Two Dead in South City: After a Fatal Ambush, a Police Shooting and Fight for a Baby's Future

Two Dead in South City: After a Fatal Ambush, a Police Shooting and Fight for a Baby's Future

A news helicopter hangs like a thundercloud above the little brick house in south city. From this height, the half-dozen cop cars below look like toys scattered across Taft Avenue as the cameraman pans along a perimeter of yellow police tape.

"We don't know a great deal about the situation," he says as the footage beams live across the metro. "I can tell you the big van there on the left-hand side of the big truck is a crime scene situation. There is particular interest in the tape and the house we are showing you now."

The tiny figures of cops pace across the street corner. The chief of police has arrived and is huddled with a small cluster of officers.

"Obviously, something significant going on in this area," the cameraman says. "Perhaps related to yesterday, perhaps not."

Two young men had been shot to death the night before. Peggy Cobb's 23-year-old son, James, was just leaving the family home in a car driven by his best friend, Haris Hajdarevic, when they were gunned down in a fatal ambush.

For the Cobbs, the long, sleepless night that followed was mercifully interrupted at dawn when a police sergeant knocked on the door. The officer asked the grieving family members to take custody of James' baby while they continued their investigation, Peggy says. They eagerly agreed.

Just the sight of thirteen-month-old James Michael Cobb III was a boost for his heartbroken grandparents and uncle. They hadn't seen the chubby-cheeked baby, whom they call Jae, in months thanks to an ugly custody battle between their late son and the boy's mother. The infant's total, blessed ignorance of the tragedy unfolding around him was their only solace in the hours after the dual killings.

But even this small kindness wouldn't last. State family services workers, escorted by St. Louis police officers, arrived just hours later to take Jae into foster care. The exchange was an almost immediate disaster.

James' young pit bull, King, was also staying with the family, and he hopped over a kitchen gate, bounding toward the strangers. A startled officer drew his service weapon and fired once into the crowded living room. The bullet missed the dog and slammed directly into Peggy's shin as she cradled Jae in her arms.

"You just shot my mom!" Peggy's younger son screamed. "You shot my mom!"

The unexpected blast knocked the 42-year-old grandmother to the ground. She was still lying on her back, blood soaking into the carpet, as a family services worker hustled the baby away from the house.

It was a particularly awful moment within an excruciating collection of hours for Peggy, and not because of her wounded leg. The instant Jae left her arms, he became an unreachable pawn in a feud that continues five months later.

"I just want to hold him so bad," she says.

It's not only that she misses Jae. She also worries about his safety. In January, Peggy learned the state was handing over her only grandson to the boy's mother. This despite the fact police have charged the young woman's live-in boyfriend with killing James and Hajdarevic, possibly in retribution for James' attempts to pursue custody.

Peggy hasn't even been allowed to visit her grandson since that bloody day in October. She doesn't understand.

"The good guy should always win," Peggy says.

click to enlarge James Cobb's Cadillac parked in front of the Bevo Mill house (right) where he grew up. - PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
James Cobb's Cadillac parked in front of the Bevo Mill house (right) where he grew up.

Four generations of Cobbs have lived in the house at the corner of Taft and Ridgewood avenues. If they win the legal battle for Jae, he will be the fifth.

The first James Michael Cobb, father of the slain 23-year-old and Jae's grandfather, spent much of his childhood in the Bevo Mill home, raised in part by his own grandparents. When they died, he inherited the house.

"My father remembers when the roads were gravel," he says one sunny afternoon, drinking a can of Guinness on the front porch as he surveys the neighborhood.

He met Peggy in 1987 when he was nineteen and she spotted him playing guitar with the garage door open. She was six years younger, but in those days she could put on some makeup and slip into the Macklind Avenue bars with him to listen to hair metal bands on the jukebox. They would sneak out at night and meet up at Concordia Cemetery next to Bates Street. She called him Jamie.

"It was innocent," Peggy says. "So innocent."

They would go as a couple to Bevo Day and school picnics at St. Mary Magdalen and St. John's. When their boys were little, it only seemed natural to bring them along to listen to the bands and snack on food from vendors.

"We felt like we were kings of the neighborhood," says Peggy, who still bears a slight resemblance to the Elvira poster on the family's living room wall. "I guess that's what I thought James was."

Their oldest boy, James Jr., was like the city kid version of the Crocodile Hunter. He learned to fish in Carondelet Park and dragged home turtles and lizards to keep in a collection of aquariums. When he got older, he cruised around Bevo in a champagne-colored Cadillac DeVille outfitted with a booming stereo system he'd installed himself.

He'd been a wild teen, a phase his mother attributes to hanging out with the wrong crowd. The worst of it was a heroin overdose at age fourteen.

"Ever since then, that scared his behind, and he straightened out after that," Peggy says.

Lean with a muscular build, buzzed hair and a booming laugh, James had matured in recent years. He landed a job at a Maryland Heights machine shop and moved nearby into a rental house, where he arranged his aquariums and hung out with his dog.

Peggy doesn't remember exactly when James started dating Carolina Roberts, but she and Jamie didn't object. They saw the relationship as another sign their boy was growing up and building his own life, especially when the young couple announced in early 2014 that a baby was on the way.

"He had a nice little family going – the American dream," Peggy says. "They'd come over to our house for barbecues and get-togethers."

Jamie says, "She had us all fooled. I thought the next step was marriage."

click to enlarge James Cobb Jr. once thought the birth of his son, James Michael Cobb III, with Carolina Roberts, his girlfriend at the time, was the start of his family.
James Cobb Jr. once thought the birth of his son, James Michael Cobb III, with Carolina Roberts, his girlfriend at the time, was the start of his family.

In hindsight, the romance between Roberts and James was probably doomed from the start. She had previously dated a younger guy named Rey Hernandez, and the relationship haunted her new life. While pregnant with Jae, she even claimed on Facebook to be carrying Hernandez's child.

"this is me n reys bby soo stay out of my damn bisness we will get tested n ill prove to all u guys how dumb u r," reads one post from May 22, 2014.

At some point, James realized Roberts was sending someone else racy photos of herself using a cell phone he'd given her, his mother says. He shut off the phone, but he didn't break up with her.

"He stayed with her, because he wanted a family," Peggy says.

But even the birth of the couple's son got off to a rocky start. James arrived at Barnes-Jewish Hospital for what he thought would be an intimate, private event and found Roberts' room crowded with her relatives, including cousins. He was so angry, Peggy had to walk him out to another part of the hospital, where they waited until Jae arrived. He finally saw his son, who initially struggled to breathe, in the neonatal intensive care unit about six hours after the little boy was born.

The new parents eventually returned to James' house and settled into an uneasy alliance. But trouble was coming. Hernandez was never far from the picture, and his mother, Jessica Garcia, says he truly believed Roberts was carrying his child.

"My son was prepared to take care of a little boy that he was told was his," Garcia tells the RFT.

When Jae was five months old, in February 2015, Roberts dumped James and returned to Hernandez, Peggy says. And while under other circumstances the couple might have just gone their separate ways, they now had a child together, as a court-ordered paternity test would later prove.

Co-parenting didn't get any easier after the breakup. Roberts and the baby had moved into a Gravois Avenue apartment with her younger brothers, her mother Dana Burkett and Burkett's boyfriend, 33-year-old Jerome "Lucky" Ingram. But the Cobbs suspected Ingram of using and dealing drugs out of the crowded apartment, endangering Jae. They made a series of complaints to the state Division of Family Services in the spring of 2015. Those concerns prompted the agency to make a welfare check on April 13.

Escorted by city cops, staff members climbed the stairs to the second-floor apartment and met Ingram in the doorway. Upon entering, officers quickly spotted a bag of marijuana on the couch and a bottle of pills on a table, according to a police report.

When they asked Roberts about the baby, she pointed them to a back bedroom. Burkett told police it was where she and Ingram slept.

"I opened the door and immediately was overwhelmed by the smell of raw marijuana," an officer wrote in the report. "I observed the baby in a bouncy seat next to the bed."

The officers searched the room and found more than a dozen clear plastic bags of marijuana, a rock of crack cocaine, more pills and three pistols – a Taurus Judge .45-caliber, a Smith & Wesson .357 revolver and a Llama .45.

Ingram was charged with seven counts of drug and weapons possession. Despite the felony charges, he was sentenced in October to just two years of probation.

And while the report indicates that police planned to stick Roberts with endangering the welfare of a child, charges were never filed. A spokeswoman for the Circuit Attorney's Office agreed to look into the case and others flagged by the RFT for this story, but she hadn't provided any answers as of press time.

The police report notes the complaints to family services were anonymous, but Peggy is positive Roberts and her family knew that the Cobbs were responsible for sending the police to their door. She was even more sure when someone called the cops two weeks later and claimed to have seen James flashing a pistol out of the window of his Cadillac. Police arrested him in early May on a gun charge, but the complaint was quickly dropped when an investigator couldn't reconnect with the supposed witness.

Peggy believes Roberts was angry about the family services raid and filed a bogus police report to get back at her son.

"That was their retaliation," she says.

click to enlarge Haris Hajdarevic (left) and James Cobb Jr. liked to cruise south city, listening to music.
Haris Hajdarevic (left) and James Cobb Jr. liked to cruise south city, listening to music.

Upset that he was rarely allowed to see his son, James sued Roberts on June 3, seeking partial custody.

Four days later, he and Hajdarevic were cruising with another friend in the Cadillac. As they headed over to meet James' younger brother, Julian, near a Christy Boulevard shopping complex, someone opened fire on them. They heard three shots as they drove across the parking lot near Big Lots, turned left and saw a gunman fire two more.

One bullet burst into the side of the Caddy, lodging about eighteen inches below the driver's side window. The side airbag popped open, and James sped off.

Julian was just pulling up as the gunfire began. He saw the shooter hop into a blue SUV and take off.

The two brothers and their friends escaped uninjured. They reconvened on Ridgewood, a block from the Cobbs' house, and called 911. When police arrived, they examined the bullet hole in the Cadillac and then searched the parking lot, where they found two shell casings.

The shooter was long gone. Neither the Cobb brothers nor their friends could give investigators much of a description. Julian says they suspected Hernandez, but they weren't sure.

"We didn't actually know what he looked like," he recalls.

A few weeks later, James called his younger brother. By now, he was certain.

"You know who that was?" James asked, according to Julian. "That was Rey who shot at me."

Police won't reveal whether Hernandez, nineteen, was ever a suspect, but in an email, a spokeswoman says detectives learned about the custody battle between James and Roberts during their investigation into the near-miss shooting. There have been no arrests in the attack; police say the victims weren't forthcoming.

Of course, two of the victims are now dead. The case was downgraded to "inactive" after James and Hajdarevic were killed less than five months after the initial incident. The spokeswoman says that "if anyone is able to provide new information relative to the incident, investigators would still like to determine who is responsible and hold them accountable."

In a cast full of tragic figures, Haris Hajdarevic stands out.

The 22-year-old novice truck driver was born in Germany after his family fled the civil war in Bosnia, eventually immigrating to St. Louis in the late 1990s. Slim, with an easy way about him, he was a curious kid who taught himself how to build and repair computers.

Anela Brakic grew up across the street from his family's home near Morgan Ford Road and Neosho Street, and their lives were intertwined in all sorts of ways. Hajdarevic dated her sister for a time. Brakic dated one of his closest friends.

"He was like a brother to me, honestly," she tells the RFT one afternoon.

They had been classmates at Oak Hill Elementary and Long Middle School before going to different high schools. Hajdarevic looked out for her even after they'd grown up. Brakic remembers when she started working at her mother's business, the now-closed Elmedinas Coffee Bar off Kingshighway, and had to open at 6 a.m.

"He would stay up all night and come down with me just to make sure I had someone there when I went down there," she says.

James would sometimes join him in the afternoons at the bar. Neither was a big drinker – they might have a beer each, Brakic says – but they liked music and would play around with the DJ equipment. Hajdarevic called himself DJ Smash and played a mix of Bosnian and American tunes. Like James, he loved to cruise the neighborhood with the stereo pounding. Peggy always knew they were close when she heard the thump of the bass.

On the night of October 28, the two friends dropped by the house on Taft for a few minutes. Peggy was at work, and Julian was out, leaving only Jamie at home.

James ran in and wolfed down a late dinner of fried chicken. He didn't stay long because Hajdarevic was waiting for him outside in the car. Shortly after 10:30 p.m., James, done with his dinner, slid back into the passenger seat.

The shooting began seconds after they steered away from the curb. Jamie remembers bolting out of the house and looking up Taft toward the sound. Hajdarevic's sedan had careened into a parked car about four houses away.

The worried father hurried into the street and pulled open the car door. There in front of him was his 23-year-old son, eyes wide open, already dead.

"James!" he called, taking his boy's head in his hands. "James!"

Hajdarevic murmured softly, but Jamie couldn't make out the words. By the time help arrived, his son's friend was dead too.

Jamie still sees the night in his head, rewinding from the gory discovery in the street to his son's final meal in the house where they both grew up. A plate of chicken, and then out of the door forever.

"His belly was full," Jamie says finally, and it's as if that one fact gives him some small measure of peace.

click to enlarge A bullet hole in the side of his Cadillac is a reminder of the first time someone tried to kill James Cobb Jr.
A bullet hole in the side of his Cadillac is a reminder of the first time someone tried to kill James Cobb Jr.

Hundreds of people attended the funerals of James and Hajdarevic. At James', held at John L. Ziegenhein & Sons on Gravois, the pastor told mourners he thought God would put James in charge of all the turtles in heaven. They parked his prized Cadillac next to the hearse.

For her son's burial, Peggy limped up a small hill at St. Trinity Cemetery. The officer's bullet the day after the double murder had shattered her tibia and snapped her fibula in two, coming to rest in a tricky spot below her knee. Doctors hadn't been able to remove it. The short walk to the grave felt like a mile.

Peggy has spent the months since then recovering. An orthopedic technician at Mercy Hospital, she had been the family's breadwinner, but now she won't be able to return to work until late spring at the earliest.

She's using the time of physical recovery for an equally arduous task: trying to make sense of what has happened. In fewer than 24 hours, her son and his friend were murdered in front of her house, a cop shot her in the leg and her only grandson was taken away. It's been a lot to process.

click to enlarge Rey Hernandez dated Carolina Roberts before he was charged with murdering her ex-boyfriend, James Cobb Jr., and his friend, Haris Hajdarevic.
Rey Hernandez dated Carolina Roberts before he was charged with murdering her ex-boyfriend, James Cobb Jr., and his friend, Haris Hajdarevic.

Police say the shooting that left her leg fractured is under investigation. As for her son's killing, Hernandez was quickly arrested and charged with two counts of murder and two counts of armed criminal action. He admitted pulling the trigger and even pointed investigators to the murder weapon, police say.

The quick arrest is some relief to Peggy and her family, but the problems continue in a seemingly endless cascade. Someone busted out the windows of James' Cadillac a week after the funeral. About a week after that, Julian claims, Roberts' little brother fired a gun at him while he was driving on Gravois with his girlfriend.

Police arrested the teenage brother on first-degree assault charges, but he was freed in February when the case was dismissed.

"It was to the point where it was like, what's going to happen next?" Peggy says.

She has taken over her dead son's lawsuit against Roberts, asking a judge to award her full custody of Jae. She would at least like to see the child again, but the courts have been slow to act and Roberts has been unwilling to grant her access.

The Cobbs face a difficult legal battle. In a 2000 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court strengthened the rights of parents — as long as they're considered "fit" — to raise their kids the way they want. That includes decisions about granting access to grandparents. State courts, including those in Missouri, have followed suit, Saint Louis University School of Law Professor Christine Rollins tells the RFT.

In cases where a parent has died, grandparents often stand a decent chance of winning visitation rights, so long as a judge decides it would be in a child's best interests. Custody is a trickier goal.

"It is an uphill battle, and I think where Missouri courts came down is the visitation is something they're willing to consider before the custody," Rollins says. "The mother would have to be unfit."

And classifying a parent unfit is its own battle. The state would have to take up the cause and prove in court Roberts was no longer capable of caring for Jae.

To Peggy, it feels as though the twenty-year-old is winning as a direct result of her son's murder. Roberts hasn't been implicated in the killings, but the Cobb family suspects the shootings stemmed from the custody fight.

"We don't want her to benefit from having James killed," Peggy says.

click to enlarge Carolina Roberts, the mother of little Jae.
Carolina Roberts, the mother of little Jae.

Reached by phone, Roberts tells the RFT, "Right now I don't have no time for a story, because I'm going through grief." She hangs up without saying whether it's James or Hernandez she mourns.

Roberts' mother, Burkett, is only slightly more talkative. She says police have "an innocent man locked up" for the murders of James and Hajdarevic. Asked about the police report that says Hernandez confessed and led detectives to the murder weapon, she pauses only briefly. "Just because you show a murder weapon, doesn't mean he did anything."

The Cobb family can't be trusted, she adds. "They're liars, point blank."

Peggy is incredulous. "Our son is dead, and we're liars?" she says.

She tries to be patient and leave everything in the hands of the court, but it is hard as the cases, including the criminal proceedings against Hernandez, drag on. His next court appearance, a hearing to set a trial, is scheduled for April 18 — James' birthday. His attorney hasn't responded to a request for comment.

Hernandez's mother, Garcia, says very little in a brief phone conversation. Her job is to protect her son, and she doesn't want to say anything about the case "that might incriminate him." But she claims her family hadn't even known about the custody battle between Roberts and James. She wants to add that she has sympathy for the Cobb family.

"My prayers go out to them," Garcia says, "because I know as a mother, this is one of the hardest things to deal with."

click to enlarge Peggy Cobb visits the grave of her son, James Cobb Jr., for the first time since his funeral. - PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
Peggy Cobb visits the grave of her son, James Cobb Jr., for the first time since his funeral.

It's January before doctors are able to cut the bullet from Peggy's leg. She is finally cleared to remove the orthopedic boot in early spring, allowing her to drive again. The renewed freedom inspires her to visit James' grave for the first time since the funeral.

Julian agrees to go with her one warm March afternoon if she'll wait until he's finished swapping out the speakers on his brother's Cadillac. He's spent countless hours tinkering with the sound system, replacing the headlights, installing a backup camera and adding a touch-screen video display to the dash. This may be where he is closest to his older brother. Their father isn't into cars, so it was James who taught Julian how to wire in the amps and hook up the speakers for maximum thumping.

click to enlarge Julian Cobb had his brother's name tattooed across his forearm after the murders. - PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
Julian Cobb had his brother's name tattooed across his forearm after the murders.

Three hours after they were supposed to leave for the cemetery, Peggy is still sitting on an outdoor swing, begging him to hurry up.

"C'mon, Julian," she pleads.

"Five minutes," he says.

Thirty minutes later, they caravan down Telegraph Road and turn into Trinity Cemetery. A mist of rain falls as Peggy and Julian work a wooden cross and a solar-powered angel into the ground at the head of James' grave. Julian pours out a few sips from a 25-ounce Bud Light for his brother before eventually returning to his car. Peggy has saved the final cigarette from a pack she bought the day of the killings, and she smokes it as the rain soaks her hair. "I can't believe James is down there," she says.

Now that she can drive again and walk a little better, Peggy promises to visit more often. She thinks he would like the wooded setting and wildlife. Four or five geese waddle across the grass. She has heard that deer pass through some days.

One of her best memories of her dead son is from a float trip during the last summer of his life. Jamie and Julian aren't outdoorsmen, so Peggy and James went alone to the Bass River Resort in the Mark Twain National Forest. They didn't take many trips together anymore. James had grown up. He had a job now and a son, and all the fighting with Roberts was almost more frustration than he could stand some days.

But in the warm August air, he was like a little kid learning to fish in Carondelet Park again. He splashed along the creek bed and caught turtles that he held up to show his mother.

"I would love to quit my job and do this every day," James told Peggy in the quiet shade of the forest. "Just float and catch turtles."

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