Riding the mean streets of St. Louis with the Rev. Cornelius Osby, investigator for the circuit attorney’s office
first published in the Riverfront Times, March 2, 1994
by C.D. Stelzer
“Yeah, this one happened back in August,” says Cornelius Osby. “So it was warm. In your mind’s eye, can you imagine folks sittin’ out on a porch up here, mindin’ their own business, for the most part, and all of a sudden shots started going off?”
When the shooting stopped, one man was dead and another critically wounded. The case would be summarized in the crime roundup of the next morning’s newspaper and forgotten. But Osby still remembers.
Remembering is what he does.
For the past 16 years, Osby, 41, has been pounding the pavement as an investigator for the St. Louis circuit attorney’s office.
As part of his job, he wears a badge and a .38-caliber revolver under his suit coat. There is, however, a less temporal aspect of his identity that the investigator prefers not to conceal. He packs it every day. The Rev. Osby is the youth minister and associate pastor at the St. Luke Memorial Missionary Baptist Church on Finney Avenue.
“I’m serious about what I do on the job, and being a minister helps me a lot times because it gives me that sense of not becoming burned out and jaded,” he says. “It’s easy on this job to get anesthetized. You see dead bodies on a regular basis. You see degrading circumstances.
“I can quit the circuit’s attorney’s job as an investigator, but the ministry — I’m in it for life,” says Osby. “If I want to really have piece of mind, I have to stay in it and do everything that I’m called to do.”
Osby estimates he has investigated between 20 and 30 murders during his career. Since last year at this time, when he began working in a newly formed homicide unit established by Circuit Attorney Dee Joyce-Hayes, Osby has been involved in three more cases. “You do a whole of paperwork,” he says. It begins when the circuit attorney’s office or a grand jury issues an indictment. “You wind up getting medical records, autopsy reports, gun reports, evidence technician unit’s reports, photos — and that’s just the beginning.”
“You have to maintain contact with the witnesses for up to a year. You can send a subpoena, but that doesn’t mean much without a follow-up call,” says Osby. Then there are pretrial interviews that must be arranged, which is Osby’s task for the day. What I’m trying to do is get an established line on where these folks hang out at, how they live. So when the time comes, I have a better grasp on how to stay in touch with them, as opposed to them disappearing on me.
“You know every time a witness testifies, to a certain degree, they have apprehension. They’re apprehensive because of the neighborhood and the environment,” says Osby. A recent example of this skittishness surfaced last month, when Circuit Attorney Joyce-Hayes to plead cooperation in solving the shooting death of 29-year-old Linda Mattlock. Mattlock died from a bullet that came through the window of her apartment. Witnesses have refused to cooperate in the investigation, Joyce-Hayes said. As of last week, no one had come forward. “We’re still looking for witnesses,” says Osby. “At this point, we still don’t have anybody yet who is willing to come forward.”
Last year, the circuit attorney had the insight to develop the homicide unit in advance of the record-breaking 267 murders that the city experienced. Osby and the 20 other investigators assigned to the unit have been saddled with helping prepare each of these cases.
A report recently released by the Department of Health shows firearms were the second leading cause of inury-related deaths nationwide last year. At the current rate, the study predicts guns will kill more Americans than car wrecks in the not-too-distant future. In 1993, there were more than 38,000 shooting deaths in the United States compared with 43,500 auto fatalities, according to the study.
Locally, the unprecedented city homicide rate may not provide the best indication of just how common gunplay has become. A better measure perhaps is to compare aggravated assaults over the last decade. In 1993, there were 8,189 such crimes in St. Louis. More than half the number — 52.7 — were committed with the aid of a firearm. In 1983, guns were used in only 20.7 percent of the aggravated assaults, according the St. Louis Police Department. “I guess what it’s saying is that in 1993 the thing that is handy is a firearm,” a policed-department spokesman told the RFT.”
Osby have never had reason to fire his own revolver in the line of duty and considers it a blessing. But he doesn’t rely strictly on prayer to get him through the day. He knows his .38 is not match for the automatic weapons available to teenage gang members. “You just make sure you carry extra bullets and you learn how to load real quick,” he says.
Osby is driving through familar territory. From behind the steering wheel of his city-owned car, he alternately plays the role preacher, investigator and tour guide to the stranger riding shotgun.
His turf — the North Side and West End of the city — is more tundra on this day. Bundled in a camel’s hair overcoat, with a fedora pulled low across his forehead, Osby gingerly turns the Chevy onto Cates Avenue. The rubbish galosh on his right foot, which covers an expensive dress shoe, softly rides the brake pedal. There is a grace to these measured motions, which in some ways cloaks the diminutive stature of a middle-aged man who still seems to possess the reflexes and physique of a high-school halfback.
The car stops in front of a two-and-half story brick house with a deep front yard. If there is trash in the vacant lots across the street, it is hidden under snow. In the waning light of the truncated winter afternoon, clouds drape the sky at the scene of last summer’s violence, as street now shrouded with ice.
So this is where went down. It is hard to imagine, for the evidence of the crime is not here but in the memories of transient and sometimes-uncooperative prosecution witnesses. Osby is tracking one this day, repeatedly shuttling between addresses of people who never seem to stay in one place very long. Next to him, on the front seat of the blue sedan, is an orange file folder, which contains the police and medical reports on the case.
It happened just after midnight on Aug. 20, with the temperature hovering at around 80 degrees. The bullets hit 20-year-old Gregory Taylor while he sat in a brown Pontiac at the curb in the 5700 block of Cates Avenue. He was pronounced dead on arrival at Barnes Hospital. The other victim, Dwayne McGuire, who was standing on the sidewalk received wounds in the stomach and left buttock. The police found an empty 40-ounce bottle of Old English Ale on the floorboard of the car. A back window had been shattered and glass was strewn about the rear interior. There was a ricochet mark on the front passenger side.
The defendant, Marcus Moore, 18, remains in custody and is awaiting trial.
“I’ll show you where I grew up at,” says Osby. He is driving west on Martin Luther King Boulevard. I hung oput up here. I ran up here coming up. I’m a life-long resident of St. Louis.” Osby slows as he passes a storefront in the 4400 block, which displays a sign for the J&C Resale Furniture Shop.
“It hurts in a way to come back,” he says.
Mattie’s Dinette is still open, but the barbershop is gone. The remaining businesses along this one thriving commercial strip are mainly package-liquor stores, auto-parts outlets and taverns. “The used to be a clothing store,” says Osby. “The drugstore there, it’s so bad he can[‘t open the door. He has to serve through the window. That’s how bad it is.
“When we moved in, streetcars ran up and down here,” recalls Osby. Back then this portion of Martin Luther King was still called Easton Avenue. The name change came in 1972, but living conditions haven’t improved. Quite the contrary, says Osby, who is wearing a lapel button honoring the slain civil-rights leader. “I look back and I try to see the embryonic stages of this thing starting. To be honest with you, the family unit — the black family unit, in particular, began to degenerate shortly after King was assassinated. A lot of people might not agree, because they’ll say there (already) slums, but there was a sense of neighborhood pride prior to that.
“I’ll show the building where I got my basic upbringing in the church,” says Osby. He points out a location in the 5700 block of Martin Luther KIng. “My uncle, he’s passed away now, but he had a church right here, a storefront church.” Osby’s uncle, though influential, wasn’t the family’s only male role model.
“I came from a broken home,” says Osby. My stepfather was a man who showed love, the right kind of love. He was not as much of a disciplinarian physically as he was verbally. He could talk to you. He wouldn’t even have to use an ounce of profanity. But it was what he said that instilled in you a certain degree of respectful fear. I have the utmost respect for him.”
In Osby’s opinion, parental guidance and discipline are what young people need most. “A whole lot of it is peer pressure, because the parents have not nurtured them and given them that tough love. It doesn’t take much for a weed to grow. Unfortunately, that’s how children have come up without any care, without any loving attention,” says, Osby. “Gangs are nothing more than surrogate families. That’s all they are. There is a sense of belonging, a sense of being part of something that has some order — though it’s really mostly chaotic.”
It takes three times before Osby finally connects with the witness he is scheduled to bring downtown. In the meantime, he continues to meander down glazed side streets, passing a burned-out church and a liquor store, where men huddle outside in the cold. Along the way, he reminisces about the well-kept and once-coveted residences on Academy Avenue, where the lives of homeowners are now dictated by fear of violence. On Arlington, he recounts a drive-by shooting in which a young man died in a hail of automatic weapons fire.
Everywhere he drives there are signs, including the middle-class neighborhoods of the Ville and Penrose Park. At the corner of Euclid and Farlin avenues, the exterior of Mr. J.’s Clothing Store is covered with graffiti. Osby translates the cryptic messages. “Those are the Rolling 20s. A guy named K-9 is dead. That RIP means rest in peace, K-9. If you ride and read the walls, you can find out what’s going on in a neighborhood. The walls tell it all.
This kind of spray-painted epitaph is only one of the deadly customs in a city that becoming a cemetery — a necropolis — for many young black men. “You got some of the kids out here who make their own funeral arrangements,” says Osby. “(They) got money to do it, and will go to one of the funeral homes and give them down to the letter what they want on their tombstone. Tell them what color casket they want. Tell them what kind of flowers they want. Go get the suit. Take it to the funeral home.”
Osby has a theory about how gang members acquire the tools of death. “Oh, man, guns are coming from guys who got federal gun licenses and they are businessmen. Not every one, but a good portion are businessmen.” He compares these arms dealers to owners of fast-food franchises. “The guy who is coming in from the county or from the sticks or the boonies, he’s going to (command) a sense of respect or fear. The kid that is doing his distribution is not goin’ to snitch on him. The kid will take 10 years to keep from being killed by this guy he thinks has the juice,” says Osby. (It’s) not too far-fetched. Ain’t a black person out here got a building with a gun shop in it in St. Louis. The gunsmith around the corner on King Drive, I’m sure it’s white-owned.”
When asked the inevitable question whether the mayhem is drug-related, Osby replies guardedly. “It may be drug-related. It’s really hard to say. The last thing they’ll admit to a lot of times is, ‘He owed me drug money — that’s why I killed him,’ because that’s premeditation. These guys have lawyers. You can’t kill a man because he owes you. That’s murder one, anywhere. Not manslaughter. Not murder two. That’s murder one without a doubt.”
“Does smoke bother you?” asks Osby. He cracks a window and lights his first cigarette, after driving around for a few hours. “These are my one vice,” says Osby. “These and coffee.” He laughs ” I think they’re going to stick me in a caffeine-nicotine rehab center.
Osby is on his third swing by the apartment of the boyfriend of a woman who witnessed the Cates Avenue slaying. The hospitality tour is over. “This is the part that drives you up the wall. Lookin’ day in and day out for ’em, then these people become a project for me. If this was actually a trial (date), my prosecuting attorney would be turning back flips by now.
“She’s nervous,” says Osby of the witness. “I think these guys guys have been back buggin’ her.” Osby find the woman at one of the addresses. Osby begins thinking out loud, contemplating informing the police of the situation. “She’s young,” he says. “She has children, and knowing these guys, they would hurt her. They could care less.”
On his third attempt, Osby finds the woman at one of the addresses. As he drives back across town one more time, she talks about the gang problem. The witness is 21. She holds the youngest of her three children in her arms. Next to her in the backseat is her eldest child, a 4-year-old daughter. “I got kids. I’ve been catchin’ more hell than before. It just don’t make no sense. Half of them don’t have the education of a fifth-grader, but they want to kill,” she says. Somehow the guns need to be removed from the streets, but she expresses no hope for the future. “It’s a waste of time to talk about it. Half the things these boys carry, the police can’t match it.”
Before the witness goes downtown, Osby drops her children at her great-grandmother’s house. He carries one of the kids inside himself. She is wearing a pink snowsuit.
During his earlier rounds, Osby drove by a vacant lot at the corner of Aldine and Prairie avenues. The area is near the location of the now-defunct Laclede Packing Co. As a boy, Osby recalls sometimes watching cattle being slaughtered on Sunday afternoon here.
On Dec. 10, the body of 10-year-old Cassidy Senter was found in the vicinity. A remnant of yellow plastic police tape, which was used to cordon off the crime scene, still lies on the ground. Nearby there is a frozen rose tied to a telephone pole.
Osby is silent for a moment. It is the first time he stops talking all afternoon.