Ferguson’s Forgotten Murders

Two black men have been shot dead since Michael Brown was. Protesters don’t even know they existed and police have been frustratingly slow to get them justice.

FERGUSON, Missouri — Two men have been murdered here since Michael Brown’s death, but the slayings have been met with pervasive silence. The violent deaths of Robin “Jerry” Poindexter and DeAndre Joshua are unknown to many protesters and residents of Ferguson, and the victims’ families feel with good reason that police put the crimes on the back burner.

Jerry died next to his friend Hustle, as the pair dodged bullets intended for another target in early October. DeAndre died alone in his car the night of the grand jury announcement essentially clearing Officer Darren Wilson, shot in the head before his killer tried to torch the vehicle. Both men, victims of crimes that might normally warrant more attention, have become footnotes in an international-reaching story of race and justice in America. Both men’s families now walk a lonely path in keeping Jerry and DeAndre’s memories alive, faced each day with the fact that many in Ferguson don’t want discuss anything involving Jerry and DeAndre.

But Gerri Thompson, who watched Jerry die from her balcony in October, will talk. She wants to talk. She misses the conversations that used to flow in Ferguson.

“Well, we had everything right here convenient for us,” Thompson said Sunday afternoon. With the mercury tipping 70 degrees, spring was making its first appearance in Ferguson, and Thompson’s balcony was open for business. “Everything was pretty much within walking distance. The people were real nice and friendly.”

That was before, Thompson said. Before Mike Brown. Before a few buildings on West Florissant were torched in a fit of rage the night Wilson got off. Before Thompson watched from her perch as Jerry took a bullet intended for another in the heart.

“You could set your watch on them,” Thompson said of Jerry and his friend, James “Hustle” Hustleman. “The two of them would walk down to the store, come back with they can of beer.”

Every day the pair would pass by Thompson’s balcony, until October 7 when group of young men — between 16 and 20 years old, Thompson said — had beef with someone across the parking lot that day. After milling about for a while, words were exchanged, then shots. One group fired at another before fleeing in a several cars. Jerry got caught in the shootout; Hustle made away with his life and a deep sense of guilt.

“I’ve been hit,” Jerry said as blood leaked from his chest that day. On Sunday, Thompson pointed to the spot where Jerry and Hustle took cover as the bullets flew by, remembering with great detail what she saw: Hustle behind one dumpster, Jerry behind another, clutching his chest where the bullet struck. Thompson’s balcony is so close, if she had a magic pill to save Jerry’s life, she could have tossed it to him with ease.

But there was no saving Jerry, who kept repeating “I’m hit. I’m hit.”

“And that was it,” Thompson said.

Jerry died on the way to the hospital, becoming Ferguson’s first death by gunfire since Brown. The media hardly notices, but Hustle grapples with the haunting effects of watching Jerry die.

“I miss him. Words can’t describe it,” Hustle said at the nearby McDonald’s on Sunday afternoon. It took $20 worth of cheap beer for Hustle to talk — remembering the violent death of his close friend is not easy. “I don’t even like rehashing the memory again. I don’t even want to relive that episode again. But it ain’t a day go by that I’m catching the bus and goin’ to work that I don’t think about him because he usually be with me. I try to put it out of my head, but I find myself wonderin’ and thinkin’ about him and what could have happened differently.”

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Jerry’s son, 36-year-old Chris Poindexter, also struggles. The cops haven’t been much help in keeping Jerry’s memory alive, Chris said.

The same goes for DeAndre, according to his great uncle, Destin Joshua. The media, who once again parachuted into Ferguson this past weekend following the shooting of two police officers, haven’t reported on the two men since the nights they died. And among protesters on the street, Jerry and DeAndre are virtual unknowns.

At a vigil for the police officers who were shot, the Rev. Tracy Blackmon called for prayers concerning a list of subjects. Prayers for police and protesters, the safety of children, and of Ferguson. Prayers for “broken people and broken systems,” prayers for justice. There was even a call to pray for Marcus Johnson, a 5-year-old killed in a St. Louis gun battle last week.

No prayers for Jerry Poindexter. No prayers for DeAndre Joshua.

“You’re kidding me,” said Mike Taylor, a cousin of DeAndre’s after being told the vigil held Friday night, despite its calls for remembrance, brought no mention of DeAndre. “See? They don’t care about us.”

With the community a no-show, the families of the two men now rely solely on police for answers. DeAndre’s case is being handled by the St. Louis County Police Department and Jerry’s by Ferguson police. Chris, a heavy-set man with black-frame glasses and a voice raspy from Newport cigarettes, is concerned Ferguson’s cops can’t handle a homicide investigation with all that’s been consuming the small city — daily protests, a spate of resignations that include chief Tom Jackson, and Justice Department reports that call for wholesale change within the department, if not its complete dismantling. In the driver’s seat of his tan Chevy Suburban on Sunday, Chris laid out his frustrations.

“I make it a point to call if not every day, every other day,” he said, gesturing with a bent phone.

Chris hadn’t been updated on his father’s case until Tuesday, when The Daily Beast reached Det. Mark Leone of the Ferguson Police Department. Previously, Chris had been told that Det. Billy Ballard was working the case. Five months’ worth of calls to Ballard have gone unanswered, according to Chris. Leone wouldn’t discuss communications between Chris and Ballard but said he would reach out to Chris with updates about the investigation.

“This is the first I’ve heard of him trying to reach out to us,” Leone said of Chris.

Leone, a 14-year veteran of the department, went into detail describing the amount of effort he’s personally put into solving Jerry’s murder. The surveillance video Chris has pinned his hopes on for months doesn’t show the suspects, Leone said. Knocks have gone unanswered, calls unreturned, leads checked out and cleared. A five-inch thick binder containing the case’s investigative minutiae sits on Leone’s desk, he said, itself evidence of the shoe leather pounded to find Jerry’s killers.

“I can assure you that it’s hasn’t gone unsolved for lack of work being done,” said Leone. “We’ve done a thorough job. We’ve run down every lead we have at this point. But it has become very apparent that some people are not going to cooperate with us. I have taken the case as far as I can legally take it.”

That will never be enough for Chris. He wondered if offering a reward might help, as he speculated it had in the apprehension of Jeffrey Williams, the man allegedly responsible for the gunfire that struck two police officers last week. Chris dismissed Leone’s pleas for help from the community, saying police “find who they want to find.” Finally, Chris, in desperation, pointed out the disparities between efforts to find his father’s killer and that of Megan Boken. A beautiful, blonde college student, Boken was murdered during a 2012 armed robbery in a part of St. Louis not usually prone to such violence. Two men eventually copped to the crime, catching 70 years in prison between them.

“When Megan Boken was killed that story ran every day, a reward was offered, and police did not stop until they had a suspect,” Chris said. “What makes her life more valuable than my dad’s?”

Hustle is scarred by Jerry’s death, and on Sunday priced it at the value of a beer. Back in October, the two men were playing cards — black deuce — and Hustle was losing. He decided to take a break, go grab a beer from the nearby convenience store. Jerry said he’d go too.

“But he didn’t have to go with me,” Hustle said.

Jerry never made it to the store and the game was never finished. Hustle has that to live with.

* * *

If police have had trouble getting witnesses to come forward in Jerry’s murder, as Leone alluded to, their job is even more difficult when it comes to DeAndre Joshua. Brian Schellman of the St. Louis County Police Department wouldn’t comment on the agency’s investigation into DeAndre’s death, but a few clues to the difficulties posed in solving the 20-year old’s murder can be found on social media. I found still more on the streets Sunday afternoon.

Through doors cracked just wide enough to peer outside, residents of the neighborhood where DeAndre was killed — just down the street from the memorial for Mike Brown — spoke in guarded terms about what happened the night of the grand jury announcement and Joshua’s murder. Some remembered police knocking on doors and asking questions; others said they don’t recall cops coming around at all. But everyone maintained one thing about DeAndre Joshua’s death: Nothing was seen, nothing was heard, and nothing is known.

Just one of about a dozen neighbors wanted to give their name. New to the area, Darlene Evans said she’s apprehensive of talking to police but not speaking out.

“Mike Brown went down in history and this boy about to be forgotten about,” she said of DeAndre, looking across the street at a small memorial of stuffed animals strapped to a tree near where the young man was killed. Evans, without knowing the DeAndre’s name, put a teddy bear there weeks ago. “Somebody knows something.”

But paranoia breeds silence.

“Every time somebody talk, somebody end up dead,” said a neighbor, limping along the sidewalk and telling his own story of being shot during a robbery. His name? “Naw, no names, man.”

DeAndre was shot in the head, execution style, some time during the night of November 24. The killer or killers then tried to torch the vehicle, police said. In the wake of the fires that consumed Ferguson that night, DeAndre’s death became an annotation in a larger story. His great uncle, Destin, called DeAndre a “casualty of a war he generally wasn’t involved in.

“We go and talk to witnesses and go to homes around the crime scene, and we push the people ourselves,” Destin said of the family’s efforts to dig up information about the slaying. “There’s so many of us that there’s no reason that we shouldn’t know anything. No one’s cooperating.”

Leone, the Ferguson detective, has run into the same problem. The anti-snitching culture in Ferguson is strong, maybe more powerful than the resources at the police department’s disposal. If that weren’t enough, the detective has another issue to contend with: The daily protests over Brown’s death have resulted in interviews being called off, he said, adding that the demonstrations have “certainly disrupted the investigation.”

The unrest also provided a convenient cover for cops preoccupied by burning and looting on the night of DeAndre’s murder. Gunshots were everywhere that night. So many of them that instead of extinguishing the blazes that brought down several buildings, firefighters were held back by police. Destin wondered how it’s possible, with so many police in the area that night, that DeAndre was gunned down and not discovered till hours later.

His memory may be off. Ferguson was in a state of anarchy following the grand jury announcement. Up and down West Florissant, angry youths roamed, burning and pillaging at will. Cops were few and far between, choosing mainly to defend their territory near police headquarters. The area where DeAndre was shot was off limits to the media, law enforcement, and protesters who considered their safety paramount. Making matters more complicated was DeAndre’s and his twin brother Dont’A’s proximity to a circle that included Brown and Dorian Johnson, the man walking with Brown the day he was killed. There’s a reason many neighbors in the area where DeAndre was murdered claim not to know his name.

“All three of them hung out every day,” Destin said of DeAndre, Brown and Johnson.

Dont’A and Johnson apparently still do.

Nobody wants to come near anything involving Mike Brown, the cops and a murder investigation. That’s why doors went barely cracked and blinds were drawn on a beautiful spring day last weekend. “Snitches get stitches,” the spray paint reads on the side of a closed-down Chinese restaurant on West Florissant. The street mantra is known well enough to sew up lips in Ferguson.

While the speculation that DeAndre’s death had something to do with Brown has been dismissed by some, it remains a rumor, and a very real hinderance to the willingness of residents to talk to police. For DeAndre’s family, the level of distrust is so pervasive, and the lack of communication so great, that they’ve taken the leap from believing that not only are police incompetent, but that they may have actually been involved in the murder.

“The arrows have to point somewhere,” Destin remarked.

This seemingly illogical theorizing is both a result and a product of the community’s relationship with law enforcement, in such terrible shape that police involvement in a murder has gone from unthinkable to fantasy.

In this way and many others, Ferguson remains fractured, a fact of life that isn’t necessarily apparent in stories about the spate of resignations that came down last week, or the dismantling of a traffic fine system that provides almost a quarter of the city’s revenue. There is hope that those changes will prompt a positive shift for the city, but Thompson, the neighbor who watched from her balcony as Jerry Poindexter died, isn’t so sure. For her and others, the damage is deeper.

Thompson recalled the way that it used to be — that peaceful time when there was time to consider the stars above. Now, Ferguson remains broken and burned, and trapped in a silence brewed by fear.

“I remember when I first moved over here, kids were running and playing, and you’d see the guys underneath the tree playing dominoes and stuff. Everything was just so carefree around here. Everything was so happy. The spirits was high. People would just stop and talk, even if they didn’t know you they’d stop and talk to you.

“But now they don’t even acknowledge your presence,” Thompson said, before explaining the current state of mind in this battered American city.

“They don’t speak to you like they used to, and people walk around with their head down now. I think people just feel… down. They’ve lost their joy. Because like now, this time of the evening you would just hear all kind of laughter, and people walking and talking, and kids running and playing and stuff. You see how quiet it is. It’s very quiet.”