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."