‘Knockout Game’ Case Shocked St. Louis, Then Fell Apart

STL Today, March 4, 2012

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.

Matt Quain

{snip}

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.

• • •

{snip}

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.

{snip}

{snip} 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.”

{snip} 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. {snip}

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.

{snip}

• • •

{snip}

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.

{snip}

• • •

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.

{snip}

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.

{snip}

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.”

{snip}

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.

{snip}

• • •

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.”

{snip}

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

{snip}

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