'Knockout game' case shocked St. Louis, then fell apart

The police captain couldn't believe it. He had the Knockout King in his office.

It was September 2011, and police were struggling to get a handle on a series of vicious knockout assaults in south St. Louis. Groups of teens were cold-cocking older pedestrians at random. One was dead, several injured. Residents were alarmed, police baffled. It didn't make sense, such a cruel and cowardly crime.

Now, sitting in Capt. Jerry Leyshock's office was an important key to the mystery: the Knockout King. That was the teen's nickname, said the four other young men also swept up that night by police after yet another assault. They sat inside South Patrol headquarters. And the ringleader, they said, happened to be right over there.

Leyshock took stock of the young man in his office. The kid looked 17 or 18. He was stocky, his hair cut in short dreadlocks. He wore a hooded sweatshirt. The captain, who coached youth boxing, thought he recognized the teen as a boxer from the Cherokee Recreation Center. The teen, for now, revealed little. Then he mentioned he was 16, a juvenile. Too young to talk with police alone. The interview was over.

In a moment, the teens would be released. But first, Leyshock, in his white dress shirt and black tie, gold badge on his chest, leaned in close.

"I think it's a safe bet we're going to pay you a visit whenever a knockout case comes up," the captain said.

The meeting with the Knockout King would turn out to be a crucial break in a crime that hadn't occurred yet — a case of cavalier brutality that would shock a city, especially after the accused attackers were set free.

On Oct. 21, Matt Quain, 52, a dishwasher, was severely beaten in a knockout assault on South Grand Boulevard. The mayor helped rescue him. Seven middle schoolers, some as young as 12, were arrested. Then, at a juvenile court hearing in January, the main witness, a 13-year-old classmate of the defendants, failed to show up. The case was tossed out.

The kids celebrated. Others howled.

"People all over the city of St. Louis are outraged over this," Mayor Francis Slay said.

The case seemed to captivate the city with a series of difficult questions: Why was this happening? How would it stop? Was witness intimidation a factor?

The story of how police cracked the case, only to see it fall apart, shows the unusual challenges posed by knockout assaults, as well as the communitywide frustrations. The crimes were rare, but terrorizing. These were not muggings. Something else was at play here. It was a matter of finding out what, even if the answers were unsettling.

• • •

The summer of 2011 had started quietly enough, with no hint that knockout assaults would be a problem in the fall.

This was a surprise. In April, four teens had attacked a 72-year-old Vietnamese immigrant and his wife as they walked home from a market in Dutchtown. Hoang Nguyen died. His wife was hurt. An 18-year-old man, who allegedly told police he just wanted to knock someone out, was charged with first-degree murder.

"Knockout game" became the crime's coarse moniker. But it didn't feel like the start of something new. No one saw it as the sign of a wave of random assaults. After all, violent crime rates were falling across the city.

Then, in late August, several bicyclists were jumped in the Shaw neighborhood. In September, a group of teens pummeled a 59-year-old man as he walked near Grand and Gravois Road. Police rounded up the Knockout King and the other teens. But the pedestrian said he never got a good look at his attackers.

And once again, the knockout attacks seemed to fade away. Until October 21.

It was a cool autumn night, a Friday. Quain and neighbor Jon Kelly watched a Blues game on TV and then walked to a nearby Schnucks to buy some beer. On the way back, the pair walked by the Carpenter city library in the 3300 block of Grand. They could see, just ahead, the bright lights of the South Grand business district. Home was two blocks away.

At the same time, Mayor Slay was returning from a Pink Floyd tribute show at the Fox Theatre. His bodyguard, Sgt. Blaise Peluso, was at the wheel. As they neared the library, Slay looked out the window. He saw a group of kids crowding the sidewalk.

That doesn't look right, he told Peluso.

The group walked in front of the mayor's car, across Grand. Slay noted how relaxed they looked. He glanced back at the library. He saw a man facedown in the street, motionless, feet inches from the curb, blood pooling on the pavement.

Slay thought the man had been shot. Peluso pulled over. The teens kept walking, unhurried, on the other side of the street now, past an idling car. The car's driver had stopped when he saw Quain fall to the pavement. He heard the impact's "thump" even with his windows rolled up. The 49-year-old city resident watched the teens cross behind him. They looked like little kids, he thought. They laughed and held aloft cellphones like they were snapping pictures.

The teens disappeared from view.

• • •

Quain suffered a broken jaw. The incident seemed like an echo of the fatal assault in April. And the mayor's role made the incident loom only larger. This was suddenly a high-profile case.

And police were struggling with it. At least nine officers had descended on the scene that Friday night, hoping to turn up a lead. Nothing. The teens were gone. The witnesses couldn't identify anyone. Police had little to go on. The case threatened to slip away.

Leyshock decided it was time to visit the Knockout King.

"I wanted to see how he played me, feel him out," the captain said.

He stopped by the Cherokee rec center in Benton Park. The captain knew the boxing coach there, Jesse Davison.

Davison ran a tight program. He told his young boxers to stay out of trouble so often they called him the Preacher Man. "Use your fists in the ring, not on the street," he liked to tell them.

Some of his boxers had made the Olympic trials. But Davison tried to keep even the troublemakers coming around. At least then he could influence them. When the captain showed up, Davison suspected which boxer he wanted to see. The teen had long been a challenge. A couple years ago, the teen's mother had brought the kid to the gym asking for help with her out-of-control son. "He's a good kid," the boxing coach says, "but he's just going down the wrong path."

The boxing gym sits on the second floor, centered on a worn-out blue Budweiser boxing mat. The Knockout King was throwing punches at a heavy bag. Leyshock sat down on a red weight bench. He called the teen over.

You know why I'm here, the captain said.

It wasn't me or my crew, the teen replied.

Leyshock couldn't press him. It was too early in the investigation, but he'd made a point. Police would be back.

It took just one more day. At South Patrol's 10 a.m. roll call, a sergeant read aloud an update of recent crimes and concerns. The Quain incident was mentioned. Officer Brian Eisele perked up.

Eisele was 29. He was built like a college wrestler, short but muscular. He'd been on the force three years. As a patrolman, he knew about the knockout assaults. He was familiar with the area where Quain was assaulted. A middle school was nearby. So was Gravois Park. And Eisele knew that one teen's name kept coming up: the Knockout King.

Eisele wasn't a detective, but he decided to chase this case between radio calls. When roll call ended, he grabbed his partner, rookie patrolman Kevin Bambrick.

They started at Gravois Park, not far from where Quain was attacked. The patrolmen walked to a large gazebo in the center. Gang activity was a problem here. Police regularly chased off people who lingered past the small city park's 10 p.m. curfew. At least twice Eisele had taken the Knockout King home after curfew violations. Eisele spotted graffiti on the gazebo. One phrase stood out: "TKO zone Stay Out."

TKO. It means "technical knock out" in the ring. On the streets, it was The Knock Out. The Knockout King.

Eisele and Bambrick decided to visit the teen at home a few blocks away. The teen's mother recognized Eisele. He was the officer who had driven her son home rather than cite him for breaking curfew. That decision seemed to pay off now. The mom called down her son.

Eisele was direct. This is not a social visit, he said. You know why we're here.

The teen was silent.

If you know something, you better tell him, the teen's mom said.

You need to start talking, said another relative.

Finally the teen did.

• • •

Eisele took notes as the teen described what he knew about Quain's attack. He said he was in the Gravois Park gazebo that Friday night when a young girl he knew walked over. Police sirens echoed in the distance. He asked if she knew what was going on. She said she'd watched her friends jump a man on Grand. She figured that's where police were headed.

Eisele got the girl's nickname and her school: Fanning Middle.

The Knockout King also detailed the rules behind the knockout assaults.

He said he got the idea after being bored hitting the bags and sparring at Cherokee. When the gym closed, he and other teens hit the streets. They created a game. The objective was to knock out a stranger with a single punch, get them off their feet. Stealing a wallet or cellphone was not the point. "Do the lick," in Eisele's words, and get on with it.

They called it TKO. There were four main members: the Knockout King was the TKO CEO. He had a co-CEO, a president and an MVP. They hung out in Gravois Park. They flaunted their TKO status on Facebook. They sought out other kids to join their nascent gang. They taught recruits to pick vulnerable, older adults. One rule was that a TKO member had to witness the assault, "kinda like a performance evaluation," Eisele recalls.

But it was impossible to know how many of the knockout incidents could be traced back to TKO. The teen did not take credit for any of them. He told Eisele that, sure, the kids who beat Quain probably were trying to impress him. But, he said, he didn't know it was going to happen.

Notebook closed, Eisele left to find the 13-year-old witness.

• • •

Fanning Middle School sits just behind the Carpenter library. It resembles a Norman Rockwell image of a school, a two-story blonde-brick building with soaring windows. Polished hardwood gleams in the main hallway, just beyond a metal detector and guard.

Eisele found his witness. She looked like a typical 13-year-old. Later that day, with a district detective sitting in, the girl's mother told her daughter to tell police everything.

The girl said that she had been hanging out on Grand with friends from school that Friday. She stood with another girl. Across the street lingered six boys. She said the boys "had hopes of gaining membership with an older group of juveniles who referred to themselves as 'TKO'," according to the police report.

The target was picked at random, an older man just walking past. Two boys, ages 12 and 13, ran up from behind and 'simultaneously punched him on either side of his face," noted the police report. Three other boys — one was 12, the other two were 14 — then began punching and kicking the man, too. The girl's classmate ran across the street and joined in, along with a 14-year-old boy. The victim collapsed. The teens walked away. The girl ended up in Gravois Park, where she ran into the Knockout King.

At the end of the interview, the girl's mom asked about security for her daughter. Eisele and a district detective tried to reassure her. They vowed to not share the girl's name. They hoped somehow that would be enough.

The next day, police returned to Fanning with 12 officers and detectives. "A show of force," Eisele said.

Police arrested four students. A suspended student was picked up later. Two former Fanning students also were taken in.

The teens were taken into juvenile detention. They were charged with second-degree assault. A hearing was set for Jan. 9. That was more than two months away, twice the typical stay before trial. But Judge Jimmie Edwards didn't want the teens on the street.

The same day the Fanning students were arrested, Police Chief Dan Isom announced a "community-based approach" to discourage knockout assaults. The effort began with an assembly at Roosevelt High the next week, then an assembly at Fanning.

Roosevelt made sense to police. The Knockout King was a former student there. Several others believed to be part of TKO still attended. In September, three Roosevelt students had been arrested outside the South Side school, moments after an alleged knockout-style attack on a 73-year-old man.

Isom and Leyshock spoke at the Roosevelt assembly. They were joined by James Clark, from the social services provider Better Family Life. Clark told the students that police can't stop the violence. The mayor can't stop it. James Clark can't stop it. It is going to stop when the students say it stops, he said.

To Leyshock, the students appeared to be taking it all in. Maybe this was working.

Three weeks later, a 54-year-old man was slugged repeatedly in a knockout assault in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood. Police arrested two Roosevelt students. One of them, 15 years old, told police he'd attended the assembly with the chief and captain.

• • •

As the weeks ticked off, as fall became winter and the holidays passed, the memory of the knockout assaults faded from public view.

But Rodney Smith, a juvenile court investigator, didn't forget. Among his duties that winter was keeping tabs on the sole cooperating witness in the Quain case.

Without that 13-year-old girl, the case would fall apart.

Smith frequently called the girl and her mother. He visited them. The weekend before the court hearing, he took them out to eat at Subway. The girl seemed ready to take the stand.

The trial was set for 9 a.m. on Jan. 9, in the courtroom of Judge Edwards. There are no juries in juvenile court. The judge makes the call.

The seven defendants were eager to get out. They had missed Thanksgiving and Christmas at home. Two of the teens celebrated birthdays in jail.

Early that morning, Smith headed out for one final errand for the case. He drove to north St. Louis to pick up the 13-year-old witness and her mother. They were not home. But family members assured him the pair would get to court on time.

Smith alerted staff attorney Margaret Gangle, who was prosecuting the case. Her key witness was missing. Gangle could have asked for a continuance. But she pressed on.

The courtroom was crowded with the families of the seven defendants. Detective Josh Wenstrom, who had interviewed the young witness, sat nearby in a small room reviewing his notes, preparing to testify. About the same time, far from the scene, the Knockout King posted on Facebook: "FREE ALL MY TKO GUYS."

At 9 a.m. the hearing began.

Minutes later it was over. The 13-year-old witness never showed.

Wenstrom heard a roar in the hallway. It sounded like cheering. "I was almost sick to my stomach," he says.

For Tina Vence, a defendant's mother, it was the right outcome. She was certain her child was innocent. So was Sonia Womack, another defendant's mother. "My heart goes out to him," she said of the victim, "but they need to get the right people that did it."

Edwards dismissed the case. He had no choice. Because the hearing had started, legal jeopardy had attached. The charges could never be brought again.

The defendants flocked to Facebook to announce their freedom. "Yeaaa immm home somebody call mee," one wrote.

"We out here ... who mad," wrote another.

The answer, it turned out, was just about everyone.

• • •

Outrage flowed. Even a court spokesman, limited by the confidentiality of juvenile cases, allowed that this had been "a very frustrating case."

"They have not been tried. I don't understand how this could happen," said Jennifer Florida, a city alderman whose ward included the scenes of several knockout attacks.

The mayor likened the seven defendants to Alyssa Bustamante, the mid-Missouri teen recently convicted of killing her 9-year-old neighbor just for the thrill. "I just can't believe these guys are out there, back on the streets, with no consequences at all," Slay said.

Slay said he believed the 13-year-old witness was intimidated into skipping court. Talk radio and online comments amplified the charge. Leyshock's computer burned up with scathing emails critical of police and the justice system.

Bolstering the notion was a Facebook posting by a defendant's mother on Nov. 17. She wrote that the 13-year-old girl already was missing — "thats a good thing."

Five days after the hearing, the 13-year-old witness took to Facebook to respond to teasing that she had ratted out her friends "because they were playing knock out."

The girl insisted, using online slang, that she was not helping police: "I worked byy myy mff self..."

Authorities tried to find out what really happened. For several weeks, detective Wenstrom and investigator Smith worked to reach the girl's mother. She was never around or didn't return their calls.

In late January, the witness's mother told the Post-Dispatch in a brief interview that her daughter was never missing, but people had been "threatening her."

"We have to live where we stay," she said. "I'm not going to jeopardize my child."

Despite her misgivings, the mother said it was "lies" that they intended to skip court.

Wenstrom didn't blame the young witness. Leyshock was surprised the girl made it as long she did.

• • •

A few weeks after the case collapsed, Leyshock was back in his office, again thinking about the knockout assaults. He moved about the small room as he talked. He had 32 years on the force, had seen a bit of everything, but this was a crime he couldn't comprehend.

"It's outrageous," he said. "And no one can put a finger on it because it's not normal human behavior. It defies norms."

Police know how to deal with burglary, drug-dealing, robbery. Those crimes have motives. Police can turn to the predictive-analysis computers to ferret out patterns. It didn't matter that knockout cases remained relatively rare, maybe eight confirmed cases — a handful more suspected ones — in more than a year in the 24 neighborhoods that make up the Third District. People were scared.

In the Tower Grove area, residents have formed aggressive watch programs to patrol for suspicious behavior. Police have started a database of people they think are involved in knockout assaults. The Knockout King is in there. So are the seven juveniles once accused in the Quain case.

The captain gleefully imagines the teens one day picking the wrong target, maybe an ex-Marine ready to fight back. He said he might even put a decoy on the streets, an undercover officer. In his office, he went back and forth on the idea.

"We're going to try it," he said finally.

He offered up his "Mr. Corny" ideas, such as schools sponsoring "Let's Celebrate Kindness Day" or having teens sign "no violence" pledges.

But, he added, he didn't think this was just a police problem.

"No clergy, no Wash U., no St Louis U. to say, hey, this is some kind of problem, maybe we could go to the schools and maybe do some kind of program?" Leyshock said. "We need some help here."

The city school system said it was open to helping police, but the scrutiny of students at Fanning and Roosevelt "unfairly indicts the schools," said schools spokesman Patrick Wallace. The knockout assaults were "a community issue, not a school issue."

Four months have passed without a knockout assault. But spring is coming. Leyshock worries. It has changed how he sees the streets.

Recently, he was driving on Grand, near where the Knockout King was arrested and not far from Quain's assault, when he saw a group of teenagers on the sidewalk. They were play-fighting. At one time, he would've dismissed it as an innocent game.

Not now. He was taking no chances. He ordered a team of police officers to clear the street.


tfrankel@post-dispatch.com > 314-340-8110">BY TODD C. FRANKEL StlToday.com |

Posted: Sunday, March 4, 2012

 

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