St. Louis Police Department

Street Preacher

Riding the mean streets of St. Louis with the Rev. Cornelius Osby, investigator for the circuit attorney’s office

The Rev. Cornelius Osby in 1994. Osby was then an investigator for the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office. In 1993, there were a record-breaking 267 homicides committed in the city. (photo by Mike DeFillippo)

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.

Murder City

More than two decades ago, an ATF study of guns confiscated from criminals in St. Louis showed that the merchants of death were often federally licensed firearms dealers from white suburbs. There is no reason to believe that correlation has changed.

In 1999, AFT stats showed handguns used in violent crimes in the inner city of St. Louis were legally purchased by straw parties from legally licensed federal firearms dealer and then resold to criminals, which contradicts the NRA and gun manufacturers claims.

A version of this story appeared in the Riverfront Times, March 31, 1999.

[In 2020, 262 people were murdered in the city of St. Louis. Most of the homicides were committed with handguns. Among those who died was retired St. Louis Police Department Captain Dave Dorn.]

by C.D. Stelzer

“Sixth District Officers received a call for a man down in the alley. When they arrived, they observed the victim lying behind the left rear of his vehicle, bleeding from his nose and mouth area. He was unconscious and had suffered a gunshot wound to the left side of the stomach, car key laying near him. The driver’s door was open and there was blood splatter on a magazine, which was in the center of the front seat.”

The staccato lines of a police report, this one attached to the name of Tyrone Polk, who died on the night of May 28, 1998, in an alley in the 8600 block of Partridge Avenue, a neighborhood of well-kept brick bungalows north of Calvary Cemetery. One neighbor reported hearing a shot fired behind her home sometime after 9:30 p.m; another neighbor discovered the body about an hour later. Polk, a 41-year-old black man, lived nearby in the 1500 block of McLaran Avenue.

The homicide remains unsolved. No suspect has been charged. The weapon, which the St. Louis police believe to be a handgun, has not been recovered. The investigation remains open. There is nothing extraordinary about the case — other than perhaps how routine this kind of gun play has become. Last year, 75 of the 80 firearms fatalities in the city of St. Louis were attributed to handguns, according to police records. Guns and the violence they cause are ubiquitous in urban settings such as the one in which Polk died. During the first 11 months of 1998, police registered 200 gun-related assaults in the same area. Polk’s death is just one of the more than 30,000 caused by firearms in the United States each year.

On the night Polk died of a gunshot wound in a North St. Louis alley, gun-industry executives were meeting in a strategy session 260 miles southwest of the city at Big Cedar Lodge, a posh resort on Table Rock Lake. The conference, sponsored by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), focused on marketing: Marketing guns to women. Marketing guns to youth. Marketing guns to minorities.

At the same meeting, the gun-industry executives decided to pool millions of dollars of their profits and use the money for public-relations purposes. This joint fund has more recently been expanded to help coordinate legal expenses associated with a growing number of lawsuits filed against gun manufacturers.

If Proposition B passes in the April 6 election, it will permit citizens to lawfully carry concealed weapons, but it will do nothing to stop the illicit trade in firearms that now exists. The vituperative campaign has so far overshadowed Mayor Clarence Harmon’s recent announcement that St. Louis intends to follow the lead of five other cities in suing the gun industry for costs associated with firearms violence. If St. Louis models its lawsuit after those already filed, gun makers, distributors and dealers have serious cause for concern.

“The gun manufacturers have left us no choice but to pursue our legal option,” says Harmon. “After numerous discussions they have proven unwilling to cooperate with mayors on any action that would make guns safer or make it harder for guns to fall into the wrong hands. In addition, gun violence costs the city an enormous amount in taxpayer dollars, not to mention the psychological toll it takes on our citizens and our children.”

Now comes a study that may bolster the city’s case against gun manufacturers. Conducted by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and quietly released last month, the study shows just how these lethal weapons are allowed to “fall into the wrong hands,” as the mayor puts it. The ATF’s statistical analysis — of guns confiscated from criminals in St. Louis — strongly suggests that the merchants of death are most often federally licensed firearms dealers from mainly white suburbs. Moreover, the relatively brief time between the purchase of these guns from the dealers and their use in crimes in the black neighborhoods of the inner city suggests that some gun dealers are selling guns directly to criminals — or to “straw men” who turn around and sell them to criminals.

Sold in St. Louis

Although the police have not recovered the handgun used to kill Tyrone Polk, statistics compiled by the ATF in 1997-98 give a good indication of the types of weapons most often used in such crimes, as well as where they originate. The study traced crime guns recovered by metropolitan police departments in 27 cities.

In St. Louis, the .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver remains the weapon most frequently used by criminals, according to the ATF findings. Several cheap semiautomatic pistols are also favored, particularly among juveniles and young adults. Four of the local favorites are the Bryco, Lorcin, Raven and Davis. The last brand, which is still in production, retails for as little as $88.

The ATF tracked 1,194 guns confiscated in St. Louis back to the licensed gun dealers who sold them. A little more than 45 percent of the weapons traced back to gun dealers were purchased in Missouri. Another 10.1 percent were tracked to Illinois. Eight percent of the total came from Florida, a state that already permits the carrying of concealed weapons. The Sunshine State scored even higher among St. Louis criminals 18-24 years of age, accounting for 10.3 percent of the traceable guns seized in the city.

The ATF study gauges the period between the purchase of a firearm and its recovery by the police as an indicator of whether illegal trafficking in a particular type of gun is prevalent in a specific area. According to ATF guidelines, a “time to crime” of less than three years suggests that federal firearms licensees are selling guns directly to criminals or that the guns are being acquired indirectly through straw men who purchase weapons and then resell them. For instance, of the 41 traceable Ruger 9 mm pistols confiscated in the city of St. Louis over the course of a one year period, 24 — or 58.5 percent — were used for criminal purposes within three years of their purchase, according to the ATF analysis.

The numbers show a correlation indicating that criminals in the city of St. Louis acquire the plurality of their guns from licensed dealers located in the suburbs. The ATF has determined that nearly half of the firearms used to commit crimes in the city of St. Louis were acquired from licensed dealers in the state of Missouri. Only 26 firearms licensees and four pawnshops in the city sell guns, according to the ATF. By contrast, ATF records show 277 federally licensed gun dealers doing business in St. Louis County.

Take the Marshal Gun Shop in Dellwood, for example. Established in 1951, the shop advertises its weaponry in a Yellow Pages ad that depicts a cartoon sheriff showing off his badge. As a part of its “balanced” coverage of the concealed-weapons debate, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently painted a similarly innocent law-and-order image of the gun shop’s owner, 71-year-old Henry J. Cernicek. Shortly after the laudatory story appeared, on March 17, Edward L. Dowd, U.S. attorney for eastern Missouri, announced the indictment of Cernicek and two associates for violating federal firearms laws by selling and delivering approximately 300 firearms that were later seized from crime scenes from 1989-1996. The criminal case against the Cernicek is based on ATF tracking, which shows an average lapse of less than a year from the purchase of the guns at the dealers to their recovery by police — after the commission of a crime.

Dowd is cautious in talking about the Marshal Gun Shop case. He is also reluctant to postulate any all-encompassing theory about how crime guns are acquired. “The fact that a gun is seized from a crime scene doesn’t mean that it is an illegal sale,” says Dowd. “People can own them legally and commit a crime with them.”

Sometimes, though, it’s impossible to determine whether sales of handguns are legal. In other cases, it’s difficult to determine the number of firearms transactions that occur. Take the Fenton Pawn Shop case: In 1984, the ATF cited pawnshop owner Charles T. Sturdy for numerous violations of federal firearms regulations, including failure to maintain accurate and complete records, according to a federal-appeals-court summary of the case. Instead of revoking his license, the agency reprimanded Sturdy and allowed him to continue selling firearms. The ATF admonished the pawnshop owner again in 1989. It was not until 1993, nine years after Sturdy was first cited, that the agency finally revoked his license.

The flow of arms into the city from the suburbs continues. So far, 470 crime guns have been seized this year, according to a tally kept by the St. Louis Police Department.

Dead Men Walking

There is a symmetry in the alley behind Partridge Avenue, an order that belies the violence of 10 months ago: The houses made of bricks from the same kiln. The tiny backyards surveyed to the same dimensions. The white doors of the single-car garages, all in a row. None of it evokes danger — not now, not in the light of day. In a very real sense, though, the killing that occurred here personifies the gun industry’s target market. The bullet may not have had his name on it, but Polk, in many ways, was destined to become human prey. That he survived into middle age is worth noting. From the scant details of the police blotter, it is impossible to determine the motive for his homicide. But the ATF study gives some clues.

Excluding the general category of “firearms offenses,” narcotics cases were most often associated with traceable crime guns, representing nearly 20 percent of guns confiscated in St. Louis. The narcotics category is almost three times larger than the combined categories of assault, threats, burglary, theft and fraud. Among 18-24-year-olds, the correlation between drugs and guns is higher still, with narcotics busts accounting for nearly one-third of the crime guns seized.

In 1998, handguns accounted for 75 of 80 fatal shootings in the city, according to the latest available police statistics. Also according to police statistics, 16 of those murders occurred in the city’s 6th District, where Polk was slain.

The Missouri Department of Health catalogs the mayhem by ZIP code. In the 63147 ZIP code, where Polk died, 33 black males were victims of homicide between 1990 and 1997. In 1997, the latest year available from the Health Department, 121 blacks of both sexes in Polk’s age group (25-44 years of age) were the victims of firearms assaults in the city. By comparison, St. Louis County — with almost three times the population of the city and nearly 10 times the gun dealers — had a total of just 120 firearms assaults in all age categories combined during the same time period.

Between 1990 and 1997, 1,332 blacks, male and female, were murdered with firearms in the city of St. Louis. It is fitting that these figures have been compiled by the Health Department, because they represent an epidemic, an epidemic of violence.

Firing Back

Over the past decades there has been a continuing arms race between criminals and the police. As gun and ammo manufacturers offered a more deadly class of pistols and more powerful bullets, cops and robbers elicited the typical American consumer reaction — they went shopping. Six-shooters were scrapped for semiautomatics with 10-round magazines. The upshot is that crime and its flip side, self-defense and law enforcement, have provided one of the few potential areas of growth for an otherwise stagnant market.

“For whom do you think they are producing and marketing fingerprint-resistant-finished guns, or handguns that are modifiable into automatic machine guns, or handguns that shoot rifle shells?” asks Harmon. “Certainly not for home protection, certainly not for game hunters, certainly not for law-abiding citizens. They are only looking at their own bottom line,” says the mayor, referring to the gun manufacturers.

Because St. Louis has yet to file its suit, the mayor’s office is refusing to divulge the defendants it intends to name in its case against the gun industry. But the situation in St. Louis appears similar in some ways to Chicago, which filed suit in November, naming a long list of gun manufacturers, distributors and retailers. The latter group comprises suburban gun shops and sporting-goods stores, where firearms have allegedly been illegally sold with the knowledge that they would likely be used to commit crimes.

“In the city of Chicago, we have 600 or so people killed a year by handguns. They (the gun industry) can argue that handguns make people safer, but a lot it depends on the environment you are in,” says Matthew Getter, one of the attorneys for the city of Chicago involved in the case. “It is hard to argue that the city of Chicago or any major urban areas are safer as a result of the widespread yet illegal availability of guns.”

The Chicago case is based on the idea of public nuisance, Getter says. A public nuisance exists when there is an unreasonable risk of harm to public health, safety and welfare. The only danger the gun industry risks as a result of the Chicago lawsuit “is not making as much money on illegal sales as they are now,” says Getter.

“We know which dealers are selling guns that are ending up in the city of Chicago,” he adds. “It’s not hard to track how these guns are getting into the city. They are getting into the city because the dealers, who are located on the outskirts of the city, are selling guns to Chicago residents, where they know or should reasonably foresee that these guns are going to be brought back into the city illegally.”

The bottom line, in Getter’s opinion, is accountability. “A manufacturer is presumed to know his market. Any manufacturer who does not know what his market is, is not doing his job right,” he says. “The manufacturers designed these weapons to be attractive to criminals. They design these handguns to sometimes fit in your shirt pocket, to be easily concealed. They design them so as to not have such things as external hammers, because that way they get caught inside your pocket when you try to pull them out. They even advertise these guns as “snag-free,” says Getter. “These are not guns designed for legitimate purposes — they’re designed for killing human beings.”

The New Orleans lawsuit is different from Chicago’s in that it takes a more traditional liability approach against the gun industry, arguing that their products are unsafe.

In both cases, the gun industry continues to deny any responsibility for the carnage: “The vast majority of the American public think these suits are wrong and make no sense,” says Robert Delfay, president of the NSSF, the gun industry’s trade organization. “There is just no doubt in my mind that if we get out there and talk to some of these mayors about what this industry is already doing in the areas of safety and education and show them the National Safety Council statistics that show this as working and offer to work with them in their communities in developing educational programs, we can head off the vast majority of suits that may be anticipated out there.”

Contrary to Delfay’s remark, a bevy of big-city mayors, including Harmon, have already tried to hash out an agreement with gun-industry executives, to no avail.

The meeting took place here in St. Louis in August. Before the negotiating session, the U.S. Conference of Mayors had set up a gun-violence task force to look at the problem. Mayor Edward G. Rendell of Philadelphia chaired the group; Harmon acted as co-chair. After formulating a list of recommendations, the urban leaders requested a dialogue with the gun industry over issues such as the illicit handgun trade and consumer safety.

“The mayors went home with an understanding that they had come to some consensus with the gun manufacturers,” says Julie Stone, policy assistant to Harmon. “None of those things happened to the satisfaction of the mayors. We asked (the gun industry) to come to the table and talk to us first, and (Harmon) was very disappointed with the outcome.”

The list of actions the mayors requested the gun industry to support included limiting the number of guns a buyer could purchase to one a month. That restriction, which is meant to prevent illegal straw purchases, is modeled after state laws in Virginia, Maryland and South Carolina. The mayors also advocated the closing of a loophole that allows gun-show participants to evade compliance with the five-day waiting period under the federal Brady Law.

Target Market

As the gun industry prepares to meet the legal challenge, it has also embarked on a public-relations offensive, hiring Porter/ Novelli, a top New York PR firm, to spruce up its image. “I can’t emphasize strongly enough that the reason that these lawsuits have gone as far as they have is because this industry has done a very poor job of communicating what it stands for and what it does in the area of safety and education,” says Delfay.

The public-relations strategy Delfay espouses began to take shape last year, when the NSSF sponsored its Shooting Sports Summit at Big Cedar Lodge. The opening of the four-day Ozark affair took place in the Grandview Room, where conference participants nibbled on a continental breakfast amid the rustic splendor of a simulated Adirondack hunting lodge, complete with exposed beams, moose antlers and glassy-eyed trophy bucks staring down at them.

Many of the handguns being used for robberies, assaults and murders in American cities are manufactured by the same companies, such as Smith & Wesson, whose representatives attended the summit meeting, and therein lies the contradiction between image and reality. Although the gun industry has traditionally catered to sportsmen and hunters and continues to claim the wholesome virtues of rural America as its own, its markets are becoming increasingly urban.

Overall, the numbers of hunting and fishing licenses issued have declined slightly in Missouri, according to state conservation-commission records. The slide is indicative of a nationwide pattern. By 1996, the number of hunters had declined in the United States to 14 million, from 20.6 million in 1975, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Sales of revolvers and pistols have also dipped from the levels of a few years ago, according to the agency, which monitors firearms sales for tax purposes. Trade publications note that even the booming export market has slumped because of the economic crisis in Asia.

Companies such as Smith & Wesson have responded to decreased sales by diversifying. Eighteen percent of the venerable gun maker’s product line is devoted to such items as bicycle frames and safety glasses. Its rival, Sturm, Ruger, has branched out into making golf clubs. With market share down across the industry, gun manufacturers are appealing to conceal-and-carry customers.

“Handgun sales are down, so they’re using these concealed-weapons laws as a marketing ploy,” says Joseph P. Sudbay, a spokesman for Handgun Control Inc. “Go into a magazine store and pick up a handgun magazine, and everything is about handguns being more concealable, the pocket rockets, this whole concept. Instead of making a gun that’s less lethal and maybe safer, they’ve gone to something that appeals to this concealed-weapons market.”

Defense Budget

At the Ozark summit meeting, gun-industry leaders agreed to unify their efforts and contribute one-half of a percent of their gross profits to support an array of public-relations programs. Shooting Industry magazine estimated the value of the joint fund at $15 million. Since then, an agreement has been reached to double the amount of the contributions and use some of the money to defend the industry against the lawsuits filed by the cities of Chicago, New Orleans, Atlanta, Miami, Bridgeport, Conn., and, soon, St. Louis.

“With the tremendous challenges we have facing us, we need to not be duplicating effort or even having conflicting effort,” says Delfay. “We can head off these extreme lawsuits through education.” By labeling its efforts “educational,” the NSSF could skirt campaign-finance limits by paying for issue-oriented advertising that indirectly supports pro-gun candidates.

Last month, a federal jury in Brooklyn found 15 gun manufacturers negligent and nine of them liable for damages to seven shooting victims. This suit, as well as those filed by the cities, have had another unintentional consequence, forging a closer bond between the gun industry and the National Rifle Association (NRA). “We have been talking to the NRA (about) kinds of strategies, what states we could maybe focus on,” says Jack Adkins of the American Shooting Sports Council (ASSC), the lobbying group that represents the gun manufacturers. The NRA also played a role in recent removal of the Richard Feldman from the leadership of the ASSC, because Feldman was perceived as being too willing to compromise with industry adversaries.

NRA lobbyists in Georgia have already stymied Atlanta’s lawsuit by orchestrating the passage of a state law that makes suing gun manufacturers illegal. Similar efforts are afoot in the Florida Legislature.

Meanwhile, the battle has moved into the U.S. Congress, where Senate Democrats, including Dick Durbin of Illinois, have introduced a bill that would allow cities to recoup federal, as well as local, costs associated with the medical treatment of shooting victims. Examples of federal expenses include Medicaid, disability and unemployment payments to crime victims.

In the House, Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), an NRA director, has countered the Senate bill with one that would squelch lawsuits seeking to hold gun manufacturers liable for crimes committed with their weapons. Barr may be the most outspoken of NRA supporters in Congress, but he is far from alone. The NRA’s influence has been acquired through its control of the third largest political-action committee in the country, which disbursed a total of more than $5.2 million during 1998 election cycle. More than $1.3 million of that money went to GOP congressional candidates; the NRA Political Victory Fund donated a little more than $283,000 to congressional Democrats.

The NRA has already provided the struggling gun industry with a windfall through its lobbying efforts in the 31 state legislatures that have now approved concealed-carry laws. Missouri is the first state to take a popular vote on the issue. Other state concealed-weapons laws have had the effect of creating a new legitimate market for the industry’s lethal weapons. In effect, the legal trade feeds off the illegal trade, forming a symbiotic relationship between legitimate gun toters and the pistol-packing criminals. The chief selling point is fear, with gun-related crimes or the perception of them acting to drive up the sales. It’s the kind of deadly demand gun makers and dealers are more than willing to supply for a price.

The gun industry, however, has chosen not to negotiate a ceasefire with the cities that have been victimized by their products. Although Feldman, the recently removed head of the ASSC, attended the St. Louis meeting — as did Ed Schultz, the CEO of Smith & Wesson — no agreement was reached. Local gun-industry executives who also attended the failed negotiating session included Dick Hammet of Olin Winchester and Gerald W. Bersett of Blount International Inc.

Bersett, an alumnus of the University of Missouri-Rolla, has a long and distinguished career in the gun industry. He has acted as the chairman of the NSSF in the past and served as an executive at Olin Winchester for 30 years before assuming the leadership of Sturm, Ruger, a prominent handgun manufacturer, in 1995. He now heads Blount’s Federal Cartridge Co., an ammunition manufacturer.

In his current position Bersett is paid $325,000 a year, according to Security and Exchange Commission filings. His contract allows for an annual bonus equal to his yearly income if he exceeds performance goals.

The marketing director of Federal Cartridge attended last year’s gun-industry conference at Big Cedar Lodge. In the pastoral setting, the guns-and-ammo crowd ruminated over strategies to increase sales in the hunting and target-shooting categories. Public-opinion researchers solicited their opinions, retailers contributed their 2 cents’ worth and salesmen pitched ideas. They talked about the approaching millennium and Internet sales, and, when they were done talking, some of the them retired to a reception sponsored by Budweiser beer. By no small coincidence, the maker of that beer, Anheuser-Busch Inc., has seen fit to support Prop B.

There is nothing in the itinerary that even hints at another one of the gun industry’s markets — tactical shooting. This is a euphemism for sniper fire, the targeting of two-legged quarry. But Federal Cartridge’s Gold Medal .308 caliber ammunition, loaded with the Sierra 168-grain hollow-point boat-tail bullet, is favored by snipers throughout the world, according to a story that appeared in the Arizona Republic last year.

Because the case is still open, St. Louis homicide detectives are unwilling to provide much information about Tyrone Polk’s murder. The police have refused to reveal the caliber of the weapon used in the crime, the make and model of Polk’s vehicle or, more important, whether Polk had a criminal history. To all but family and friends, he is an invisible man, an example of the anonymity that surrounds the victims of the gun trade.

Long Time Gone

After decades on the lam, a student anti-war protestor is busted.

Washington University student Howard Mechanic

A version of this story first appeared in the Riverfront Times, Feb. 16, 2000. Howard Mechanic was granted a pardon in January 2001 by out-going President Bill Clinton.

Penny Overton, a young reporter for the Scottsdale (Ariz.) Tribune, found it difficult to believe when Gary Tredway told her he was living under an assumed name. The confession came during her second encounter with the City Council candidate.

During her first interview with Tredway, Overton had told the candidate she would need to verify the information on his résumé and campaign literature. When she informed him of this standard practice, Tredway “started getting really nervous,” Overton says. The reporter tried to put Tredway, a well-known community activist, at ease by asking some softball questions about his family and education, but that only seemed to make the candidate more tense. “He was just sweating buckets the whole time,” she recalls.

After their first meeting, Tredway made repeated attempts to contact her, but Overton says she failed to return the calls because she was busy covering a high-profile murder case. When she finally met with Tredway a second time, on Feb. 3, he first told her that there was a discrepancy in his college transcripts. Overton took this to mean that he had embellished his academic record. But as the interview progressed, Tredway revealed a much darker secret. “Eventually it came out,” says Overton. “He just said, “I’m not Gary Tredway. I’ve been living under an assumed name.’ My response was “You’re bullshitting me,'” says Overton. “This guy is about as square as you can get. He’s a Boy Scout.”

Overton’s story saying that the City Council candidate had a false identity ran in the Tribune on Monday, Feb. 7. Within days, the intricately woven deception had all but unraveled. Tredway was revealed to be Howard Mechanic, a federal fugitive wanted for his involvement in a turbulent demonstration that occurred at Washington University in 1970.

Mechanic, then a 22-year-old student, was convicted on federal charges for throwing a cherry bomb — a powerful firecracker — at firefighters who were attempting to extinguish a fire at the campus Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) building. His life story is now the subject of a podcast titled My Fugitive by George Washington University professor Nina Seavey. Seavey, who grew up in University City, became interested in the case because her father Louis Gilden was Mechanic’s defense attorney.

Originally conceived as a documentary film, Seavey uses Mechanic’s plight to delve into the student-led anti-war movement of the 1960s and 1970s, placing the onus for the repressive measures used against protestors on the federal government and its intelligence apparatus, specifically the FBI. Her research partner in this project was Jeffrey Light, a Washington D.C.-based civil rights attorney, who is an expert in filing Freedom of Information Act requests.

Seavey stepped down as the founding director of George Washington University’s Documentary Center last year after 30 years. Her documentaries and those of her students have themselves received funding from the federal government through the U.S. State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development. She started her career as a political appointee to the U.S. Defense Department during the Carter administration.

The torching of the ROTC building on the Washington University campus in St. Louis, which was carried out by anti-Vietnam War protesters, occurred just after midnight on May 5, 1970, and was precipitated by the killing of four student protesters at Kent State University by Ohio National Guardsmen the previous day.

For Mechanic — a native of Shaker Heights, Ohio — the war in Vietnam had come home: Soldiers were killing students on campus in broad daylight. Although thousands of students cheered as the flames consumed the Air Force ROTC building, no one was ever charged with the arson. But Mechanic was one of the few charged for participating in the demonstration. Upon Mechanic’s conviction by a jury, Judge James H. Meredith — known for his tough law-and-order approach — gave him the maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. After he lost his appeal in 1972, Mechanic jumped bail.

Mechanic lived with his secret for the next 28 years, settling in the early 1980s in Scottsdale, where he established an identity as Tredway, an apartment owner, health-food supplier and concerned citizen. While living in Arizona, Mechanic married and divorced under his assumed name and raised a son, who is now a 19-year-old student at a college in New Mexico. Mechanic’s twin brother, Harvey, a lawyer in Los Angeles, has refused to say whether he was contacted by his sibling during his fugitive years. Attempts to reach Mechanic’s father, who still lives in the Cleveland area, were unsuccessful.

Mechanic, who is now in federal custody in Arizona, declined through a spokesperson to be interviewed for this story. He has hired attorneys in Scottsdale and St. Louis, who have in turn retained a PR consultant to handle calls from the press. In addition, a Phoenix-area support group has been formed to lobby for Mechanic’s exoneration on the basis of the exemplary life he has led. The ranks of his defenders include the Arizona chapter of Common Cause, a citizens-advocacy organization, which lauds Mechanic for working to pass a campaign-finance reform law. .

Mechanic’s political activism spurred him to run for local office under his assumed name.

Mechanic, the idealistic student radical, still inhabited the body of this middle-aged Arizona landlord, and it only took a little coaxing by Overton to flush it all out. When the reporter, who was a toddler in 1970, began questioning the candidate about his past, she may have gained his confidence because of her knowledge of history. “I think he told me because we talked about the whole ’60s thing,” she says. When Mechanic said she wouldn’t understand his plight, Overton told him that she had done a college thesis in American studies on how the media covered the Kent State massacre.

The long-kept secret had been exposed. Wire services and the Arizona Republic picked up on the story and the pieces of a long-forgotten footnote to the Vietnam War era were broadcast nationwide, rekindling a discussion about the anti-war protests and whether Mechanic still deserves to go to prison.

One of those most directly affected by Mechanic’s flight in 1972 was Washington University English professor Carter Revard, who put up his house to secure Mechanic’s $10,000 bail. Although he still faults Mechanic for skipping out, the now-retired academic saves his harshest criticism for “the lying scoundrels and ideologues” — those who used the legal system to help dictate American foreign policy.

“My view is that they wanted to give (Mechanic) five years in jail for throwing a cherry bomb, while they were giving Medals of Honor to people who were dropping cluster bombs and napalm on Vietnamese children,” says Revard. “I thought that it was an outrage then, and I think now that it’s an outrage.”

Despite growing opposition to the Vietnam War, President Richard Milhous Nixon stunned Americans by announcing on April 30, 1970, that U.S. forces had invaded Cambodia. Within minutes, anti-war activists took to the streets, and within days more than 60 colleges had been shut down by student strikes. On May 4, at Kent State University, Ohio National Guardsmen fired more than 60 rounds into a crowd of 200 students, wounding nine and killing four. At Jackson State University in Mississippi, state troopers fired more than 300 bullets into a dormitory, killing two students and wounding 12 others. Students reacted by attacking and damaging ROTC buildings at more than 30 colleges across the country. One of those schools was Washington University. Incensed by the Kent State killings, as many as 3,000 students attended a May 4 strike rally held in the university’s quadrangle. The crowd then marched on the Air Force ROTC building. The military presence on campus had long been the focus of student protests, but nothing matched the fervor exhibited that night.

Around 12:30 a.m., several of the demonstrators entered the ROTC center with torches and set the building on fire. When firefighters arrived, the mob jeered and pelted them with rocks. Although more than 1,000 people were estimated to have taken part in the violence, only seven were charged. But it was no accident that Mechanic was one of the seven.

Long before the police busted him for throwing a cherry bomb, Mechanic had been targeted by the judicial system and police.

His name is listed in a 1970 congressional report as being among those St. Louisans suspected of traveling to Chicago in October 1969 to take part in an anti-war demonstration called the Days of Rage. The protest turned violent and resulted in massive property damage in downtown Chicago. Six protesters were shot by Chicago police, and more than two dozen cops were injured. The FBI’s target in this case was the sponsor of the protest, the Weathermen, a radical faction of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The Weathermen took their name from the lyrics of a Bob Dylan song, “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

Other congressional testimony in 1969 shows that the St. Louis Police Department had been monitoring student politics at Washington University long before Mechanic ever enrolled at the university, using informants to spy on left-wing student organizations. Police estimated the ranks of the university’s SDS chapter at no more than 20. Although Mechanic was not linked directly to SDS in the testimony, he was alleged to be a close associate of an SDS member who led a local draft-resistance group.

An earlier fire that gutted the Army ROTC headquarters in the spring semester of 1970, combined with other campus unrest, resulted in a crackdown by the university administration. The university obtained a court order naming Mechanic and six other student demonstrators, including SDS organizer Terry Koch and Devereaux Kennedy, former student-body president. The broad injunction, signed by St. Louis County Circuit Judge George E. Schaaf on March 24, 1970, identified the seven protesters as representatives of a “whole class of defendants” and thereby made them accountable for any future disturbances on campus.

Within hours of the May 4 and 5 rioting, deputized campus police arrested Mechanic. He and other participants in the demonstration had been identified from St. Louis Post-Dispatch photographs surrendered by the newspaper to the FBI. Less than a month later, Schaaf found seven defendants guilty of criminal contempt for violating the restraining order. Mechanic and Koch received the stiffest sentences — six months in jail and $500 fines. But Mechanic’s legal problems were just beginning. The feds were after him for the same crime. In October 1970, Mechanic became the first person convicted by a federal jury of violating the anti-riot law, which had been tacked on as a rider to the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Interfering with the duties of firefighters was deemed a federal offense because the Air Force ROTC building was considered federal property. Judge Meredith meted out the maximum sentence — five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Mechanic appealed, unsuccessfully. In upholding the conviction in Dec. 1971, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals expressed reservations about Mechanic’s being tried both in state and federal court for different charges stemming from the same offense. But the possibility that Mechanic had been subjected to double jeopardy wasn’t enough to cause the conviction to be set aside, the appeals court ruled.

“They were trying to get anybody who they thought was a student leader — anybody who they thought was fomenting demonstrations. They had Howard down as one of those guys,” says Revard, the English professor who put his house up as collateral for Mechanic’s $10,000 bond. When Mechanic didn’t show up to begin serving his sentence on May 24, 1972, Meredith started forfeiture proceedings. Revard relied on contributions from fellow faculty members to pay off the bond.

Unlike Mechanic, Napoleon Bland didn’t avoid incarceration. Bland, now a Muslim who has changed his name to Napoleon A. Rahim, ended up serving four-and-half years in federal prison for his part in the disturbance. In 1970, Rahim worked at Barnes Hospital and attended Washington University part-time. As a youth, he took an active interest in the civil-rights movement and in Urban League and NAACP-sponsored activities, and, for a brief period, he belonged to the militant Black Liberators group. In the wake of the Kent State massacre, he found himself swept up in the fiery protest that erupted at Washington University.

“I was one of the few African-Americans who was caught up in this melee,” says Rahim. “All I did was go down there and throw rocks and cans at the ROTC building. When they went into the building, I ran up to the building. A fellow came out and handed me a flag,” says Rahim. “The next thing I know, he was torching it. They got a picture of me. They said I burned the flag.”

Rahim says he received ineffectual legal representation and ended up serving his time at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. His prison record has haunted him ever since. “Every time that comes up, (it) seems to hold a shadow over me, as if it’s something recent. I felt that it was a great miscarriage of justice,” says Rahim, but he doesn’t hold a grudge against Mechanic for fleeing. “I’m a Muslim now, and we don’t live in the past.”

Rahim says Mechanic appears to have led an honorable life as Gary Tredway. “I feel it’s a great miscarriage of justice to even think about putting him in jail, due to the fact he’s done so much great community work where he’s been at,” he says.

It’s a view shared by Mechanic’s supporters in Phoenix. They argue that he has suffered enough and more than paid for his crime by committing himself through dedication to the community in which he lives. Others aren’t so willing to forgive and forget. One of them is retired Special Agent J. Wallace LaPrade, who headed the St. Louis FBI office in 1970. “I think he violated the law, and I think he should be held accountable,” says LaPrade, 73, who now lives in Virginia. “The fact that he left, I think, should increase the punishment that was rendered at the time that he fled. Leniency? Absolutely not. This individual committed a crime. He was convicted of a crime. And he should pay for the crime.”

LaPrade, who moved to New York City in 1971 to head the bureau’s largest field office, ironically saw his own career abruptly end, thanks to his activities fighting the anti-war movement. He was sacked as assistant director of the FBI in 1978 for failing to cooperate in the Justice Department’s investigation into the FBI’s illegal activities. The FBI was accused of burglarizing private residences and offices as part of its efforts to apprehend fugitive members of the Weather Underground.

After the burning of the ROTC building in 1970, a declassified FBI memo shows, LaPrade was contacted by an unidentified intermediary who had won union support to “repair all the damages caused by the (Washington University) demonstrators at no cost to the government.” According to the memo, the plan was designed to garner “considerable publicity … (and) Life magazine is among the members of the news media who have expressed an interest in this matter…. ” Asked this week about the memo, LaPrade says, “I never heard of such a thing.”

Washington University, however, elected to move the controversial ROTC program off-campus, and the public-relations effort flopped.

The FBI’s local efforts were not always so benign. In 1975, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence revealed that the St. Louis field office had sent anonymous letters in 1969 and 1970 to two black-militant organizations in an attempt to disrupt those groups’ activities by alleging marital infidelity among members.

The FBI’s efforts to smash the Weathermen took on added purpose in March 1970, when the group’s bomb-making efforts backfired, killing three members of the organization at a safe house in Greenwich Village. Subsequently, the Weather Underground carried out scores of bombing against targets such as Harvard University, the New York City Police headquarters, the offices of Gulf Oil, the U.S. Capitol Building and the Pentagon.

In 1971, a final attempt was made to destroy Washington University’s ROTC offices, which had been moved off-campus. That year, William Danforth was named the university’s chancellor, succeeding the beleaguered Thomas H. Eliot, who had struggled with waves of campus unrest.

Under Danforth, Washington University’s reputation grew nationally, faculty members won Nobel Prizes and Pulitzer Prizes, and the university’s endowment grew 11-fold to more than $1.7 billion. Today, about 50 Wash. U. undergraduates are enrolled in ROTC. The turmoil of 1970 became a historical footnote, and Howard Mechanic was forgotten.

Danforth, now 73 and the university’s chairman emeritus, has few recollections of that period and offers no opinion about the fate of the former student who spent a lifetime on the run for throwing fireworks at firemen. During a phone interview Saturday morning, Danforth interrupts his reminiscences to make sure of the safety of his granddaughter, who has wandered into the street in front of his house. “I didn’t like the Vietnam War,” he says. “(But) I was in the Korean War and had a great sense of patriotism.” From his perspective, Danforth says, he could see both sides of the issue.

“Eventually things got worked out,” says Danforth.

Howard Mechanic, however, can’t say the same thing.