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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Police Insisted Cornell McKay Was to Blame for a Robbery -- It Cost Him Nearly Three Years

Posted By on Wed, May 13, 2015 at 7:00 AM

  • Illustration by Kelly Glueck

Cornell McKay has just been found guilty by a jury of his peers, so even though he has not yet been sentenced, the guards at the St. Louis City Justice Center are taking every precaution. The wiry 22-year-old is wearing an orange jumpsuit; his hands are cuffed behind his back.

"It's a lot of humiliation, to live in this place," McKay says. He squirms in his chair, trying to find a more comfortable position in the too-tight handcuffs. "You gotta get strip searched, you gotta be around these rapists and these murderers."

McKay's trial, a hotly contested four-day affair, centered on an armed mugging in the Central West End, a relatively simple robbery that initially didn't even make the local news. It quickly became much more than that, though, embroiling a high-profile murder case, another possible culprit and a series of questionable decisions by a St. Louis judge and prosecutors.

McKay's lawyers, who would fight for years to free him from prison, say police identified the wrong man — and then refused to look at a mountain of evidence that would clear their client.

They dug their heels in, McKay's lawyers say, to cover up their own ineptitude. If police had pursued the case aggressively from the beginning, they argue, they could have arrested the right man, the real robber. And if they'd done that, they could have saved the life of a young woman murdered in the Central West End.

Cornell McKay, they believe, was simply collateral damage.

"It's a hell of a reason why these guys were so determined to put the case on Cornell McKay," McKay's attorney Bob Ramsey tells Riverfront Times. "Because if they had arrested the right guy, Megan Boken would be alive right now. That is very powerful."

On this day in February 2014, fresh off the loss in court, McKay is feeling forlorn. "It's a lot of humiliation," he says again, "losing out in a trial for something you didn't do."

click to enlarge Megan Boken, a former SLU volleyball player, was murdered during a daylight robbery gone wrong in the Central West End on August 18, 2012. - COURTESY OF ST. LOUIS ATHLETICS
  • Courtesy of St. Louis Athletics
  • Megan Boken, a former SLU volleyball player, was murdered during a daylight robbery gone wrong in the Central West End on August 18, 2012.

It was around dusk on Friday, August 10, 2012, when Lena Hamblin parked her car outside a row of handsome brick condos on North Boyle Avenue in the Central West End.

Hamblin, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, had popped the trunk to retrieve her purse before turning in for the evening when she noticed a clean-cut black man wearing khaki shorts and a light blue shirt. He was young enough that he might be a college student, she thought.

He walked briskly past her, and as she turned to close the trunk she spotted movement from the corner of her eye — it was the same clean-cut guy, but now he was pointing a small silver gun at her stomach.

"Give me your money," he said.

She told him she didn't have any.

"Give me your cell phone, give me your cell phone," he said.

Hamblin got her cell phone from the front seat, and remembered that she had $50 in a small purse. (She would later describe how frightened she was that he would find the money and assume she had lied to him.) She gave him the cash and the phone, and watched as he rifled through the purse's contents. Finding nothing but makeup and lipstick, the man turned around and sprinted across a nearby parking lot, disappearing from view.

Minutes later, around 8:40 p.m., Hamblin's husband returned from walking the dog to find her crying in the darkened house. She told him she had just been robbed.

He called 911, and detectives from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department's 9th District arrived and took Hamblin's statement. They told her not to cancel her phone service.

For the next few days, that's about all the police did, as sworn statements from Hamblin and detectives would later make clear. One detective entered numbers pulled from Hamblin's phone records into a police database, but that was it.

After all, as upsetting as the crime was to the Hamblins, it was nothing new to police. Every day people are robbed in St. Louis' neighborhoods, even the nice ones. The victims may be shattered, but the police department has different priorities.

Eight days later an even more vicious crime just three blocks from the Hamblins' condo would change everything.

On the afternoon of Saturday, August 18, Megan Boken walked to where she had parked her car on the corner of Maryland and Taylor avenues, in the heart of the Central West End. The 23-year-old former Saint Louis University volleyball player had traveled from Chicago to participate in her alma mater's annual alumni volleyball game later that day.

Boken got into her car, but before she could drive off a young black man approached the window and pointed a gun her. A witness would later describe him as around 5'8", thinly built with close-cropped hair.

Words were exchanged, and although the sequence of events are not precisely known, a struggle ensued between Boken and the armed man. He shot her twice, once in the head and once in the chest, and then hopped in a getaway car driven by a male accomplice. The two men sped from the scene in what surveillance video would later reveal to be a white Pontiac Sunfire, leaving the young woman dead in her car's driver's seat.

Boken's murder — brutal, senseless and committed in broad daylight — caught the city by surprise. The Central West End is one of St. Louis' most cosmopolitan neighborhoods, with a mix of stately old mansions, nice apartments and high-end restaurants. It's been a desperately needed bright spot in a city that has grappled with the inexorable depopulation of its once-bustling urban corridors.

At a press conference that Monday, Police Chief Dan Isom announced a $10,000 reward from the neighborhood's special taxing district. Friends of Boken later doubled the reward.

"We have no concrete leads at this time," Isom said at the press conference. "We're really here to make a public appeal to ask for more information."

Isom wouldn't have to wait long. The department threw personnel and resources at the murder, and it ordered officers to comb through similar robberies in the Central West End in the hope of finding the killer.

Among those cases was the August 10 cell-phone robbery on North Boyle.

Two days after Boken's murder, detective Anthony Boettigheimer joined the North Boyle Avenue robbery investigation, and promptly began using call logs from Hamblin's stolen phone in conjunction with a police database to get a portrait of the man who stole it.

The database cross-referenced the numbers called and received from the stolen phone with all available police records, including those of witnesses and even crime victims. The result was a matrix of intertwined data points, and it was within this web that Boettigheimer searched for a suspect who matched the description of Boken's killer.

Boettigheimer found his suspect through a number Hamblin's cell phone had dialed after the robbery. The number belonged to a man named Lamont Carter. Carter was linked to an address in St. Louis County, 5944 Plymouth Avenue. And that address was linked to an unsolved drive-by shooting in 2010.

Records on the shooting led to the name of a victim: a young man named Cornell McKay. He matched Hamblin's description of the suspect.

That same day, Boettigheimer contacted Hamblin, who would later describe how the detective told her "we might have somebody" related to the robbery. Boettigheimer and his partner arrived at Hamblin's condo that evening and presented her with a photo lineup — six pictures set in an 8-by-12 frame for her to inspect.

"I immediately saw who it was," Hamblin recounted in a sworn statement. "And I pointed out Cornell McKay."

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