The boy was inches from his mother when she took her final breaths.
The man who shot her ran away, leaving the 3-year-old strapped in a car seat, a vulnerable witness to a horror that still haunts him.
Three years later, the boy’s father was shot to death during a neighborhood barbecue. The boy heard gunshots and saw his dying father lying in the grass, unable to move.
This child was barely old enough to attend school when he saw his father killed.
He is 12 now. He continues to struggle with trauma and grief. The boy gets angry, his grandmother Emmajean McDaniels says. He is getting counseling and goes to a special school. He and his brothers live with their grandmother, who loves and cares for them. She does what she can, she says, but on bad days, he still says he wants to go to jail so he can exact revenge on the man who killed his mother. He can’t threaten his father’s killer. That murder remains unsolved.
This boy is collateral damage from these two murders in East St. Louis, Illinois, which has the highest murder rate in the country.
The chances of being murdered in East St. Louis are 19 times greater than the national average. The national homicide rate is around 5 murders for 100,000 people; in East St. Louis, it’s 96 murders per 100,000, topping cities like Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit and Washington, D.C. Yet only 25 percent of the murders are charged in criminal court, compared to a national average of 60 percent.
There were 453 murders within the 14-square-mile border of East St. Louis from 2000 to 2018.
East St. Louis has a population of 26,000. Ninety-five percent are black. More than two-thirds of the city’s children live in poverty. The median household annual income is less than $20,000. The unemployment rate is almost twice the national rate. The school system is ranked as one of the worst in the state, and the public housing projects that are the most dangerous areas in the city.
“The same kind of conditions that increase the likelihood of violence, like unsafe housing, failing schools, and lack of economic opportunity, also contribute to community trauma,” said Rachel Davis, executive director of the Prevention Institute, a California-based think tank that studies trauma associated with gun violence.
“Community trauma … could be a factor in community members not working with police to solve open homicide cases. Equally true could be people not feeling safe or not trusting police. All of these things reinforce each other in a cycle.”
It’s been like this for decades.
During a stretch in the 1990s, the number of murders hovered around 70 a year when the population was 50,000. Today, there are still about 24 murders a year with half the population.
To find out why, the Belleville News-Democrat reviewed police and coroner’s reports, court records and national crime data, and interviewed victims, police, criminologists and prosecutors.
The BND compiled a database of East St. Louis murders from 2000 to 2018. It found:
- Of the 453 murders in the city during the 19-year period, 341 are unsolved, or 75 percent.
- Of the 112 murders where criminal charges were filed, only 25 percent of those resulted in a first-degree murder conviction. Most of these defendants either were charged with lesser crimes or the charges were reduced as part of a plea bargain.
- Of the 410 murders where reporters could determine a cause of death from either coroner’s records or media reports, 83 percent were caused by gunshots.
- Unlike the violence found in other cities, murders here don’t appear to be related to drugs or gangs, but are more random. This makes them harder to solve because investigators can’t rely on informants to divulge the motives and possible suspects for the killings.
- East St. Louis police called in the elite Major Case Squad of Greater St. Louis just 19 times to help investigate murders in the city. Of those cases, the squad solved nine.
- A review of 150 victims’ autopsy toxicology reports and court records from 2005 to 2015 showed nearly one-third of the victims had no felony record or any drugs or alcohol in their systems at the time of their deaths.
- A review of court records showed East St. Louis police hadn’t applied for a search warrant in a homicide in more than 15 years.
- Eighty-five percent of the victims were male and 90 percent were black. The average age of the victims was 30 years old.
The city averaged 24 murders a year during the 19 years studied by the BND. Towns with similar populations, like Edwardsville and Collinsville, had no murders in 2016, according to the latest crime data. Alton had one. So did Belleville, with nearly double the population of East St. Louis.
In late 2017 — after a spike of 37 murders — East St. Louis was selected to be part of the federal Safe Neighborhood program. After a year of the project, the number of killings dropped to 24 in 2018. This year, the city is again on pace to hit the average number of murders — 24.
“This kind of effort with all the key agencies consistently involved must be sustained over the long term if we are going to continue to move in the right direction,” said former St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly, who now heads the Illinois State Police. “Law enforcement helps set the table for economic development by other parts of the community.”
Violence is so entrenched in the city that children grow up learning survival techniques that would be considered drastic in suburbs less than 20 miles away. They are told to take cover in the bathtub if gunfire sounds close. They are told not to answer a knock at the door, especially after dark. Gunfire is a nightly occurrence in the housing projects.
Mixed with the killings are nearly a hundred shootings each year where the victim survived.
In February, a man and his 1-year-old daughter were caught in the crossfire as he pushed her in a stroller near 11th Street and Bond Avenue. The little girl was hit in the arm.
On a sunny afternoon recently, three young men on a basketball court said they needed a gun to protect themselves. One had been shot three months earlier. Everyone fears being the victim of gun violence, they said.
“Everybody will tell you out here. Even the little kids will tell you,” one said.
Stanley Franklin, head of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said economic opportunity in the city is key.
He acknowledged that crime is part of the reason why companies are reluctant to come to East St. Louis, but the right incentives could change that.
“We need businesses and employment opportunities here. Without that, crime festers. People go into a kind of survival mode,” Franklin said.
The police force shrank from 66 officers in 2005 to 34 officers this year, according to Police Chief Jerry Simon. Most of those officers don’t investigate murders, but patrol the streets responding to other violent felonies.
“When it comes to the police department itself, they’ve struggled here. You know their budget makes it hard to come up with the forces and people that they need. I’m going to try everything I can to help, but it is an uphill battle,” said U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, who grew up in East St. Louis.
The Illinois State Police now respond to and investigate every homicide in East St. Louis. Historically, that created some resentment from local police, but the murder problem in East St. Louis mandated cooperation.
At times, some city officers saw state police, who were mostly white, didn’t live in East St. Louis and earned more money, with resentment as they tried to solve murders in East St. Louis, said one former prosecutor who did not want his name used. But Simon welcomed the assistance.
“We don’t have time to fully investigate most of these homicides,” Simon acknowledged. “We need the help.”
Random and indiscriminate
The theory among law enforcement used to be that young men with easy access to guns and illegal drugs fueled the city’s homicide rate.
The BND studied the autopsy toxicology reports and court records from the victims in 150 murder cases between 2005 and 2015. The results showed that 41 murder victims had no felony record or any drugs or alcohol in their systems at the time of their deaths. Their average age was 31. Twenty-two victims tested positive for cocaine or crack; 20 for marijuana; two for heroin. The rest, 67, had alcohol or other drugs in their systems.
Of the 150, only 11 people had violent felony records. Eleven of those had illegal drugs or alcohol in their systems.
Former Illinois State Police Special Agents Terry Delaney and Jim Morrisey spent decades investigating murders in East St. Louis. In recent years, they say the motive for murder has become random and indiscriminate.
Delaney, a former U.S. marshal for the Southern District of Illinois and retired Belleville police chief, said one key to solving murders in the past was intelligence from street informants.
But today, Delaney said, “by far, the majority of East St. Louis homicides are random. And if you just happen to be at a certain intersection and this guy is out there, he’s going to hurt you.”
Last year, three young men were waiting for a bus near the Roosevelt Homes, a public housing complex on North 44th Street.
A car slowed near the bus stop. Derrien Wooten said he heard a sound then felt a burning sensation.
“We were at the bus stop and a car approached us. That’s about all I remember,” said Wooten, 25. “The next thing I know, I’m getting off the ground and I ran away.”
When he reached a vacant field, Wooten surveyed his injuries.
“I saw blood on my wrist but I didn’t know how serious the bullet in my abdomen was,” Wooten said.
A good Samaritan found him and gave him a ride to nearby Touchette Regional Hospital. The small hospital treats about 100 gunshot victims a year.
It was then Wooten learned the gunman struck not only him, but his brother and their friend. All three men survived.
Wooten, who has no felony record, could offer no explanation for the shooting. Traumatized and still recovering from his wounds, Wooten didn’t remember the make, model or even the color of the car that stopped before the shots rang out.
The drive-by shooting was the epitome of randomness — a person out with the intent to hurt someone.
Both Delaney and Morrisey, the former Illinois State Police Zone 6 investigation commander, described bullets being fired at cars as they go through East St. Louis on busy Missouri Avenue or the interstate highways that crisscross the city. One man was shot late at night at a gas station after getting off work at the Casino Queen.
This isn’t about rival gangs or drug trafficking competition, as it was before, Delaney and Morrisey said. It’s more unpredictable.
“Going back 20 or 30 years, there was an ongoing grudge between people who knew each other,” Morrisey said. “Now, it’s more random. The suspect or the victim may not even know each other.”
Without a suspect or a motive, Wooten’s shooting seems to fit into the random category. His case remains unsolved.
“They could never find the guys,” Wooten said.
Wooten continues his recovery. But he returned to work earlier this year. He works for an anti-violence initiative that teaches children conflict resolution.
A rivalry turns deadly
A brawl at the 2016 Illinois state track meet later led to the murders of two East St. Louis track stars. Roosevelt Davis was gunned down two years after the initial fight at a Cahokia convenience store. His best friend and teammate, Sanchez Rhodes, was shot while driving down State Street six months later.
In the interim, there was a fight before East St. Louis High School’s prom. A house where East St. Louis track team members hung out was shot up. Another fight at a track meet lead to the cancellation of the season, leaving some track stars without the possibility of a scholarship.
Concern for students’ lives trumped scholarships. Arthur Culver, the school superintendent, ordered extra security for graduation.
Earlier this month, Marvion L. Brady, a member of the Belleville East High School track team who graduated in 2017, was charged with Rhodes’ shooting death.
The relationship between the two men isn’t clear. Police haven’t released a motive.
But repeatedly, Rhodes’ family, his coach and police asked for anyone with information to divulge it to police.
At the end of many of the news stories about East St. Louis murders, police put a phone number for people to call if they have information. But people usually don’t want to talk to the police, said Kelly, the former St. Clair County state’s attorney.
“It’s not a manpower problem. It’s not a policy problem. It’s a sustained mistrust that has built up over decades. It will take just as long to undo it, but we have to do it,” Kelly said.
East St. Louisan Brandon Pickett, 27, said he doesn’t trust local police, saying they harass and abuse residents.
“When it comes to murders, they don’t got sense. They don’t find out who did what. There’s a lot of people who done killed people walking around out here,” said Pickett while standing on a street corner near the Roosevelt Homes.
“They are too busy working little stuff and they ain’t worried about stuff that’s more important. They can’t solve no murders because they ain’t trying.”
Pickett feels the Illinois State Police are more respectful when dealing with people. The East St. Louis Police Department, Pickett said, needs changes from the top down.
“They need new people in there,” he said.
The Police Department has had eight police chiefs in 12 years. Three of them went to prison. After he left East St. Louis and became chief in Alorton, Michael Baxton went to federal prison for stealing four video game systems out of the trunk of a car and giving them to relatives. Michael Floore was charged with theft for falsifying pay records when he worked overtime as a Metro security guard. Ron Matthews was charged with trying to sidetrack an investigation into one of his auxiliary officers.
With a revolving door in the department’s leadership, there were also problems in the rank and file. Orlando Ward, a talented homicide detective, was convicted on federal charges of selling drugs. Ricky Perry, another detective, was accused of drinking and driving. Larry Greenlee was charged with official misconduct and state benefits fraud. Pierre Cochran was caught in a sting involving extortion of men charged with soliciting prostitutes.
In 2009, then-St. Clair County State’s Attorney Bob Haida issued an edict: He told city leaders he would no longer accept cases from 19 police officers if they were “essential witnesses,” even in murder cases.
Haida made the determination after a judge found Perry elicited an illegal statement from Joshua Custer, who was accused of first-degree murder of Kirk Anthony. The charges were later dismissed. Custer was gunned down seven years later. His murder remains unsolved.
In a few cases, East St. Louis asked for help to solve murders from the Major Case Squad of Greater St. Louis. The squad is comprised of experienced detectives from departments across the St. Louis area. When the squad is activated, the detectives come in and investigate for five days. The additional manpower allows an intense investigation of leads. It has a clearance rate of 80 percent across the region.
But even with this influx of manpower, the Major Case Squad’s clearance rate in East St. Louis of less than 30 percent. And with East St. Louis averaging two murders a month, that could mean a detective could be away from their home department 10 or more days a month, causing a strain for small local departments, which need to police their own streets.
“For the rate of violence that you have, you need to have a sufficient supply of manpower to bring it down … They need more guys,” Kelly said.
In 2002, Morrisey formed the special homicide unit that investigates East St. Louis murders. As part of the squad, agents respond to every murder in East St. Louis to assist local officers. The murder rate didn’t change, and the prosecution rate didn’t improve until 2010.
From 2000 to 2010 when former prosecutor Haida, who is now a St. Clair County judge, was in office, the number of murder cases that were charged hovered around 15 percent. From 2010 to 2018 when Kelly took over, the charge rate rose to 30 percent.
But that’s not enough, experts said, to slow the number of murders.
Scott H. Decker and Adam M. Watkins, who both have doctoral degrees in criminology, authored a study in 2003 titled “Patterns of Homicide in East St. Louis” that concluded solving and prosecuting murders is the primary way to deter future murders.
Their study concluded that a prosecution rate of 60 percent is required to have a deterrent effect.
Everyone wants to do the right thing to slow the killings, said ISP Head Kelly.
“There’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen but they aren’t using the same recipe,” Kelly said.
There need to be other government agencies working to improve the lives of the people who live in East St. Louis to restore trust, said Prevention Institute Executive Director Rachel Davis.
“We have seen progress when community members and government, such as the police, housing, parks and recreation, public health, workforce come together to recognize how things got to where they are now and to make a plan for moving forward,” Davis said.
U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, whose 12th Congressional District includes East St. Louis, called the city’s murder rate “heartbreaking.”
In a town where the unemployment rate is 7.1 percent — twice the national average — people can be killed for a few dollars in their pocket, such as a man delivering medicine to his elderly mother, a McDonald’s manager walking to work, or a great-grandmother kidnapped, robbed of her bingo winnings and stuffed into her trunk and burned to death.
Economic development could ease the murder rate and provide hope to residents, Bost said.
“To stop the violence, economic opportunity should be brought back to East St. Louis to keep people busy and working,” Bost said.
But Bost acknowledged economic development efforts could be stunted by the city’s violence.
Durbin, a longtime advocate of the city, had this to say nearly a decade ago:
“Residents of East St. Louis suffer from one of the highest violent crime and homicide rates in the country. It’s not a new problem, but it’s a problem that demands a new solution. The people living in and raising their families in this community deserve better. As an East St. Louis native, it pains me to see my old home town in such extreme distress,” Durbin said in 2011.
And that doesn’t seem to have changed much in eight years.
“We’re far from where we need to be in terms of gun violence In East St. Louis or even in Chicago for that matter, and there are things that we can do to make things better. First we’ve got to start to give people an alternative view of their future. So that it isn’t a matter of, gangs, and drugs and crime. And that means creating some hope,” Durbin said last month.
Even with the violence and poverty, people who live there remain appreciative of East St. Louis, NAACP President Franklin said.
“I don’t think this is a hopeless situation. There are good things here,” he said. “You tend to have pride in your hometown. That’s very true here. East St. Louis is known as the City of Champions. We want this place to rise again. Looking down the road, we have an opportunity for a bright future.”
Repeated calls and written questions hand-delivered to Mayor Emeka Jackson and the four members of the City Council went unanswered.
Afternoon snacks and gunfire
Mothers wear T-shirts with the images of their dead sons and daughters and a wish for eternal peace. Fathers tattoo their murdered children’s names on their arms and chests.
The effects of murder and violent crime on children in the city are profound and pervasive, experts said.
“When I would talk to a school group from a rural area and ask ‘Do you know anyone who has been affected by crime?’ I might have one hand go up,” said Morrisey, the former state police captain. “But when I ask a group of kids from East St. Louis the same question, every hand in the class goes up.”
Gunfire is common. Every year, the police department receives 1,200 calls of gunshots, according to Police Chief Simon. He estimated that three to four times as many go unreported. That’s an average of 14 incidents of shots fired every day.
Brandon Pickett, the young man from East St. Louis, agreed.
“It ain’t safe down here. It’s not. It could be broad daylight or nighttime. It don’t matter. That’s why most people around here carry guns. Because it ain’t safe,” he said.
In February, a drama played out that has become all too familiar to Sister Julia Huiskamp, who has been in the city more than 30 years and runs the Griffin Center, an after-school program for children who live in public housing.
It was 3 p.m. on Feb. 5 and school buses were taking children to the center at the Roosevelt Homes for their after-school snack and programs.
Huiskamp was in the kitchen checking the milk, fruit and cookies for the children attending the program. Another nun, who said she was afraid to have her name mentioned publicly, stood just inside the door waiting for the kids.
That’s when they heard rapid gunfire, more than a dozen shots that sounded like they were fired right outside.
In minutes, middle school children burst through the door, breathlessly describing a man and woman who were shooting handguns as the children got off the bus.
Huiskamp called the driver of a second bus and told him not to drop anymore students off on the corner, but to bring them directly to the center’s front door.
There was another blast of gunfire and the other nun looked outside and saw a man dressed in all black walking alongside the building.
“I thought he was coming inside for us,” she said.
Then, a third blast of gunfire erupted. City police showed up but left just as quickly for a reported murder about a mile away at 18th Street and Martin Luther King Drive.
Housing Authority police soon arrived to take their place, but no one was arrested for the shootings around the center.
Huiskamp seemed unfazed. In three decades in the city, she has heard thousands of shots fired.
She was thankful that the children, while scared, were not physically hurt. Not much good comes from laying blame, she said.
“There are a lot of frustrated young men who do not see a clear path. They don’t see a way out of this. They don’t see a future,” she said.
“There are no jobs here and they reach a point when any kind of an insult can ignite a terrible response. Someone says something about their mother or the way they are dressed. And they all seem to have a gun ... so they say, ‘What the hell.’”
‘You gotta be on point’
The three young men who stopped to talk while playing basketball didn’t want to give their names to reporters. It was too risky. An identity would make them a target, either for police or others.
The oldest, 22, flashed an easy smile when a reporter asked to see his gun. He nodded in the direction of a dumpster, walked over to it, opened his coat and slipped a handgun out of the inside pocket.
It was marked “Millennium G2,” an 11-shot, .40 caliber semi-automatic pistol.
He wouldn’t talk about where he got the gun, saying only that he got it for free.
His friends, 20 and 19, weren’t armed that day, but they said they have guns. They refused, firmly but politely, to say where they got them.
All three grew up in the Roosevelt Homes, a public housing project on the border between East St. Louis and Washington Park. They were family, they insisted. They looked out for one another. Having a gun was part of that.
It’s illegal to possess a gun in public housing. None of the men had a state permit to carry a gun.
Being armed is a necessity, they agreed, as is being wary of strangers.
“If someone walks up to me, I am going to watch their movements,” the oldest said. “I’m watching whether they put their hands in their pockets. If they do, I’ve got my hand in my pocket on my stuff. I won’t take my hand off of it until they are out of my eyesight.”
The basketball court where the three played is less than a block away from the “Orange Store,” a Washington Park convenience store and popular hangout.
The store is made from concrete cinder blocks painted orange. The façade is pocked by bullet strikes.
Three months ago, the two oldest went to the store for a soda and snack. As they were heading inside, a car slowed on the street in front of the store.
“He looked at me and just pulled out his gun and started shooting,” the 20-year-old man said.
Just as he crossed the store’s threshold, a bullet hit him in the back, lodging in his pelvis.
His friend, fearing the store would come under sustained gunfire and preventing the injured man from getting medical assistance, ran outside and fired at the car.
Bullets were exchanged.
“There were fragments flying out of the side of the store,” he said. “Ping! Ping! Ping!”
Living in East St. Louis as a young black man, the 22-year-old said, means “you gotta be on point. All the time.”
His friend is recovering. He spent weeks in a hospital. The doctor decided to leave the bullet in his body because it was too dangerous to take it out. Every day is painful.
As informal physical therapy, his friends bring him out to the court to play basketball under a hoop with no net.
“To get him to move around. Get him out of the house,” the oldest of them said.
The 22-year-old said when he was younger, he concentrated on school and playing sports.
“I wasn’t thinking about guns a few years ago,” he said. “I played sports. I was trying to make it out.”
If gunshots erupt while he’s playing basketball now, he said he and his friends will take cover and come back when it all blows over.
But he can’t think about it too much.
“It will mess your head up,” he said.
A federal solution?
The timing was perfect to start something new. That year — 2017 — was the deadliest in two decades in East St. Louis.
Under the U.S. Department of Justice’s Safe Neighborhood Program, federal prosecutors can design programs to combat crime. Then-U.S. Attorney for the Southern District Donald Boyce, a former St. Louis police officer, came up with the Priority Violent Offender program. It began on Dec. 4, 2017.
As part of the program, federal, state and local police and prosecutors meet every other week to discuss every gun crime that occurred in East St. Louis. The agencies share knowledge and build prosecutable cases, not just in murders, but also shootings where the victims survive.
The theory is that today’s shooting is tomorrow’s homicide.
Officers from the FBI, federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Drug Enforcement Agency agents, U.S. Marshals Service, Illinois State Police, St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department deputies, the East St. Louis Police Department and Housing Authority security police meet with federal and state prosecutors in the East St. Louis City Council chambers every other Wednesday.
The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois created the initiative and leads the meetings.
“We discuss specific incidents and individual witnesses and suspects as a way to share intelligence among the partner agencies, who then coordinate targeted law enforcement activities based on that intelligence,” said U.S. Attorney Steve Weinhoeft, who took over in July. “State and federal prosecutors review the incidents with investigators to devise strategies to maximize the likelihood of developing cases that can be prosecuted in court.”
Since its inception, the program has opened cases on shooting incidents involving 34 different violent offenders. Charges have been filed against 19 people for 30 offenses in state court, Weinhoeft said. Five have been charged in federal court. St. Clair County charges were filed against 14 defendants. Dual prosecutions were undertaken twice.
“We find the meetings valuable for incident awareness and making sure we know if there are investigations that overlap. We would want to know, for instance, if someone tangentially involved in an ongoing DEA investigation is also a suspect in a local shooting case. Our goal is to reduce violence crime using two primary strategies: first, by solving cases where we can, and second, by taking proactive enforcement steps to intervene and interrupt cycles of violence before a pattern of retaliation occurs,” Weinhoeft said.
The regularity and frequency of the meetings is important, said Kelly, the former county prosecutor, because the quicker the information gets shared, the more likely a case can be closed.
“Once a case goes cold, it’s much more difficult and labor intensive to solve,” he said.
Simon knows what the federal government can do. Before he became chief, he worked undercover in a joint DEA task force. He also worked with the U.S. Marshal’s fugitive task force.
Because there’s a lot of crossover crimes between East St. Louis and North St. Louis, Kelly said federal agents don’t have the jurisdiction problems local and state police can sometimes face.
“We need a seamless connection between the agencies that patrol and provide security in the community and the detectives working the homicides. The Housing Authority, St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department, Illinois State Police, city police and federal agents are trying to do the same thing — make that community safe,” Kelly said. “There’s a lot of good information all these officers have, but sometimes it gets siloed and underutilized. That information could solve a homicide, but they don’t know that.”
James Gomric, who took over for Kelly as the St. Clair County state’s attorney, will participate in the program.
“(He) has supported and contributed to the PVO initiative already and we expect his office’s participation will continue,” Weinhoeft said.
A year after the PVO program began, the number of murders fell from 37 back to the average — 24. It’s too early to tell what effect, if any, the program has had on the overall murder rate.
So far this year, there have been six murders and many more close calls.
In late January, a 60-year-old man sitting on the front porch was fatally shot. To date, his murder has not been solved. There were three more murders in March, including an 18-year-old honors student who was shot and killed while getting off a MetroLink train at the Fifth and Missouri station.
In February, a 27-year-old woman was wounded while sitting at a red light at 28th Street and Missouri Avenue. Two cars pulled up alongside of her and began shooting at each other. She was caught in the crossfire and struck in the wrist but escaped serious injury.
Earlier this month, two young men were wounded in separate random shootings on the same day, both while they were on foot.
The former prosecutor, who asked not to be identified, called decades of trying East St. Louis murder cases his “life’s work.” Anything to slow the violence, he said, is worth trying.
“We have to do something to stop this bloodbath. This may be the ray of light where we can put some hope for an end to this.”
BND reporter Joseph Bustos contributed information for this story.