Shot in the Back
by Elizabeth Vega
Originally published in Public Defender on September 19, 2002
Running two stop signs, the green Chevy Lumina squealed its tires as it sped down Rosalie Street with a roar. In a neighborhood like O’Fallon Park, recently plagued by a rise in gang activity and drive-by shootings, the speeding car could only mean one thing—bullets were about to fly.
The four teens watching on the corner had enough street smarts to steer clear. Joshua Nashville, 16,  his brother Stanley Parker, 17, and friends Dwayne Couch, 19, and Jessie Couch, 17, decided the best thing they could do was run down a neighboring street and avoid the car at all costs. They couldn’t have imagined how that split-second decision the night of September 2 would change all of their lives forever.
His heart pounding and his feet smacking the pavement, Joshua Nashville looked over his shoulder and saw the green car circling around them. They were trapped, trapped in the alley, every escape route blocked again and again by the menacing gangster vehicle.
Dwayne and Jessie Couch hid behind a van. Joshua and Stanley crouched in a gangway between several houses until the car passed. Thinking all was clear, Joshua and Stanley doubled back and headed for home, but when they saw the figure standing at the mouth of the alley, they turned around and started running for their lives.
Without warning, Joshua says, nine shots pierced the air. Joshua could feel the heat of the ammunition on his neck as it whizzed past his head and hit a telephone pole. He looked over his shoulder and watched his brother Stanley trip and fall. He saw him hit the ground. Then he saw the gaping bloody wound in his brother’s back. He stopped to help, but Stanley urged him forward. “Run Josh, run,” he said. So Joshua did. He ran furiously in the direction of the police sirens he heard--he sirens that he believed would be his brother’s salvation. 
Crying and panicked, he flagged down the marked car. “My brother has been shot,” he shouted again and again. “We need help, my brother’s been shot in the alley.”
The officer drove to the entrance of the alley at Rosalie, but instead of taking a statement, the officer handcuffed both Joshua and Jessie. Witnesses say police then threw both teens face down on the ground.
It was more than a half-hour before Joshua found out that his brother Stanley Parker was dead,  killed by  Keith McGull, a St. Louis City cop.
Judith Nashville had picked up her husband from work and then stopped at the President Casino to pick up her father-in-law at his job. She walked onto the gambling boat shortly after 2 a.m. and immediately heard her name being called over the intercom.
She called home and was told to call the police station. Judith’s knees buckled at the news -- your son has been shot. “Wait a minute, my son’s been shot?” She recalls asking. “What hospital is he at?” They told her it would be better if she came to police headquarters at 12th and Clark. 
“I went down there and they put me in a room for 20 minutes,” she says. “I think they were still in there trying to get their stories straight.” Police told Mrs.Nashville there was a shoot-out. Somebody fired two shots at a police officer. He fired nine shots back. Stanley was shot in the back. The acknowledgment from police that “It was not your son that shot at the police officer,” offered no comfort but rather fed a growing rage.
In that moment, Judith felt the ordinariness of her life spill out before her. In fast forward, she saw Stanley’s smile and deep dimple flash in her mind and realized that was all she had left of her second child. She pondered how the boy who hid in the bushes to avoid a bully could die in such a violent way. She found herself reeling from the fact that in a split second the simple activity she had shared just hours earlier with her son, of snuggling on the couch and watching a movie  had become painfully significant. There was no real good-bye, only a shared glass of ice water and bowl of popcorn  to mark the last time she would ever see her son alive.
“I was numb all over,” she says. “The worse thing you can ever, ever, ever do is see your child in the morgue. The worst sight you will see ever in your life is to see your baby lying there and you can’t do nothing about it. My heart felt like somebody ripped it out of my chest, stomped and threw it back in there. I might have to get something done for my heart. It gives me trouble now. I can feel my heart breaking in my body.”
In the midst of the grief, however, are unrelenting questions. The questions were there that first night at the police station quietly lingering in the back of her mind. That night, however, sorrow took precedence.  But when Judith spoke to Joshua, she saw pain and an unmistakable truth in his eyes. The questions became more nagging.  Now, nearly three weeks later, in the midst of an unfired gun found in her right-handed son’s left hand and the police slug the coroner found in his back, the questions shout for justice.
No matter how many different angles Mrs. Nashville looks at the circumstances surrounding her son’s death, she always comes up with the same answer – this death Stanley’s death-- didn’t have to happen.
Judith understands her neighborhood. She knows why her sons chose to run. In a neighborhood permeated with gang violence, linking criminal guilt with neighborhood fear is a catch-22.
 “He (McGull) was chasing them because they ran,” she says. “They ran because the car was running stop signs and coming fast. Good people don’t do that. If they were in a regular police car they wouldn’t have ran because they hadn’t done anything. He never identified himself. He let those boys run and never called out ‘police.’ He never fired a warning shot in the air. He just took his gun and fired nine shots down that alley.”
Police have released few details. An STLPD spokeswoman said that while the car was unmarked, the Officer McGull, who was on special gang detail, was in uniform.
While all of the teens were arrested, two of the teens, Dwayne and Jessie, were charged with burglary. No charges were ever filed against Joshua.
The spokesperson also points out that Stanley Parker did have a gun, one that police believed had been stolen. Officer McGull, a Northside resident himself, says that someone fired two gunshots, so he fired back.
Mrs. Nashville, however, argues that two shots fired in an undetermined direction don’t justify firing nine back. “The numbers don’t add up,” she says. “The reason he said two shots were fired because they found an old derringer on my son and most derringers are two-shot guns. When they got it back to the station they realized it had only one hole, not two. The gun hadn’t even been fired.” Police tests have confirmed that detail.
Furthermore, she points out that Officer McGull has said he couldn’t pinpoint exactly what direction the shots came from and that Police have only recovered the casings from the officer’s gun. McGull is on administrative leave pending the investigation. Nashville also questions why Officer McGull got out of his car in the first place and then why he was so quick to pull his gun.
“It makes me angry that this man never gave this child a chance,” she says. “He could have kept chasing them in the car. He didn’t have to shoot. You shoot criminals. You shoot someone who did something wrong. You don’t shoot someone down because they are not cooperating with you. Those kids got good and far from him before he pumped those shots. They got shot at for not stopping, whether they had done anything or not.”
Mrs. Nashville cringes to think what could have happened if Stanley hadn’t been watching out for his younger brother. “If Joshua hadn’t ducked just when his brother told him to, those bullets would have taken off his head,” she  says. “I would be burying two of my children instead of one. What happened to ‘shoot them in the leg’ and aim[ing] low? If you want me to stop then shoot me in the leg. But these men are aiming to kill.”
It’s not that simple, some neighbors say. But in a neighborhood with a definite gang presence, there is an undeniable tension between the police officers and teenagers—a tension that too often seems to erupt into violence. “There are obviously problems,” says Nafi Rafat, who has lived in the neighborhood for 25 years. “There are problems with people who break the laws. There are problems with police who break the laws. We are talking two different types of police and two different types of residents. There are certain types of police who help exacerbate the problem and certain residents who do the same. We know they both exist. That is where we are. We have learned to accept it to a certain degree.”
Rafat understands the fine line police must walk to rid the neighborhood of crime but says the missing element is a consistent and trustworthy presence, as well as an equal application of the law to residents and cops alike. “I understand to a degree the position the police find themselves in,” Rafat says. “It is a tough job. It requires a lot of community support that quite often they don’t get. It would help them if people felt like they could trust the police. It would make their job easier and our lives easier. But in truth, we know that unless we happen to be talking to the right cop, one we can trust, it is not going to work out. Sometimes it seems like the police presence is there only when there is trouble and major trouble,” he says. “Having a presence is different than showing up when there is trouble and everybody is tense. Nothing is worse than running into someone who is upset with a gun in their hand, even if it is a cop.”
Rafat said the key to building trust is proper punishments for officers who break the law as well as for the few criminal residents. “Everyone knows that it’s not happening now,” Rafat says. “That’s the missing link here.” But many believe that penetrating the blue shield has to start at the top and Mrs. Nashville says Police Chief Joseph Mokwa has sent her a clear message that he is unwilling to do that.
Chief Mokwa came to the Nashville home twice. “He told me he was sorry but then he said he was going to have to stand behind his officer’s story,” Mrs. Nashville says. “That told me one very important thing. No matter what they do, whether it is right or wrong, they are going to stick together.”
For young males in the predominantly black neighborhood, Parker’s death has only fueled an increasing anger and disillusionment with local police. Four young men sit pensively on the front steps of a nearby home. They all refuse to give their names because they fear retaliation from police. They all have the same somber look in their eyes. Parker’s death has splayed open the resentment they normally keep to themselves.   
“Stan was just like the rest of us, struggling with being trapped here and trying to get out. You aren’t old enough to really leave or get a job. ” a 17-year-old says shaking his head. “This neighborhood ain’t got too much to offer us. You can’t go to the park because the police chase us out. You can’t stand outside in front of our own house because the neighbors complain and call the police. And you can’t go in the house because your mama runs you outside. What are we supposed to do?
As for the relationship with the police, the question alone is enough to produce a cynical laugh. “Relationship?” one of the boys says.  “There ain’t no relationship. It’s just like the other gangs that come around here. They don’t care about us. The cops stare us up and down just like the gangs do. They harass us, pull us over, drive us out, grab the back of our necks because we aren’t quick enough to answer their questions. It’s terrible.”
Fifteen-year-old Samuel Lee adds, “They were doing sweeps in the area and pulling people over for no reason. They were riding around in a white Buick. They’ve been in these cars three men deep and with no siren. They hop out wearing their black police vest, guns drawn telling us not to move. That’s so we don’t run and make them tired.”
One of the teens places some of the blame on the neighbors who, propelled by the fear of gangs, are quick to stereotype a gathering of young black men. “They call the police when they see two or three people standing around in front of their own home. I mean where else am I supposed to go. They say they feel so bad when one of us gets beat up or shot, but the neighbors don’t sit out here and see what the cops do to us after that phone call.”
Stanley Parker’s mother sees the resentment and hate that is building. Sometimes she catches glimpses of it in the eyes of her surviving 15-year-old. DP sprinted down the block when he heard there was a shooting involving his brother. What he saw still gives him sleepless nights. “I don’t really have anything to say to the cops,” he says quietly. Tears well in his eyes, but the hardened teen forces them back. He looks down at the ground, then adds “I don’t have any respect for them now. Not after what they did.”
Mrs. Nashville hopes to change the sour feelings on both sides. In her grief, she has found a strength and purpose. “The nights are the hardest” she says, tears flowing down her face. “I wake up and go to the bathroom and I have to pass his room. I don’t want this to happen to anyone. I don’t want it to happen to my neighbors. I don’t want it to happen to another child.”
“When we were brought up, it was Officer Friendly. We would run and follow the car. It’s no longer like that,” she says. “It has become Officer Foe. These officers have no respect for the kids and the kids have no respect for them. I don’t care what it takes to restore this bond but I told Chief Mokwa we are going to do it. I am not going away. We are going to take back our neighborhood from the gangs and the police.”
The hardships of living in O’Fallon Park are not lost on Chief Mokwa. In a phone interview, he said that people need to understand that the Department has to play to two audiences. One is represented by the teens who feel that the police are “too provocative,” pulling kids over without reason and harassing the younger residents.
The other, made up of residents who are fed up with the violence and are afraid of the gangs that hang on their block corners at 3 and 4 in the morning. Many of these residents chide the police for not doing enough.
In the meantime, Stanley Parker’s mother finds herself praying a lot. “I fall asleep praying and wake up on my knees,” she says. “I ask the Lord to give me a forgiving heart so I could forgive that police for murdering my baby.”

©Pub Def Publishing 2002

Elizabeth Vega is a frequent contributor to Public Defender. She has also written for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Riverfront Times. She lives in University City with her two teenage boys.