands the officers' frustration. "We're trapped, we can't win either way," he acknowledges. "The issue here is much more complex than any of us are willing to accept." Instead of saying, "'There's something wrong in this person's life at fourteen,'" he notes, "everybody wants to know if the pursuit policy is causing it, or why haven't the police done anything about it?"

Car thefts haven't been taken seriously, Mokwa adds. Only recently have police, prosecutors and the courts recognized that the crime has reached unacceptable levels. Just two weeks ago, the chief says, he went with Mayor Slay to talk to all of the circuit judges "to impress upon them how much neighborhood groups are frustrated" with the problem of stolen cars and "a system that has not perceived stolen autos as a priority."

But the landlady at the Murphys' old apartment isn't giving up. "They got decoys out," she says two days after the police press conference. "I hope they go for them."

For about two months, Dominick has been in the juvenile jail, only about a mile from the spot where Ketrease was hit. Each day he puts on green prison clothes, part of a color system that helps staff keep younger boys segregated and safe from the older children.

During the day Dominick attends the jail school, eats lunch in the jail cafeteria, exercises in an old gym, attends computer class and is allowed to check out books from a small library. At night he is locked into an eight-by-twelve-foot cell, a thin green mat sandwiched between his body and the steel bed, which is bolted to the floor. His family visits on approved days, his lawyer keeps him posted on his case and a deputy juvenile officer interviews him for evaluations that will be given to the court in the form of an official report.

Even before he wound up in jail, Dominick's life was less than perfect. His grandmother, Shirley Nash, says he has lived with her since he was born, though she adds that his mother has also been a part of his life. Court records paint a brief but troubled picture of the mother, Kimberly Nash. In 1987 she was convicted of possessing a controlled substance. There's an outstanding warrant out for her arrest in a misdemeanor assault case filed in the St. Louis Circuit Court involving two neighborhood kids. She allegedly tried to hit one with a cordless phone and choked another.

Though Kimberly Nash had some scrapes with the law, Shirley says Dominick hasn't had the same sort of problems: "I don't say he's not bad, you know, like normal kids is, but he never in his life been in jail, never been in any trouble."

The only trouble he might have gotten into, she says, was at school. But "he never hurt nobody." And he's not, she says, responsible for Ketrease's death.

"My baby's innocent!" she insists. "He wasn't driving the car. If he had any kinda' way to get into the truck or into trouble, he would have been hurt. As a matter of fact, they'da been in the grave together.

"He don't even know too much," she maintains. "He's just a child; he's got a learning disorder."

Besides, she adds, when the accident happened he was home with her.

And back at home is where she thinks Dominick ought to be. At a status conference on November 17 in St. Louis Circuit Judge Thomas Frawley's courtroom, Dominick's court-appointed attorney, Daniel Underwood, asks the court for such an order.

Today Underwood comes to court without his client. Because the hearing is an administrative one, Dominick hasn't been summoned from the jail next door. But his mother, grandmother and two other women attend. Kimberly takes a seat next to Underwood at the counsel table. Shirley and the other women sit in chairs right behind the table.

The case has stalled because the police report isn't yet completed, but the prosecutor states that she will ask for certification in Dominick's case. In order to grant certification -- which means Dominick would be tried as an adult -- the judge considers ten factors, including the seriousness of the offense; whether the crime was committed against a person or property; whether there is a pattern of offenses by the child; the child's record, history and age; whether the court thinks the child can benefit from treatment or rehabilitation; and local racial disparity in certification decisions. (If the certification were to be granted, the case would be sent to adult criminal court where, if Dominick is convicted, he'd serve his sentence until age seventeen in a detention center run by the Division of Youth Services. Then he'd be brought back before the judge, who could suspend the rest of his sentence or send him to an adult institution.)

But until the police report is finished, Underwood won't know how best to convince a judge that his client must be tried as a child. Frawley continues the case to December 8. By then, he hopes, the report will be ready.

With the scheduling ironed out, Underwood speaks up. "I've got the family here today with me," he tells the judge. "They would strongly urge his release. They feel like they could control him." He requests that custody be awarded to Dominick's "mother, grandmother or aunt."

The prosecutor counters: "I oppose it on the grounds that we are seeking certification for murder two."

When the judge denies the request, one of the women sitting behind Underwood buries her face in her hands.

December 8 comes and goes with no police report. Dominick remains in jail, and the judge approves a psychological evaluation. Shirley Nash is incredulous: "They have no evidence, no police report -- they can't just take him."

Shirley Nash says her grandson cries day and night. In a phone interview, she blames "those people on Evans" for putting the boy behind bars. "They all some kin and everything," she says, and he's in jail as the result of an unrelated feud over a stolen car that involved Dominick and Ketrease's brother.

"I was in the back barbecuing," Shirley claims. "But I heard the commotion. I heard my grandson say, 'You know I ain't stole no truck.' They was fighting over a truck or car -- you know how young kids steal stuff." And she alleges that one of Ketrease's relatives said, "I know you ain't hit my sister, but somebody said you stole my truck."

While she's talking, Kimberly picks up another phone extension and shrieks for her mother to hang up. Before Shirley complies, she explains that her daughter is "going through a lot."

She's not the only one. The Murphys left the neighborhood because when they'd come home they had to face the graphic reminders of their daughter's death: Ketrease's neck brace had been discarded in the vacant lot, the green paint tracing her small mangled body on the grass faded too slowly and the mess of a chain-link fence that had been at the front of the house before the truck mowed it down lay heaped in the lot next door.

Cortez Murphy acknowledges that after the accident his son went over to "confront the person that was supposed to did it. But anybody whose brother or sister got hurt" would've done the same, he says. Murphy dismisses Shirley Nash's claim that there was an unrelated dispute over a stolen car. His son doesn't have a car, he says, and isn't even old enough to drive.

And then there's Annalyn.

About a month after the accident, she's sitting on a couch in a family friend's home. The smell of urine from an unchanged diaper hangs in the air. Iron bars cover the windows.

"Every time I go to sleep, I be dreamin' about her," Annalyn says.

Annalyn wants to know if Dominick's out of jail. No, he isn't. "Is he gonna be there for life?" she asks.

She wants to talk about an argument she had with a boy she says is related to Dominick. He was laughing about Ketrease and called her a "dead, dumb girl."

"I said she ain't dumb or dead, her soul is listening to you."

"Forget her soul," he replied.

But Annalyn can't. She lives in a neighborhood that has spun out of control, too. So the child who plays on the street as stolos speed by fired back a furious reply: "Her soul will come up in your dreams and kill you."