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Death Trip 

A joyride from Jefferson County to score some dope dead-ends with a murder on the city's streets

The phone at the Laboube household, located in a prim subdivision in Arnold, rang on a fall Saturday afternoon. Jason Laboube, 19, and three of his friends -- Matt Adams, Scotty Fried and Abby Strasser -- were making plans to do nothing in particular. Matt had the car, a black Chevy Beretta, and Jason had the dough -- as much as $140, the sum of his last paycheck, received that day, from his job as a telemarketer.

Abby, 18, met Jason in 1998, when they worked at a local Denny's restaurant. A short, slight girl, Abby was a hostess, and Jason, an angular 6-footer, was a dishwasher. Their paths continued to crisscross, with a taste for raves in and around St. Louis at the heart of their friendship. At the time of their last outing that September evening, Abby felt attached to the goateed, spike-haired Jason, although they didn't actually date: They were teens; they hung out.

At a Steak 'n Shake on West Florissant Avenue in North County, Abby plucks gooey clusters of cheese fries from her plate and pops them in her mouth. Though Scotty says little and Matt declines to talk at all, Abby has no qualms about providing details about the night Jason was killed. It is two months after Jason's murder, and she has moved from Arnold to Florissant, working at a Subway sandwich shop and living in a house with six other "ravers" like herself. She has brought her housemate and current boyfriend, Brad, for support as she talks about the events of Sept. 30: "We were just driving around that night, and we didn't have much to do, and we wanted some weed. And the thing was, we could've got it in so many other places, but Jason had been down there before and he usually got good deals, better stuff than he could get around here."

"Down there" is an area one block south of Antique Row on Cherokee Street and a few blocks east of Jefferson, the intersection of Illinois Avenue and Potomac Street, in a neighborhood city planners refer to as Marine Villa. It was there, around 10 p.m., that they made contact with a teenager on a bicycle, a drummer for the local dope dealers.

"We asked him if he could get us a dub [a fat joint, supposed to hold 4 grams of pot], and he's like, "Yeah. Park the car and wait. I'll be back,'" she recalls. "He left, and we waited. We listened to CDs and stuff as the time passed. We even talked about leaving -- Scotty and Matt, who were more Jason's friends than mine, they had bad feelings about it -- but we didn't leave. Finally, after about 15-20 minutes, four came back -- three guys walking and a kid on a bike, but it was a different kid on the same bike." The dealers were standing around the car, and the kid on the bike was circling the car. "That made us nervous," says Abby.

Jason and Abby were in the backseat, and Jason was doing the talking. As the transaction progressed, Jason tried angling for more than a dub. "We had 100 hits of LSD, and he wanted to trade that and $20 for 3 ounces of weed," says Abby. "Well, that got away from us. We had never seen any weed, and then for some reason the guy was holding the 20 and the acid. I'm like, "Get your $20 back, Jason.' And Jason went to grab for his money, and the dude pulled it away. Then he pulled up his shirt and showed us a gun, and they all took off running."

When the dealer showed the pistol as a warning to back off, Jason scoffed. "He said that it wasn't real," says Abby, "that it was just a BB gun. And so Jason and Matt jump out of the car and start to chase these guys, which was the stupidest thing in the world. But Jason was real prideful -- he was going to get that money -- and Matt looked up to Jason. So off they went, up the street. There were four of them, anyway. Even if it was a BB gun, Jason didn't have a chance.

"Meanwhile, Scotty gets into the driver's seat, and I get into the passenger seat. We drive up around the block, and we're coming back down the street and I hear gunshots. Supposedly they unloaded a whole round [clip]. I see Jason coming around the corner, and he's holding his side. He really couldn't walk well. Scotty drove right past him -- I don't know that Jason even noticed us. And then Matt is running in the other direction, and he's yelling at me and Scotty to get the hell out of there. So Scotty takes off, and I'm like, "Stop the fucking car!' and he wouldn't stop the car. Finally he stops at a stop sign, and I jump out the car window.

"The window was faster," she clarifies. "I wasn't going to waste time. Anyway, I run back -- three, four blocks; I just followed my senses -- and right as I turned the corner, I saw Jason collapse to the side of the street. There's two people standing over him and, like, 16 people near their doorsteps, just watching. I said, "Call an ambulance!' and someone said they already did. I went to him, and he was spitting up blood; he was freaking out. He's like, "I can't breathe -- help me.' He even tried to take his inhaler -- he had asthma. He'd been shot under his left arm. I took off my sweatshirt, put it on his wound and held it till the ambulance got there. It never even once crossed my mind that he would die."

"That was a human being they shot, not some animal on the street," says Barry Laboube (pronounced "Laboo"). A construction worker for most of his 49 years, Barry looks far from delicate, yet he trembles as he talks about his only son. Barry keeps repeating, "He knew better. It was just a stupid thing that happened."

It is midafternoon, the Friday before Halloween, exactly a month since Jason was killed. Barry has just come from the foot of New Market Street, down near the river, where he works as a crane operator. At a table just inside the door of Parodi's, a bar and grill at Ninth and Tyler streets, Barry brings out a pack of pictures. There's a beaming, dark-haired boy of 9, hugging a dog. "He had chickenpox," says Barry, explaining the spots on Jason's face. "And that's Max. He loved that dog."

There's Jason as a Tiger Cub in Troop 585, Arnold. An older Jason in the beige uniform of the Boy Scouts. "He had 31 merit badges," says Barry, who was an assistant scoutmaster in his son's troop. "Jason was a Life Scout and only had to do his project to make Eagle, but he lost interest. The cars and the girls took over." Jason was buried with those merit badges, says Barry, along with a Moon Pie; Moonpie was a nickname, somehow connected to a bawdy scene in a movie. And there's Jason in another uniform, that of a drum-and-bugle corps, in which he played snare drum.

Finally there's Jason standing in the driveway with his first car, a 1990 Chevy Cavalier, a 16th-birthday present from his folks, Barry and Barbara. After Jason totaled the Cavalier, he got an '85 Ford Mustang. "We ended up having to garage that car," says Barry. "Jason lost his license for a year -- too many tickets. But he still got around. He had a bunch of friends -- I mean a bunch. He never lacked for transportation -- the phone was always ringing."

When teenage boys change, as they sometimes will, from pliant and respectful to obstinate and surly, it is usually a gradual transition. It's rare that a parent can pinpoint a particular incident that signals the phase, but Barry believes he knows when Jason started down the path that dead-ended in Marine Villa. At 15, Jason had a skateboard accident, and Barry thinks the accident altered his son's state of mind: "He suffered a concussion and was in the hospital for three days. After that, he started having problems. He became depressed, and he was having problems at school. We took him to a counselor, and the counselor said he had attention-deficit disorder. We think it was around this time, his sophomore year, that he turned to drugs, mainly pot."

Jason was caught up in the whirlwind of high-school society, especially after he got his license and his car. There were parties on weekends and an ever-rotating roster of new friends. He loved the raves (all-night alcohol-free dance parties where ecstasy, Special K [ketamine, an anesthestic] and other choice drugs of the culture are freely available) in St. Louis' Loft District downtown and kept his feelers out for any news of one. Even after he lost his license, he found ways to get to the city and rave. "His friends were always coming by," says Barry. "We didn't know the good ones from the bad ones. You don't know. You've got to give them freedom, but how much? You can't constantly supervise."

Even without full-time surveillance, however, Jason's parents couldn't help but notice the smell of pot. And so it was that while Jason was still in high school, Barry and Barbara began looking into a rehab facility for their son, settling on the Highland Center. "He had a problem with pot," says Barry. "I know he wanted to stop, but peer pressure's a hard thing."

Jason straightened out enough to graduate with the class of '99 from Seckman Senior High School in Imperial. There is no record of his involvement in any extracurricular activities.

By the fall of 1999, many of Jason's friends had gone on to college or enlisted in the military. Jason tried to join the Army in December but was turned down because of his asthma. Eventually he enrolled in ITT Technical Institute in Arnold. "He loved music," says Barry. "He went to concerts, and he wanted to work the soundboard, the mixer, as a career. But he didn't apply himself at that school. He had dropped out, though at the time of his ... his death, he intended to go back."

Around this time, Barry and Barbara, alarmed by Jason's continued pot use, decided that he needed a shock to the system. It happened at home. "It comes to a point," says Barry, "you don't know what to do, and that's the point we were at. We called the police, and they came and took him in, and when they searched him, they found a small amount of marijuana.

"Oh, he was mad," says Barry, recalling Jason's reaction at being turned in, "but we were trying to get him to stop what was going on. He was a good kid, but he was taking the wrong road."

That incident got Jason placed on probation, on the conditions that he attend counseling sessions at Comtrea, a substance-abuse facility, and that he go to Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

Meanwhile, he had other brushes with the law. In May 1999, just about the time of his graduation, he was stopped by the Arnold PD for a traffic violation. A routine check revealed he had a warrant for default payment of a traffic fine, and Jason was placed under fugitive arrest. In February 2000, he was again arrested in Arnold on a fugitive charge stemming from two warrants issued within Jefferson County. The Arnold police list the warrants as unspecified misdemeanors. Jason was building a rap sheet, doing stupid teenage things, and he was making it worse for himself by not showing up for court.

Then, only two weeks later, he was arrested for misdemeanor theft, on a charge of stealing under $750. He was caught shoplifting. The police report doesn't say what it was that Jason cribbed, but, according to Abby, it was a PlayStation, taken from the Arnold Wal-Mart. "He had run through lawn and garden," she says, "and was about to get it in the car when they stopped him."

Scotty, alone at the wheel of the Chevy after Abby bailed out, drove around until he found Matt. Matt had lucked out: The drug dealers had fired on him, too, but he had sustained only a graze wound to the arm. Matt and Scotty went to nearby South Pointe Hospital, formerly Lutheran Hospital, where Matt had his wound examined and Scotty called his parents to come get him. Later that night, independently, Matt and Abby would end up in the Homicide Division of St. Louis police headquarters on Clark Street, giving their statements to detectives who had heard variations of the same statement all too many times.

Matt described to the cops how he and Jason had chased the dealers east one block on Potomac to Wisconsin Street, where they turned left and, only a few doors down from the corner, darted through a gate into a gangway between houses. Matt and Jason followed close at their heels. There may have been more than the original four dealers stationed within the perimeter of the black wrought-iron fence that encloses the front porch and gangway of 3451 Wisconsin St., where the shooting occurred. There may have been five or six or seven of them, Matt isn't sure, but he does say that it all came down quick and in close quarters. One of them cracked Jason on the skull with a beer bottle. He apparently fell. Matt heard someone say, "Shoot them," and the bullets flew. For a moment, Matt's legs seemed as if they were made of rubber, but he managed to work his way back to the street, dashing headlong toward his pals, his car, safety. He says he thought that Jason was behind him -- and he was, though in no condition to run. The assailants ran off, leaving Jason to pick himself up off the concrete and stagger out onto Potomac Street, midway between Wisconsin and Illinois, where he collapsed.

It was 10:20 on a Saturday night. Within two hours, detectives would canvass the neighborhood, looking for witnesses and evidence -- they recovered only a single bullet from a .22-caliber handgun at the scene -- and Jason would become a statistic, one of the 117 homicides in the city of St. Louis for the year 2000.

Abby stayed with Jason until the ambulance arrived: "Then the ambulance came, and they wouldn't let me go with him. They said there was no room, which really upset me. I'm like, "Excuse me? This guy's gonna be dead, and I'm never gonna see him again.' The detectives came and took me to the homicide office, but before that happened, I'm standing there and one of the guys -- the one that had came back on the bicycle -- he comes walking down the street. I felt like I had to do something, so I asked the kid, "Where's your homeboy that shot my friend?' The kid said nothing, continued to walk away."

Abby spent much of the night in a small, ugly interrogation room. "They came in every so often, asked me questions, but wouldn't tell me much, wouldn't even tell me if Jason was alive or what. The only thing they did nice was to give me cigarettes -- without those, I would've definitely lost it. It seemed to me like they weren't all that concerned -- it was just another drug-related shooting -- which is a crock of shit."

When Abby talks about the way in which the police handled the situation that night, her brown eyes get big and expressive. Her brows furrow, her eyebrows arch. "The way those people treated me just made it that much worse," she says. "And I was there for them, giving them information so they could catch their fucking dude."

Unlike Matt and Abby, Scotty did not go back to St. Louis to face the situation. He would be the bearer of bad tidings in Arnold. Once home, he got his dad's truck and drove to Jason's house.

"About midnight, we heard a knock and this kid was standing there," recalls Barry. "He said that something's happened, that Jason had been shot. He didn't know where Jason had been taken. We called around to the hospitals in St. Louis, and we found him at SLU. We drove there as fast as we possibly could, but he was gone before we arrived."

Det. Amy Fiala, the officer assigned to the scene, entered St. Louis University Hospital on Grand Boulevard. She made her way to the emergency department, where Jason, freshly expired, lay on a gurney in a draped-off area. The bullet that had pierced his left side went through his lung and aorta. Fiala never got to talk with him, though she did meet Barry and Barbara.

"At the hospital, they were just devastated," says Fiala. "It wasn't real, it couldn't be, but they knew that it was. He was their only son; they had such high hopes for him. They knew the lifestyle he had, but I don't think they would've ever believed it would come down to that."

Fiala recalls Barry's concern about Barbara's seeing Jason's body to make the identification. "They were telling her, "No, you stay here.' But she insisted, and they put her in the wheelchair because they were afraid she'd faint. The staff had cleaned him up, but Jason still had a tube in his mouth, and seeing the family looking at him, seeing their pain, it's so hard. They second-guess themselves, which everybody in that situation does, and they go through the recriminations: "We shouldn't have done this,' or "Maybe if we'd done this.' And I try to tell them, "You can't change who somebody is. They're going to make their own choices, do what they want. You can give the best advice in the world, but 19-year-olds aren't going to listen to Mom and Dad telling them to get off the drugs.'"

Certainly Jason didn't need to visit the mean streets of South St. Louis to get his drugs. He could have scored his dub back home in Jefferson County. There's pot for sale there, and crack cocaine and, judging from the mounting raids on fly-by-night meth labs, plenty of methamphetamine. Jason may have preferred the anonymity of buying from strangers on a city street. Talk of his activities would be unlikely to filter back to his home base. But why that neighborhood; why that corner?

"This is a well-known neighborhood for drugs," says Craig Brune, 18, who lives on the corner of Potomac and Wisconsin. "I don't do drugs, but supposedly you can get the good-quality stuff here -- I mean, you see them selling it on the street. And Cherokee Street is just a block over. That's where they buy their supplies -- the bongs, one-hitters and the papers."

Scant blocks away on Cherokee Street, just west of Jefferson, are two head shops, Spectrums and Ngamsoms, both chockablock with every pot/crack-smoking aid and device known to man. Obviously such merchandise, though perfectly legal, helps draw to the area people who are users of street drugs, and it makes sense that dope peddlers have set up shop in the area.

"[Jason] went there a lot of times," confirms Abby. "He felt like he was in control of the situation because he'd done it before. But he was a trusting person; he always gave everyone the benefit of the doubt. And he didn't expect someone to be that way, because he wouldn't be that way."

"He was one year out of high school," offers Fiala, "and, basically, you feel you're invincible at that age. It seemed like he had just come down here and never thought anything would happen to him, that he could deal with these people like he would deal with anybody else. I don't think he fully understood or feared the lifestyle that these other people led."

At the crucial juncture of the transaction, when the dealers had played their hand, Jason dismissed their very real weapon as "a BB gun." False bravado, or a bad case of naïveté? Most city kids would know that in those neighborhoods it's probably easier to get a real gun than a BB gun. And where's the line between recklessness and self-assurance? Jason did the talking, brazen in itself, but the fact he ignored the dope dealers' patent threat indicates a dauntless character. A young man doesn't earn 31 merit badges without a healthy dose of confidence.

"That was pretty bold," says Matt Nivens, a close friend. "I wouldn't have expected him to get out and run after them like that, unless he felt like he was safe. I don't know what was going through his head. I don't know what to believe."

Matt Nivens and Jason attended ITT, where Matt will soon graduate with a certificate in electronics-engineering technology. Matt was vacationing in Florida when Jason was killed. "I had just talked to the guy before I left. I had bought him a CD while in Florida. I called the morning after I got back, and his mom told me and it just wigged me out."

Nivens wants to talk about Jason because, he says, the brief that appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on the Monday following Jason's death "sounded too negative. I wanted to show the positive things, too. We went to the city for raves, but we never went to the city to buy pot. When Jason went on probation, he quit drugs. That's what he told me, and I never saw him do it around me after that, and we were together all the time."

Abby also rails at the story in the daily paper, a bare-bones treatment titled "Man Is Dead After Trip to Buy Pot," feeling that it reduced her friend to a cold statistic. "I thought that was retarded," she says. "It came across, like, because the situation had to do with drugs, Jason's life meant nothing. It was just another drug-related death. I mean, he screwed up, a lot, but who doesn't? He was a beautiful person -- some people didn't think so, a lot just saw the bad things about him, but he had a good heart. He always shared everything he had. He liked people, he cared about the human race and he loved kids. He had a nephew, Jordan, that he just loved to death. Kids made him light up, and it makes me sad that he'll never have his own."

Scotty Fried believes Jason was getting his act together at the time he died: "Actually, I think he was doing better than he ever had been doing. He wasn't doing very many drugs, not like what he'd been doing before. He was buying $20 worth of pot -- I mean, that's not much.

"He was a good guy if you knew him," adds Fried. "Like, some people thought that he wasn't all that good, I guess because of drugs, but he really was. He never did nothin' wrong to me or nobody I knew."

"Jason was always happy," says Nivens, "never in a bad mood. I never saw him mad at anyone. He was very polite and, I guess, charming. He's the only one of my friends that my parents ever liked."

"He did not deserve to die. No kids deserve to die for any reason," says Abby. "I don't understand how you can be so cold to just shoot some kid you don't know so you can have his drugs and $20. They weren't even good drugs. But he was in the game, you know, and when you're in the game, I guess, you accept all consequences."

Ben Eldridge is on the second floor of a brick building at Illinois and Potomac, boarding up windows busted out by the local riffraff. Eldridge, a retiree, doesn't live here, but he bought the building, the former Busy Bee Cafe, nine years ago as a rental property. The place is now empty, the tenants having left several months ago. Eldridge comes around a couple of days a week for a few hours, trying to fix up the place for new tenants. On a cold, bleak weekday afternoon, he stops unloading his van to talk about life in the neighborhood.

"They're putting bricks through my windows," he says, shaking his head in disgust. "I've had five knocked out in the last two weeks. I've been burglarized three times in three years. The cops won't ever come down here. They just take the report over the phone." He points to a squat boarded-up home across Illinois Street. "That house there on the corner rented for a long time. Now it's shut up, getting the windows knocked out of it, too."

Indeed, that corner, the place where Jason and his friends initially went to score, seems to have cancer. Five houses on or near the intersection are boarded up. Broken upper-floor windows with jagged panes of glass disgrace the once-handsome edifices. Fast-food containers and sundry trash litter the area, and someone has taken red spray paint to the sidewalk, scrawling a message, an exhortation, in the language of Marine Villa: "Illinois block dub up."

Marine Villa is a neighborhood in turmoil. Although the incidence of murder and rape has been low since 1998, reports of robbery, assault, burglary, larceny and auto theft are rampant, with larceny almost a daily occurrence. Yet the area is far from blighted. One block up Potomac to the west, on Missouri Avenue, new single-family homes sell for $80,000. James Rollins, Marine Villa's neighborhood-stabilization officer (a paid position in the city's Department of Public Safety), says that some of the shuttered houses that lie south of Potomac on Illinois are slated for demolition, to clear ground for more new housing. On nearby Jefferson Avenue, some three blocks distant, Concordia Publishing and St. Alexius Hospital add stability to the neighborhood. "Both of these institutions have programs that provide money to employees who acquire property or live in property in the area," says Rollins. "That encourages redevelopment in the neighborhood."

Rollins is part of the Caring Community Steering Committee, actively working to restabilize Marine Villa. But as long as the drug dealers operate with impunity, the neighborhood will likely be a long time coming back. Drug sales -- along with prostitution, muggings and other related crimes -- are by no means confined to Illinois and Wisconsin (according to locals, a nest of crack houses on the other side of Broadway is periodically swept clean by police raids), but there have been known drug activity and drug arrests on or near each of these streets as they cross Potomac.

Not far from the site of Jason's murder are homes that present a neat, respectable façade, with religious statuary and children's playthings in the frontyards -- and mean-ass guard dogs fenced in the back. Here, and on adjacent streets, are the modest homes of longtime residents, who either complain outright about what has happened to their neighborhood or have come to grudgingly accept it.

Vera, 85, has lived on Wisconsin since 1970, moving in when her mother died. "Oh, I don't go out at night," she says, "not unless my daughter's with me. I'm scared, there's so much mugging. I keep my nose indoors. It used to be, if people went to the hospital and came back home, everyone would bring something. But I don't even know the neighbors up the street. You don't know nobody no more. I don't think it's ever gonna get better."

Rich Emmons, 67, a retired laborer who lives next to Scott's Tavern at Wisconsin and Broadway, a block south of Potomac, says, "Prostitutes and drug dealers are out in the open. I can see all the activity from here. It's like a three-ring circus practically every night. Every chance I get, I call the cops: "Hey, there's a deal goin' down across the street. I can see it.' Sometimes they come right away, and sometimes they flip you off and don't come at all."

Deon Kaub's neatly kept premises on Wisconsin, one block east of Illinois, was the scene of the killing. Now, months later, all the yellow crime-scene tape is gone, but the memory still remains. "As I understand it," says Kaub, "the shooting originated on the next street over, Illinois, and that gang came over here. My place is soundproof, so I didn't know it was at my house until it was over with and the police were out there." Kaub, 89, who has lived in the one-story brick home since 1972, says she is normally quick to report any suspicious activities. Clyde Shoemaker, who lives two doors down from Kaub, notes that the neighborhood is "a pretty rough area." A resident since 1982, Shoemaker was home the night Jason was shot. "I was watching TV," he says, "and I thought it was firecrackers, so I didn't go out." The eventual news didn't surprise him: "More shit happens around here than anywhere else in St. Louis, north or south."

Kaub and Shoemaker live across from Shepard Elementary, an anchor in the neighborhood for nearly a century. A scant 10 yards from the spot where Jason was killed, between the sidewalk and the curb, a sign proclaims the area a "Drug-Free Gun-Free School Zone." Shepard School principal Carol Hall-Whittier is determined to let folks know that sign means exactly what it says. She recalls the conflict the previous school year with a "drug house" across the street.

"It was terrible," says Hall-Whittier, "people sitting out front, cars driving up and down the street to get drugs in the middle of the day. It was a big disruption to the school. We informed the police, and they said they knew about it and were working on it. Then, one day, people from that house asked a student here if he wanted drugs. The assistant principal was there, and she immediately called police. I can say that isn't going on anymore."

An educator at Shepard School since 1984, Hall-Whittier has seen the neighborhood decline. "The stability is no longer here," she remarks. "The neighborhood is rather transient. I do know that crime is up in this general area, and when there's crime, it's hard to get people to stay and commit to the neighborhood."

Around 2:30 p.m. on a recent weekday, a group of parents wait on Wisconsin for their children to come out of Shepard School. A local man stepping out of a pickup says he hadn't heard about the shooting that took place just a few feet from his parking spot, but he takes it in stride: "That stuff happens around here so often, you may not ever know about it," he remarks. "I've had friends get killed around here. The street belongs to the dealers. They stand on the corner -- you know what they're doing, they know you know what they're doing, and they can do it all they want, because the cops never come around at night."

Lt. Col. Stephen Pollihan, deputy chief of the South Patrol Division, disputes that claim: "We consider drug cases to be a priority because oftentimes -- this case is a perfect example -- drug-dealing is a precursor to robbery, assault, murder. It's not just the drug crime -- it's what happens before or after." Pollihan acknowledges that the patrol officers may not be cruising the 'hoods as much, but he says that's because they're slammed with calls: "Usually from 6 p.m.-2 a.m. the patrols go from one call to the next because it is so busy and we are short on manpower." But that doesn't mean no one is watching, according to Pollihan: "We have a task force of detectives here at South Patrol that spend most of their time looking for people out on the streets selling [drugs] or following up on tips from the narcotics hotline. We also rely on the undercover SCAT [Street Corner Apprehension Team] downtown, as well as the Gang Unit."

And even with frequent patrolling, Pollihan says, incidents like Jason's murder are not easily preventable. "I don't think this was a situation where they [the dealers] were blatantly out there selling for hours," he notes. "In this case, the victims were riding around and approached the drug dealers. I don't know how you could stop something like this -- an opportunistic crime that happened in a very short period of time."

Four months after the murder, there are still no arrests. "It's a solvable case," asserts Col. Ray Lauer, deputy chief of detectives, but he admits the police still lack a solid lead. "The difficulties are that we've got a dead kid who's not able to identify anybody, and his friends aren't able to provide good descriptions, either. Also, it was night and it was dark. There weren't a whole lot of people on the street at the time who would've seen much. Now, likely there are people in that neighborhood who know something about the shooters -- they may have talked or bragged about it -- but they aren't coming forward. You need some proof, and it can be frustrating trying to get at that proof."

Word on the street travels, and folks in the 'hood might well be privy to information about that September night, but they're not apt to share it with the police. One young woman, who wants to remain unidentified, says she knows someone "who knows someone who did it." Four boys pedaling their bikes along Potomac Street put on the brakes to talk. One of them claims that he pulled the mortally wounded Jason off the street and onto the sidewalk. He maintains that the cops and the newspaper got the story wrong: It was the kids looking to buy that tried to rip off the dope dealers. "But to shoot that boy was wrong," he adds. Others on the street simply tell transparent lies. "Oh, this is a peaceful neighborhood," says a smirking teenager, part of a small, idle gang gathered out front of a home on Wisconsin Avenue. "I never seen nobody run up to no car, looking for drugs."

Stopped as he walks down the middle of Wisconsin, trying to avoid a spill on the snow-covered sidewalks, James, an old man with one good eye, best sums up the real world of Marine Villa: "You don't fuck with no one. You keep to yourself. What you see, don't see. What you know, don't know."

Back at Parodi's, Barry takes a sip of his Coke and muses: "It was just one of those things. They went down there looking to have a good time and get high, and things turned nasty. I don't know what more his mom and I could've done. We were there all the time for our son. We tried every avenue of help. At that age, they think they're all grown up -- they don't need Mom and Dad anymore. Their friends mean more to them than you do."

Barry gazes at the Halloween decorations garlanding the bar: jack-o'-lantern lights, a beautiful witch with a Bud longneck in her hand. "We're not out for blood," he says intently, a tear forming at the corner of his eye, "we're out for justice. The shooter has no business being out on the street, because he might do the same to someone else. Jason had no animosities toward anybody. He was just young and immature and didn't think things like that would happen. What Jason did was wrong, but, still, to kill somebody? It's senseless. If they had to shoot, why not shoot in the leg? Why shoot to kill?" He pauses. "Twenty bucks -- that's a pretty cheap life. You know, his mom still leaves the light on every night, like she always did when he was out late."

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