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Mauled to Death by a Pit Bull, Adonis Reddick Was Still Nobody's Victim 

click to enlarge Adonis Reddick, left, in a moment of victory.

COURTESY THE ARC OF THE UNITED STATES

Adonis Reddick, left, in a moment of victory.

Traces of Adonis Reddick's battles fill the house on the hill.

There's the trophy he carried home from a national convention in 2015. Pictures of the daughter and granddaughter no one expected him to have. Fliers for organizations he built so others would learn to fight alongside him.

And, on a southern window, a darker memento of his last battle: flecks of dog blood spattered across a low-hanging shade.

The house itself — a three-bedroom, three-bathroom in Spanish Lake with a sunroom that looks out over a backyard ringed with trees — is a testament to the victories he notched against long odds.

Adonis ignored relatives who worried the home was too big and too much responsibility for a man with his physical limitations. Born with cerebral palsy, he was about five feet four inches tall and weighed maybe 115 pounds. He walked with halting, jerky steps and struggled so hard to form words, his speech was sometimes impenetrable to strangers. But he also possessed a steely will and a tactician's wit, sharpened by sarcastic humor.

At any rate, Adonis wasn't asking permission to buy a house. He was buying a house. He quietly negotiated the real estate deal himself and moved in six years ago, bringing with him his teenage daughter.

Upon learning of the purchase, his father, Aaron Reddick, remembers asking what Adonis needed him to do.

"Nothing," Adonis told him, the word emerging slowly but full of a mischievous pride. "Dad, you taught me well."

It was Adonis' father and brother who found the 45-year-old dead on May 9, laid out on his tile floor after he was mauled by a pit bull he'd taken in. The death was gruesome and shocking, and the comment sections on news stories soon unwound in arguments over dangerous dogs. Adonis was seen as defenseless or foolish, rendered by his disability incapable of understanding the peril of inviting a dangerous animal into his home.

But the assumption that Adonis was a victim who didn't know any better seemed ridiculous to those who knew him well.

"That's what bothers me about the reaction to the dog story — like he didn't have any sense," says Adonis' friend Christopher Worth. "That's bull crap. He was a strategist."

click to enlarge Adonis Reddick's home -- and the scene of his death. - PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • Adonis Reddick's home -- and the scene of his death.
click to enlarge Aaron Reddick's tough-love approach helped Adonis learn independence from an early age. - COURTESY REDDICK FAMILY
  • COURTESY REDDICK FAMILY
  • Aaron Reddick's tough-love approach helped Adonis learn independence from an early age.

As a younger man, Aaron Reddick was so fascinated by Greek mythology he named his firstborn after a god.

He chose Adonis, a being so beautiful he sparked a battle between two goddesses. (A second son is named for the hero Achilles.) The child arrived on November 20, 1970, and true to his namesake, he was a beautiful boy with deep eyes framed by long, delicate lashes. "What women would call 'bedroom eyes,'" the father says.

But there is a darker side to the myth of Adonis. In one version of the story, Adonis' lover begs him to stop hunting because it was too dangerous and she could not bear to lose him. He ignored her advice — and was eventually killed by a wild boar.

Little Adonis Reddick had his own struggle. Not long after his son's birth, Aaron noticed a knot on the boy's back. He didn't know exactly what was wrong, but Adonis spent his first ten days in a special unit at Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital.

"All I could do was look at him through glass," the 70-year-old says.

Cerebral palsy — a neurological disorder that affects muscle control and balance — was less-known back then, and all they could tell the Reddicks was that their son was what was known colloquially as a "blue baby." Aaron and his then-wife, Alice, were eventually sent home and told to exercise the little boy's legs. It wasn't until they saw a specialist that they learned about the cerebral palsy, Aaron says.

Doctors now know that people with cerebral palsy can often expect a life span similar to the general population. It's essentially a one-time brain injury, meaning it's not going to get progressively worse. The physical effects might be severe. They might not. Some people might suffer debilitating cognitive problems. Some, like Adonis, might grow up to whip you in chess.

But in the early 1970s, the prognosis the specialist gave Aaron was dire: His son would probably never walk or leave his parents' care. He might not live past fifteen years old.

"To me, it was like someone took a dull knife and stabbed me in the chest," the father says.

The boy's development lagged behind that of other kids. He was small for his age. His feet turned inward, causing his legs to "scissor" when he tried to walk. And his tongue caught in his mouth, garbling his words.

But his father, a former Army engineer who retired from the old Chrysler assembly plant, also noticed a ferocity in his tiny son. He thinks now of the surgeries Adonis endured as a child in hopes of improving the function of his legs. The pain was obviously excruciating, but the boy refused to show it.

"To keep me from seeing him cry, he would bite his lip," Aaron says. "The courage of this child ... "

Other kids began to notice it, too. Sheldon Mitchell, who grew up with Adonis, remembers childhood wrestling matches. At first, the other kids took it easy on him, only to find themselves pinned flat on their backs. Distracted by his spindly legs, they'd failed to notice his powerful hands.

"He would always win," Mitchell says. "He had the upper body strength we didn't have."

The boys didn't realize it at the time, but Adonis was already sharpening the weapons he'd use the rest of his life. A stranger's underestimation was leverage. Audacity was power. Willpower was king.

"I remember one day we were riding," Mitchell says. "He said, 'People look at me like I have a disability, but I'm fine. Everyone else has a disability.'"

It was a mentality Adonis understood intuitively and saw echoed by his family's tough love.

Aaron was known to throw people out of his house, even relatives, if he caught them carrying his son instead of making the boy walk. Adonis' maternal grandmother kept a chair for him at her house, teaching him to push it across the floor to build up his legs. He hated it at first, but he soon was shoving it around the house like a tiny football player pushing a sled. If he needed something out of a cabinet, he had to move his little chair over, climb up and get it himself.

The Reddicks divorced before Adonis was ten, and within a few years, the boy went to live with his father in De Soto. In his house, life was won by those who battled.

"Always remember," Aaron would tell his son, "the world is a hungry lion out there to devour you."

click to enlarge Doctors predicted Adonis Reddick would never walk or leave his parents' care, a fate he enthusiastically escaped. - COURTESY REDDICK FAMILY
  • COURTESY REDDICK FAMILY
  • Doctors predicted Adonis Reddick would never walk or leave his parents' care, a fate he enthusiastically escaped.

Adonis was a teenager when he met a girl named LaTosha Halk at an after-school program for students with disabilities.

"Me and him had a strong chemistry," Halk says.

They started dating casually a couple of years later. Halk had fallen off a four-story porch when she was a toddler, suffering a brain injury that caused head-to-toe paralysis on the right side of her body. Her worried mother, intent on keeping her from further harm, was wary of dangers lurking around every corner for a disabled girl.

It wasn't until she met Adonis that Halk began to see new possibilities. Adonis — "kind of a romantic person," she says — took her to see movies and out to eat at restaurants. They hung out at his place and visited relatives.

After years in a protective bubble, Halk was excited to live like other teenagers. Adonis taught her how to cook, balance a checkbook and navigate the public bus system. New worlds were opening up.

"If I wanted to go into a job interview, I would feel uncomfortable, and he would say, 'No, you're going to achieve,'" Halk, 40, says.

They eventually moved in together. The couple welcomed a daughter, Danielle, in 1996.

Halk says they began to grow apart in their twenties, arguing over the house they'd bought together and other little things. They split while Danielle was still small. Adonis moved in with relatives for a time before finding an apartment alone.

"We always still had a strong connection," even after they stopped dating, Halk says. "We would still talk on the phone together. I had two other kids, and he accepted them as if they were his own."

Adonis relished the role of the rock, the man people could turn to for help. He was well aware of the early prognosis for his life — that he'd never walk, that he'd always need his parents to look after him — and took pleasure in proving he could do more than anyone expected.

His family tells stories of the Department of Motor Vehicles employee who watched him pass his driving test, and then made him do it again because he was so surprised at his abilities. For years after, Adonis relived the experience every time he caught someone watching him take those halting steps to his Ford Focus. He'd soak up the shocked looks on their faces and drive away laughing.

Not that everything he tried worked out. He attempted, briefly, to be a male model. He later managed a St. Louis hip-hop group and put on a couple of shows before deciding he didn't have the appetite for all the drama of the entertainment industry. Adonis took low-paying jobs to cover the bills while he dreamed up new ventures. He studied business at St. Louis Community College and played as much chess as he could in his free time. He punched tickets at a movie theater for years and later landed a job at Harrah's Casino and Hotel.

He was working in the hotel's laundry room in 2013 when he suffered a hernia. The injury knocked him out of a job, but it also rerouted the final years of his life.

No one is exactly sure how it started, but Adonis began showing up for meetings of advocacy groups shortly after he had to leave Harrah's. He joined the social justice committee of St. Louis Arc, a nonprofit United Way agency that provides services to people with disabilities. He joined the activist group Coalition for Truth in Independence and helped found two grassroots organizations, Association of Spanish Lake Advocates and Alternative to Sheltered Adapted Workshops.

The world of organizing was new to him. In the beginning, he was focused on himself, an aggressive defender of his own rights. Other advocates say it's a natural stance for people with disabilities who have spent their lives battling for themselves as a means of survival.

But Adonis soon began to see the power of joining with other fighters as an army. Organizations such as the Coalition for Truth in Independence were "direct action" groups. There was no program or agency setting the agenda. The disabled activists operated like activists anywhere, choosing and executing campaigns by themselves.

"I think Adonis was new to that type of thinking," coalition President Julie Salih says, adding, "It was a lightbulb moment for him."

His first major activism campaign targeted an aging McDonald's in Ferguson. William "Chucky" Gamblin, a childhood friend of Adonis' who also has cerebral palsy, had written numerous letters to the fast-food chain, describing the hazards that made it a hassle to navigate with his wheelchair. No one ever responded.

In early 2014, the newly formed Association of Spanish Lake Advocates decided to take action. Eight members of the group, all with varying disabilities, showed up and began to inspect the restaurant. For two hours, they tested doors and eyeballed tables. They pushed into the inaccessible bathrooms and noted every violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act they could find.

It was a reconnaissance mission, and the group used the intel they collected to draft a new letter requesting a meeting — this time under the banner of the association. When no one responded, they wrote again, setting a deadline and warning of further action if the problems continued.

"If this letter is ignored it will mean McDonald's doesn't care about the Americans with Disabilities Act nor the disabled," the letter concluded.

"They responded to that one by FedEx," Gamblin says.

McDonald's regional construction manager agreed to meet with the group and informed them the restaurant would be torn down and rebuilt, according to Gamblin. (McDonald's didn't respond to Riverfront Times' request for comment.) Construction began shortly after, according to building records.

Adonis followed up regularly with the contractors as work progressed. The new restaurant, which sits just south of Interstate 270 on West Florissant Avenue, reopened later that year and incorporated almost all of the association's demands.

"Whoa," Adonis told his colleagues. "It worked."

Gamblin smiles when he recalls the memories. He speaks using a metal wand attached to a headband to tap out the words on a computer screen. It can be a slow and frustrating process, but Adonis had the same type of cerebral palsy and could understand him even without the electronic voice.

"The Sunday after he died, the praise singers at my church were singing 'God Does Everything Right,' and I thought about it because God made Adonis the way he was," Gamblin says. "I broke down while they were singing that song because he was a good, strong fighter."

click to enlarge Danielle Reddick (with daughter, Aubrey) took over her father's house after his death. - PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • Danielle Reddick (with daughter, Aubrey) took over her father's house after his death.

Adonis won joint custody of his daughter in 2010, and she came to live with him in the house on the hill.

Danielle, then thirteen, was painfully shy. She had begun to clash with her mother, but rather than act out as some teens might, she turned inward.

"I was sort of depressed," she says now. "I had thoughts of hurting myself, and when he took me in, I felt like I was blessed."

In her father, she found a patient and careful listener. He had fought his entire life to be heard, and he became his daughter's confidant. Boys. School. Life. Adonis listened to it all, offering suggestions and perspectives Danielle might not have considered. Slowly, with her dad's prodding, she began to find her voice.

"He did a lot for me," she says. "He taught me to speak up for myself and say my mind."

All the lessons he'd learned as a boy and honed as a man began to filter down to his daughter. Thin and pretty with her father's eyes, Danielle says she was a timid child, but her dad taught her to face her fears. She gives an example.

"It's funny, well, it's not funny, but I used to be terrified of dogs," she says.

Adonis kept two in the house. One was a small, sweet-natured German shepherd mix named Cachet. The other was a 72-pound pit bull, Milow. The bigger dog belonged to a friend, 30-year-old Ashley Sheffield, whom Adonis had mentored over the years, his relatives say.

Sheffield says she met Adonis when she was just three years old, at a time when he and his girlfriend, Halk, were still living together in a Hanley Hills apartment complex. He became a constant source of encouragement and advice. She credits him with guiding her through troubled teenage years, and she later moved into a spare bedroom of his house for a time.

"If he couldn't be there physically or help you financially, he would always find a way to help you," Sheffield says.

She estimates she spent about a year living with Adonis and his daughter in Spanish Lake. Those were good times. Adonis had a talent for fun. He would plan weekend trips to the zoo or get everyone out of the house to go to the St. Louis Science Center.

"I loved it," she says. "I enjoyed the time I had with him and being with Danielle. It was always positive every day."

Sheffield eventually found her own place, but they kept in touch, talking as recently as a month before he was killed.

The news of his death was devastating, she says.

"I felt like someone had literally snatched something from inside of me that I didn't even know existed," Sheffield says. "And now I'm left with a lot of emotions inside of me. There's no way that I'll ever feel the same not being able to call him."

As for Milow, she'll say only that Adonis knew the dog since he was a puppy. He never would have taken him on if he thought he was in danger.

"He helped me with the dog," she says. "He knew what he was doing."

click to enlarge Adonis Reddick became an organizer and activist for equal rights for people with disabilities. - COURTESY ST. LOUIS ARC
  • COURTESY ST. LOUIS ARC
  • Adonis Reddick became an organizer and activist for equal rights for people with disabilities.

Adonis was alone when he died.

Danielle, who'd given birth to a little girl six months before, had recently moved to Austin, Texas, where her boyfriend's mother lived. A big catalyst was Milow. Danielle had made her peace with dogs in general, but she still feared the brown-and-white pit bull. She had her reasons.

The dogs lived primarily in the sunroom at the back of the house. One day, Milow spotted Danielle's baby daughter, Aubrey, through the glass sliding door.

"He just went crazy and scared the mess out of me," Danielle says.

Danielle told her father what happened and pleaded with him to get rid of the dog, but he refused. Adonis thought Milow, while aggressive, was manageable. He worried if they passed off the dog to a shelter, he would jump on someone and that would be it. They'd have the dog euthanized. And he'd given his word that he'd take care of Milow.

Aaron Reddick knew how stubborn his son could be. Adonis had long ago learned to trust in himself and push forward where others assumed he would have to retreat.

In the days before his death, he called his father to ask for some advice. There was a junk car parked in his driveway, and he wanted it gone. He said he'd tried calling police, but they wouldn't tow a car parked on private property.

Adonis refused to tell his father how the car got there, but Aaron assumed his son had tried to help someone out with a place to park for a couple of days and the deadbeat probably never came back. The father sometimes suspected his son's generosity led people to take advantage of him, but he also knew it was useless to argue with him about it. Adonis wouldn't bend.

Instead, he told Adonis he'd bring over his two-ton jack and push the car to the curb. That was Saturday. Aaron called his other son, Achilles, and they made plans to meet at the house on Monday.

What happened in the next 48 hours is hazy. Relatives talked to Adonis on Sunday, and a friend was on his way to meet him on Monday morning when he ran into Aaron and Achilles in the driveway of Adonis' house.

The Reddicks had started jacking up the car, assuming Adonis would come out when he heard the noise. Once they had it lifted, they asked the friend to help them wheel it out of the drive. The three pushed and shoved the clunker to the curb, sweating and joking about Adonis back in the house, pretending he couldn't hear them.

"We're all laughing," Aaron Reddick recalls. "I know he's playing jokes on us."

Adonis had two sets of doorbells, and his father punched both of them at the same time. Let Adonis pretend he didn't hear that. When he still didn't respond, Aaron fished out a set of keys and opened the door.

The mood quickly changed once the three men were inside. They could hear the roar of the dogs as they passed through the narrow hallway into the dining room.

"I stepped around the corner, and then I see him lying in a pool of blood," Aaron says.

The sunroom door was open, and Milow was back against the glass, barking wildly, his teeth bared in the dim light. Adonis was sprawled out on the floor, gashes in his throat. His fist was raised by his head.

Achilles grabbed a chair to fight off Milow. Aaron hoped his firstborn was only badly wounded, but when he reached down to drag him to safety, he felt the stiffening of rigor mortis.

Aaron found a snow shovel and helped Achilles drive Milow back into the sunroom and lock the door. Someone called 911. Aaron draped a cloth over his son's body.

St. Louis County police arrived along with Animal Control officers. Aaron watched them enter with a dog catcher's pole. He says he knew it wouldn't be enough; the pit bull was in a rage. Moments later, he heard the sound of one gunshot and then one more.

He spoke to the police after it was over.

"I know I'm not supposed to move the body," he told them, "but I couldn't leave him with the dog."

click to enlarge Adonis Reddick celebrates with Sharon Spurlock and Stephanie Scott (far right) after winning the Self Advocate of the Year award at The Arc of the United States 2015 national convention. - COURTESY THE ARC OF THE UNITED STATES
  • COURTESY THE ARC OF THE UNITED STATES
  • Adonis Reddick celebrates with Sharon Spurlock and Stephanie Scott (far right) after winning the Self Advocate of the Year award at The Arc of the United States 2015 national convention.

There is a video online of a great moment in Adonis' life.

He was in Indianapolis for the 2015 national convention for the Arc of the United States. After two years of organizing activists, writing letters and launching campaigns to change policies at McDonald's, MetroLink and St. Louis County, Adonis was on hand to accept that year's Self Advocate of the Year Catalyst Award.

He spent the weekend introducing himself to one person after another, shaking dozens of hands. Sharon Spurlock, director of family support for St. Louis Arc, says he was a natural networker.

"He probably collected a hundred business cards," she says.

On the night of the awards ceremony, Spurlock and Stephanie Scott of St. Louis Arc introduced Adonis and then invited him to the stage. He strode to the microphone, his feet still turning inward with each step, his arms floating away from his sides for balance.

"Wow!" he said.

Spurlock and Scott stepped to the side as everyone in the room focused on Adonis.

"I want you to close your eyes," he instructed the audience. "Tell me what you see."

Any answers are lost in the recording, but Adonis pushed on. "Now open your eyes," he said. "Tell me what you see."

He scanned the audience. He was acting this out with them, closing his eyes, springing them back open.

"Close your eyes one more time and tell me what you see," he said. "Now when you open your eyes, realize that you can put in and take out whatever you want in this world."

A medical examination confirmed Milow killed Adonis, police say. No one knows what set him off.

"All we know is the dog got at him, and we don't know why," Aaron Reddick says. "We'll probably never know."

Animal Control officers removed the other dog, the German shepherd mix, from the house without any trouble. They kept her for 29 days, but she was ultimately euthanized when Adonis' family didn't claim her.

Now there are two empty dog crates at Adonis' house. Danielle moved back after the funeral, her baby in tow, and she plans to hold onto the place, because that's what her father would have wanted. It's sometimes creepy walking through the big house, so she invites her boyfriend and her half-brother to come stay.

"Sometimes I'm emotional, but sometimes I'm happy for my dad because he's in a better place," Danielle says. "He's not struggling anymore. He's not stressing anymore."

One of the most tragic things about Adonis' death, friends and relatives say, is that he had just begun to come into his own as an organizer. All those battles won and lessons learned coalesced when he found his calling as an activist.

"You could spot the leadership in him," fellow Coalition for Truth in Independence activist Denise Patterson says. People cried at the group's first meeting without him.

Christopher Worth, organizing team manager for Paraquad, saw Adonis as a kindred spirit. The two drew parallels between Worth's hard-nosed childhood in West Virginia and Adonis' pitiless upbringing in metro St. Louis. And they both saw activism by people with disabilities as part of the larger battle for social justice across society, although they sometimes clashed over the best methods.

"We fought a lot, but fighting was good," he says. "Healthy fighting was very good. I saw him transform in front of my eyes."

Adonis was a revolutionary and a strategist, Worth says. He assessed risks and took bold but calculated action to solve important problems. In that final fight, Worth sees a friend who took on all challenges, even when no one thought he could win.

"Adonis took that dog in because he thought he could tame the world."

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