The Exhausting Prosecution of the Rev. Darryl Gray

The Rev. Darryl Gray was pepper sprayed, body slammed and arrested near Busch Stadium. Three years later, the city is still trying to make him pay.
The Rev. Darryl Gray was pepper sprayed, body slammed and arrested near Busch Stadium. Three years later, the city is still trying to make him pay. STEVEN DUONG

The case against the Rev. Darryl Gray is a curious tale in the often hard-to-comprehend system of criminal justice in St. Louis.

In the past three years, city attorneys have devoted untold hours to the prosecution of the 66-year-old pastor for allegedly interfering with police duties during a protest in 2017 — a charge they have sought to minimize, arguing in court papers that it falls somewhere below a misdemeanor and shouldn't result in jail time even if it didn't. If they prevail against Gray, the payoff for their hard work and the expenditure of city resources would be a fine of maybe a couple hundred dollars.

"This is not benefiting the taxpayers, because this is costing more money," Gray's attorney Javad Khazaeli says. "They're not taking dangerous people off the streets."

But the city continues to pursue Gray, nonetheless. It won a conviction last year in municipal court against Gray and another conviction in January against 37-year-old protester Calvin "Cap" Kennedy, who was arrested during the same incident. Attorneys from the city counselor's office are now battling appeals from Gray and Kennedy in state court, arguing in filings that they don't have the right to a jury trial.

In a brief statement, the city pointed out that both Gray and Kennedy were convicted and that it is they who have "chosen to spend more time [in the circuit court] seeking an appeal."

Adding to the curiously dogged pursuit of Gray and Kennedy is the way the city has handled hundreds of other arrests made during weeks of protests in the fall of 2017 after white ex-St. Louis cop Jason Stockley was acquitted of murder in the killing of a 24-year-old Black man named Anthony Lamar Smith. Police had responded to demonstrations with force, fogging whole blocks with tear gas, firing pepper balls from military-style armored vehicles and rounding up protesters by the dozens during mass arrests. But if the police department's response was aggressive — a federal judge criticized their uses of pepper spray as retaliatory and ordered them to change their tactics — that of the counselor's office during the following months was less so. Hundreds of protesters were informed their initial court dates were being pushed off and then heard nothing else as the one-year deadline for filing charges came and went.

Now, as the clashes of 2017 fade into a jam-packed history of St. Louis protests, others have moved on, but Gray is still grappling with a violent confrontation and a battle that never ends.

"There's been no vindication on this," he says. "I've been living with this for three years. I don't want to be angry, but there are moments I think about this, I get angry."

On September 29, 2017, protesters pulled off a high-profile caper on St. Louis' biggest stage.

It was two weeks after the Stockley verdict, and so far, demonstrations had consisted largely of marches and moves to occupy city roads and highways. This was different. Gray was among a small number of activists who bought tickets to that night's Cardinals-Brewers game at Busch Stadium and took seats in the stands. During the second inning, they stood and whipped out a large "Stop Killing Us" banner and hung it from the upper deck.

Police ushered them out, where they joined a larger band of jubilant protesters for a march around downtown.

The scene was streamed live on Facebook, and it made national headlines. As a bonus, no one was hurt or arrested.

With the main action of the night completed, the march proceeded with little drama. The role of Gray and several other pastors during the march was to trail along at the back, acting as a buffer between police and protesters. It was a strategy they had routinely deployed to reduce violence, but there seemed to be little risk as they strolled easily through downtown.

Police trailed the group, blocking traffic at intersections for them, but otherwise hung back.

"Everything was totally calm and, to be honest, this was actually one of the times that, up until this moment, that police were actually reacting more rationally," Khazaeli of Khazaeli Wyrsch, LLC, says.

Shortly before 10 p.m., the marchers looped back toward the stadium, where they planned to wrap up the night's action. Gray and other witnesses say the easy-going mood of police changed as the protesters crossed Walnut Street at the northeast corner of Ballpark Village.

"It felt like us coming back was more than they had stomach for," the Rev. David Gerth says.

The Rev. Erin Counihan and the Rev. Darryl Gray in 2017, days after Gray's arrest. - DOYLE MURPHY
The Rev. Erin Counihan and the Rev. Darryl Gray in 2017, days after Gray's arrest.

The Rev. Erin Counihan later told reporters that police suddenly released traffic on Walnut, cutting off part of the group, and when she complained, she was grabbed and shoved by officers. Gray was a few steps ahead but hustled back across the street.

"I asked, 'What are you doing?' And my other words were, 'We don't touch police.' I made that clear," Gray says. "We're not out here for a confrontation. We're not out here to be physical with y'all."

But the interaction did turn physical almost immediately. Gray and Counihan say that when Gray questioned cops, an officer, later identified as Detective Ronald Vaughan, shoved him and pepper sprayed him in the face from inches away. A second officer bear-hugged Gray from behind, yanked him off his feet and slammed him to the street.

Gray's glasses and hat bounced into the roadway. Two or three more cops pounced, mashing him down with their knees and hands, pulling his arms behind him for handcuffs. Gray says he looked up from the pavement to see an officer step on his glasses, busting them under his boot.

"I'm clergy. I got my collar on," Gray says, still incredulous today as he recounts the incident. "You know that I'm clergy. So why? Why get violent with me?"

Within seconds of Gray hitting the ground, Calvin Kennedy rushed forward, banging into Vaughan before he seemed to realize his mistake and turned to sprint away. Officers chased him down, pepper sprayed him and shot him with a Taser, sinking the barbed metal dart into his upper left arm.

By the time most protesters realized what was happening, Gray and Kennedy were in cuffs. Video of the scene shows officers dragging Gray across the sidewalk until he can finally get his feet underneath him. A small cluster of demonstrators angrily demanded to know what was going on and were treated to a long stream of pepper spray. Even people at the edges of the crowd were sprayed.

Cardinals fans, having just watched the home team's late-game rally fall short, filed out of the stadium to find lines of cops, people shouting and protesters and journalists trying desperately to clear pepper spray from their eyes.

"It was surreal," Gerth says. "It was really surreal."

Gray and Kennedy spent the night in the city jail. Kennedy still had the Taser's barb in his arm when he emerged the next morning. Gray wore the paper bracelet from booking on his wrist for days as a reminder.

The Rev. Darryl Gray wore the ID bracelet from his arrest for days after the incident. - DOYLE MURPHY
The Rev. Darryl Gray wore the ID bracelet from his arrest for days after the incident.

The case against the Rev. Darryl Gray and Calvin Kennedy rests in large part on the word of police officers involved in the takedown.

In his police report, Detective Ronald Vaughan described the confrontation leading up to Gray's arrest much differently than the pastors. He wrote that cars were backing up on Walnut Street behind three people in the intersection and that he and other officers "respectfully asked for the three subjects (two of which were females) to exit the roadway ... "

"As I was making an ushering motion with my arm to continue their movement toward South Broadway (no contact), I continued politely asking the three to move out of the roadway. At this time I was met by a subject, who was later identified as Darryl G., who stated he did not like the way my arm was motioning the 'ladies,' out of the roadway and how I was talking to them. I informed Darryl G. I was speaking to them in a polite manner and just asking them to exit the roadway."

In Vaughan's telling, Gray rushed him and he was forced to react in self defense: "Fearing for my immediate safety, I placed my hand out to stop his advancements and he pushed into my hand with his chest and began shouting in my face. Upon making contact with my hand, Darryl G. two-handed pushed me in the chest causing me to fall off balance backwards. As I was re-gaining my balance, I discharged one burst of department issued pepper spray to his face to stop his attack and to assist in affecting his arrest."

Gray and other clergy there that night scoffed at the idea that he was the aggressor or in any way a threat to a line of police officers who were all larger, armed and more than 30 years younger than the rail-thin pastor. The cop who body-slammed Gray was 31-year-old Larry Wentzel, a former college All-American defensive lineman who was listed at six foot two, 240 pounds during his playing days at Missouri Valley College.

"I'm 150 pounds, 63 years old [at the time], wearing my clergy collar," Gray says, adding that he wasn't a stranger to police. "I'm one of the most recognizable protest leaders out there. They know me."

Vaughan wrote that Kennedy shoved him in the back while they were making the arrest and then fought with Detective Kyle Chandler, who had chased him down. Vaughan pepper sprayed Kennedy — and Chandler, by accident — in the face during the struggle and then tased him.

A video from the arrests that night shows Gray immediately before his arrest, but he walks out of the frame. The camera soon pans over and finds the pastor again as Wentzel lifts and slams him. The video then shows Kennedy collide with Vaughan and run, struggling and failing to get away from Chandler as he is pepper sprayed and shocked with the stun gun.

Whatever happened in the gap between Gray walking out of frame and Wentzel's tackle happened within a few seconds, casting doubt on Vaughan's description of a polite conversation leading up to the takedown.

"It's insane," Khazaeli says. "It's just an insane description of what happened. It's utterly illogical."

Vaughan's report goes on to describe other protesters swarming in, "advancing toward us on all sides shouting profanities and advancing in a menacing manner. Observing this, Detective William Olsten, DSN 7866, discharged his department issued pepper spray to disperse the group from converging on us all."

There are at least two videos of that, and they show Olsten jawing with one protester, taunting the man with, "Come fuck me up then," as other officers try to usher him away. Olsten then blitzed everyone in range with pepper spray, sweeping a long arc across the crowd.

In the end, he ended up like Gray, in that he is one of the few people still dealing with the repercussions of that night. He was indicted in state court with felony assault and has been terminated by the police department. His charges are still pending.

Gray, pictured with Rep. Rasheen Aldridge, has continued to speak out. - DOYLE MURPHY
Gray, pictured with Rep. Rasheen Aldridge, has continued to speak out.

More than two dozen people have filed federal civil suits against police and the City of St. Louis in cases tied to the 2017 Stockley protests.

Six of those are from the clash outside Busch Stadium and include suits filed on behalf of the Rev. Darryl Gray and Calvin Kennedy. The lawsuits detail a history of incidents in which city police responded to protests with tear gas and too much force. The list includes a protest in 2015 in response to police killing a Black eighteen-year-old name Mansur Ball-Bey. Officers serving a warrant at a house in Fountain Park claimed Ball-Bey ran out of the back with a gun and pointed it at police before he was shot to death. An autopsy revealed he had been shot once in the back.

The two officers who fired on Ball-Bey were Ronald Vaughan and Kyle Chandler. Chandler, who would later chase down Kennedy in 2017 in Ballpark Village, fired the fatal shot.

Neither officer was charged in Ball-Bey's death.

Vaughan previously made the news in 2013 when a judge tossed out evidence in a drug case amid claims the decorated officer had planted evidence, saying that he found "the credibility of the officer is questionable ..." the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

Continuing to put him out in public to deal with protests is a mistake, Khazaeli says.

"This is a guy who was a target of protests," the attorney says.

Other plaintiffs in the suits from the Busch Stadium incident include Heather DeMian, a disabled livestreamer who was in her wheelchair to the far side of Olsten when she caught a blast of pepper spray, and state Rep. Rasheen Aldridge, then the 5th Ward committeeman, who was also sprayed. Khazaeli represents them as well. He's an attorney for a majority of plaintiffs in the Stockley protest civil suits.

He suggests the longrunning, low-reward criminal cases against Gray and Kennedy make more sense in the context of the civil suits. Vaughan and Olsten are both named in civil litigation. It's harder to prove wrongdoing on the part of the city if the courts in the criminal case find that Gray and the others were in the wrong. The city didn't respond to a question about whether there was a strategy to undermine the civil cases with the criminal prosecutions, but it's worth noting that if it did factor in, it's not a strategy that has been universally applied. There are others pursuing lawsuits over protest arrests who were not criminally prosecuted.

Mostly, Gray says, he's ready for it all to be over. He's continued to go to protests, often taking a visible role. But the memories of his arrest outside Busch Stadium continue to wear on him, sucking away energy as worries creep in about what could happen as he continues to go against police.

"It's draining," he says. "It's exhausting."

He says he never looks for Vaughan or Wentzel or Chandler — or any specific officer when he's out on the street. He figures any officer in the current system could be a danger, and that's one of the main reasons he and the others were protesting on that night three years ago. However, he says, he still remembers what Vaughan told him right before everything went crazy.

"He looked me right in the face and said, 'We're tired of this shit,'" Gray says. "And then he pushed me."

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at [email protected] or follow on Twitter at @DoyleMurphy.

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