HELLO?

The Disappearing Cops of East St. Louis

Police investigating the mysterious murder of a Ferguson man suddenly packed up and left. The murder tipline now goes to a charity organization.

East St. Louis, IL — If you have information regarding the murder of Antonio Jones—a Ferguson man whose bullet-riddled body was found burned in the trunk of a car in East St. Louis last month—don't call the Major Case Squad. At least not at the number the group gave a local newspaper when asking for the public's help in finding a person of interest in the case.

When I called, the Jackie Joyner Kersey Foundation answered. And the Major Case Squad?

"They left here about a week ago," a man at the foundation said.

Apparently, the Major Case Squad is employed when homicides are fresh, East St. Louis Det. Gilda Johnson told me. It's also made up not just of members from Johnson's agency, but others on the Illinois side of this metro area, including the state police and cops from St. Clair County. But only at first. And only until the case can be passed on to an East St. Louis detective, Carlos Coleman.

"They disbanded," Johnson told me of the Major Case Squad.

Come again?

"That was a temporary hotline. They should have given you the number to the detectives or the dispatch."

It took a moment to realize that, in addition to the message left with the police chief, and the numerous hang-ups on the part of the desk sergeant, Johnson was the very person I'd called at the East St. Louis Police Department last week to inquire about the person of interest in Jones’ murder. She had a simple answer to my inquiry about the calls that were never returned—from her or anyone else in the detective bureau.

"They probably didn't answer because you're with the media," she said.

All this would be laughable if it weren't for the grim statistics. With a population of 27,000, East St. Louis notched 25 murders in 2011, 17 in 2012 and 15 last year. The city is incredibly violent for its size, on par with metropolises that dwarf the town. And while much scrutiny of police action has been focused on law enforcement agencies in neighboring St. Louis County, where Ferguson is, their counterpart on the Illinois side of the river might be worth a closer look. After all, it appears that for anyone trying to provide information on person of interest, Hairl Johnson, some looking, calling and waiting will be required.

He is still a person of interest, by the way.

“If he wasn’t we wouldn’t still be looking for him,” Det. Johnson reassured me.

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As a reporter, part of the job is asking questions you know won’t be answered. “This is an ongoing investigation, so I’m not going to talk about that,” is a typical response. But being hung up on before having chance to tell the unnamed desk sergeant I was with the fourth estate is not the norm. It’s also not usually the case that a police department provides a temporary number for a murder investigation, either.

“You got the wrong number for that,” Det. Johnson told her colleague, Coleman, over the phone while I fed her questions. “So anyone looking to give information on it, that’s a dead end.”

Inside the municipal building where the East St. Louis Police Department is headquartered, a cop sat by a metal detector and said nothing to me when I approached; she just kept talking on her phone. I emptied my pockets and went through. Others did the same, a chime indicating they weren’t clean. But the guard never budged. On the second floor I rang a buzzer at the door of the detective bureau. The old man who emerged wasn’t impressed with credentials, to say the least.

“Who are you and what do you want with that information?” he said when I asked about Jones’s murder.

“I’m a reporter.”

“What newspaper?”

“Not a newspaper, a website.”

“Doesn’t sound like much of a thing to me.”

Coleman wasn’t around so I left, down a few broken streets to the corner of East Broadway South 18th Street, where the city’s ambulance services are located. The car containing Jones’s body -- with the two gunshot wounds in his chest a medical examiner identified as the cause of death -- was found in a vacant lot at the intersection.

Back at police headquarters, Chief of Police Michael Floore Sr. ran out of the detective bureau, barking into a walkie talkie.

“I need everyone here, all cars,” he said. “I’ve got 300 people coming over here.”

A report that a crowd protesting the Ferguson grand jury’s decision had apparently come in. Det. Johnson left in an elevator and I found myself alone in the building, save two women in the dispatch center.

There wasn’t an armed cop around, except for the door guard on her phone, letting people through while the metal detector buzzed incessantly.

“Are there protesters outside?”

One of the dispatchers shook her head.

“No.”