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Ronald L. Jones Funeral Chapels, a mortuary in north St. Louis.

City Limits

“They Say, ‘When I Go, Put Me In This. This Is the Casket I Want.’”

Accounts from the front lines of urban gun violence. This week: Stories from St. Louis, Missouri, where kids plan their funerals and families live in fear.

On Monday afternoon, St. Louis police found the bullet-ridden body of Jamez Milton on Labadie Avenue. It was early in the day, but already the city’s third dead body, and its 146th homicide of the year. In the Patch neighborhood, after neighbors reported hearing gunshots ring out in the night, a body had been recovered near a community garden. At Arlington and Lillian avenues, 25-year-old Jeraldon Green was found in slumped over in his car with bullet wounds to his head and torso. Investigating several homicides in a single day has become a new reality for police in Missouri, where gun violence has spiked in the year since Michael Brown was killed in nearby Ferguson.

As in many cities across the United States, the increase in bloodshed has been difficult for police and city officials to explain. Some blame the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” the supposed result of increased scrutiny on police departments, which emboldens criminals and makes officers less willing to enforce the law. Others fault the number of illegal guns seeping onto the streets and petty rivalries between young men in the inner city. Still others say it’s premature to peg a cause for the spike, given the tendency of murder rates to fluctuate from city to city and year to year. 

“Folks are looking at St. Louis and Milwaukee and Chicago and New York and Baltimore and they’re saying, okay, we have a problem here,” Colonel Jon Belmar, the chief of the St. Louis County police department, tells The Trace. “But we don’t everywhere right now. So, I’m not really sure that we know enough to be able to comment on whether this is going to be a steady increase.”

That being said, Belmar adds, his department has seized more than 500 illegal firearms in 2015 alone. And many of the shootings in St. Louis this year have been especially horrific. In March, a six-year-old heart patient was killed in a drive-by shooting outside a public park. Seven lives were lost in one particularly bloody weekend in late July. And Dr. Michael Graham, the chief medical examiner for St. Louis, estimates that he sees two homicide victims every three days.

As part of a series on America’s urban gun violence epidemic, the Trace shares three stories from St. Louis residents whose lives have been reshaped by shootings.

Ronald Jones, 68, is the owner of the Ronald L. Jones Funeral Chapels, a mortuary in north St. Louis. He started his business in 1976, and has lived in the city for his entire life.

“We deal with a lot shooting victims. It feels like anywhere from one-third to 50 percent of all the homicides in the city come through our doors. And it really disheartens me, because every new homicide is another young life thrown away. I’d rather see old ladies who have died from infirmities, because it has an effect upon me, burying these kids.

Sometimes when you have a funeral or a wake, kids will wander into the casket display room. They’ll say, ‘Hey, man, this is what I want. Put me in this.’ Or I’ll be making arrangements for one of their friends or their relatives, and they’ll say, ‘When I go, put me in this. This is the casket I want.’ It really, really upsets me. When a young person comes in and says, ‘This is the casket I want,’ he’s telling me he has nothing to look forward to but a grave. I’m not numb to that. And once I get to the point where I’m numb about what’s going on in my business, then it’s time for me to shut my door and get out of it. People don’t understand that I’m human.

A lot of times, parents want to beat up on themselves and ask, ‘What did I do wrong?’ But everyone reacts totally different. Some parents feel relieved because of the lifestyle their kids were leading. They know their children weren’t doing the right thing. They know they were out there robbing and stealing from folks. But a lot of times, kids have died from mistaken identity. They’re totally innocent people. One kid was going to culinary school and had two jobs. Some of these kids, they’re going to school, going to church, and they still become victims. Because they got in the wrong car that day. Or they took a shortcut that day, and somebody wanted those tennis shoes they had on.

One of my own brothers was killed in 1969, when we lived in the West End. His friends robbed him right outside my mother’s house.  At that time, it was very seldom that you heard of people getting killed, and most of the time it was robbery, anyway. Now, you got these angry young men, shooting people for senseless reasons, over senseless arguments. I see a numbness to the community. In the past, people heard gunshots and everybody scattered or ducked into their homes. Kids hear gunshots now and it’s like they been in Beirut or somewhere. They’ve grown accustomed to hearing it.”

Delores Neal, 55, is a counselor at the St. Louis Crisis Nursery, a nonprofit that provides respite childcare for overwhelmed families.

“I predominantly deal with city residents in zip code 63107, an area that has always been impacted by crime and violence. There’s a psychological effect when people don’t feel safe in their community, and the number one thing is fear. People try to go out and do normal things — go to the grocery store, go to work. But they’re never really at ease. And they’re very, very afraid for their children. They want them to be able to go outside and play, or walk as a family, and not hear gunfire or have to duck because someone is shooting at somebody else and they’re caught in the crossfire.

The gunfire is very random. Sometimes I think it’s like living in an area that has frequent storms. You try to prepare, to teach your kids about safety. You try to make sure they’re not hanging with the wrong people. You try to do the things the parents should do, to make sure your kids go to school and participate in afterschool programs. You try to do all those things, but you know where you live, and you know that a storm might hit. It can be a beautiful, 80-degree day, with people playing outside and older people working in their gardens, and somebody still might see a person they’ve been looking for and decide to shoot at them. And they have some high-powered weapons. It sounds like a cannon going off.

I don’t know if these kids get a lot of opportunities to express their feelings about the violence. But if you listen to them, they will talk about who has a gun, what they saw, and what they heard. Who got shot, who got murdered. Even with young girls, too. Mom’s boyfriend may have gotten shot, or their cousin may have been involved in a shooting. Those are the kinds of conversations that you might hear on a playground.”

Valerie Dent, 61, is the mother of James Dent, 31, and Steven Dent, 24, who were both shot and killed on September 5, 2014, down the street from her house. She has lived in the West End of St. Louis her entire life.

“My sons were coming home from work when they were killed. It was around 7:45 that morning, and they were gunned down in the street. Steve stayed with me, and he always came right home in the morning. He would take my granddaughter to her bus stop. So that Friday morning, we were downstairs and my granddaughter said, ‘Grandma, I don’t want you to take me to school. I want Uncle Steve.’ And I said, ‘Uncle Steve isn’t here, so grandma’s gonna have to take you. But we’re going to get Uncle Steve when he gets home. When he gets home, he’s going to be in big trouble.’

We were standing downstairs in the kitchen, and just then Steve’s girlfriend came off the third floor and said, ‘Ms. Dent, Steve and James have been shot.’ So I got into my car and I went around the corner, and my babies were there in the street. It felt like it took forever for the police to do what they needed to do. The officers were really, really nice, I can’t complain about that. But at that moment, I felt like I just needed to get to my children. The police cleaned them up and let me see them before they took them to the morgue. And the next part was for me to tell my grandchildren that their uncle and their father had been murdered.

I just couldn’t believe they were dead. They worked the third shift, and before they went to work that night, I went to pick Steve’s girlfriend up from the bus stop. When I got back to the house, they were still there. James and Steve, they played like they were six or seven, and they were just coming out the door when we got back, laughing and joking. I started fussing them. I was like, ‘That’s why you guys don’t keep jobs, you’re always late. Steve, you could have went and picked up your girlfriend.’ You know, just blah blah blah blah blah. And Steve came up to me and kissed me goodbye and said, ‘I love you.’ And James kissed me, too, and said, ‘Love you, Mom.’ Then they ran down the driveway, laughing, and that was basically the last time I ever saw them. I’m always going to remember them coming out the door, playing and laughing and joking with each other.

I had never lost any children before, so all I can say is that it’s a hard pill to swallow. To see both your babies laying in the street over senseless killing, over nothing. Black-on-black crime has become an epidemic nationwide, and I don’t really feel the government is doing anything to stop it. For instance, when Mike Brown got killed, it was by police, so everybody was in an uproar. So why aren’t we in an uproar when someone looks just like me is killing my people? All lives matter, just like Mike Brown’s life mattered. James and Steve’s lives mattered. No person has the right to take something that they did not give.

[Photo: Google Maps]