Crime

17 years after he was attacked outside a nightclub, his family still waits for justice

The cousin of an Illinois State Police officer was arrested two weeks after the shooting, but the case never went to trial.

17 years after he was attacked outside a nightclub, his family still waits for justice

Editor’s note: There were 341 unsolved murders in East St. Louis between 2000 and 2018. In many of these cases, police had evidence and suspects, but no charges were filed. Here is one of those cases.

A shotgun blast sent 24-year-old John Hill to a St. Louis hospital, where he died several days later. The cousin of an Illinois police officer was soon arrested.

But nearly two decades later, the case remains open, despite the arrest and seizure of what is believed to be the murder weapon from the trunk of the suspect’s car.

The attack occurred Dec. 9, 2001, in the rear of Club Casino in the 6800 block of State Street. Hill’s car was parked on a lot belonging to a candy store adjacent to the club’s larger lot.

Nightclubs in the city have been trouble spots for years, where arguments fueled by alcohol and drugs often led to violence. Shootings stemming from altercations at Club Casino have been linked to eight murders and the wounding of nine people between Hill’s death in December 2001 and 2013, when the club closed.

Hill was leaving the club about 3:45 a.m. when, according to police reports, security guards surrounded his car. A police report states that a car belonging to a security guard’s girlfriend might have been struck by Hill’s car as he attempted to leave the parking lot.

Someone fired through the rear window. The bullets struck Hill in the back of his head and arm and rendered him unconscious.

The victim’s mother, Carolyn Hill, and his sister, Patrice Hill, both of St. Louis, pushed for prosecution after their loved one died.

But instead of timely court action, they and other family members say they were ignored and forced to launch their own quest for justice. This turned into a lengthy, frustrating endeavor that nearly two decades later has failed to result in anyone being made to answer for Hill’s murder.

“It’s been a long 17 years,” said Carolyn Hill. “They have forgotten us. They have covered this up completely.”

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Carolyn Hill, the mother of John Hill. Derik Holtmann dholtmann@bnd.com

The suspect, Kirk Cochran, 36, was working as a security guard at the club. He was arrested at the East St. Louis Police Department on Dec. 28, nearly two weeks after Hill died. It’s unclear from witness reports who had identified him or why he was a suspect.

Cochran, the cousin of then Alorton cop Pierre Cochran, was arrested, booked, and ordered held. He gave a video statement denying guilt, according to a report by city police Officer Jeremias Wilbert.

Both Cochrans were working as security guards at Club Casino on the night of the shooting.

On the day after he arrested Kirk Cochran, Wilbert made a formal request for a murder prosecution to Assistant State’s Attorney Lisa Porter. She told him that before she could act she needed copies of police and autopsy reports.

Porter did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

But in numerous documents obtained by the BND under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, there is no mention that Porter’s request was ever carried out.

Instead, Cochran was released the same day that Porter said she needed more documentation, and was never charged. He died of natural causes on Feb. 27, 2006.

Cochran’s death did not deter the Hills’ efforts to get a formal admission of who killed John Hill and why prosecution was dropped.

Three years before his death, on Dec. 8, 2003, the Hills filed a lawsuit in federal court in East St. Louis naming Kirk Cochran and club owner Cedric Taylor as defendants. Patrice Hill said the family could not afford to push the lawsuit, which was dismissed for failure to pay fees, but wanted their story memorialized as part of a court record.

In the lawsuit complaint, Carolyn Hill wrote, “When it was discovered officers were involved, the cover-up started.”

The court document states that the unconscious Hill was pulled from the car, a new Chevrolet Impala rental with Nevada plates, placed on the ground and covered with a blanket.

Forensic investigators located gravel, dirt and footwear scuff marks on the hood of a 1993 Ford Escort parked next to Hill’s car. This was never explained. Hill’s car was running with the headlights on and in gear, according to the complaint.

It took an ambulance 30 minutes to get to the scene and an attendant, who found Hill back behind the steering wheel, questioned why the body had been moved.

A witness, Anthony McDonald, Jr., a juvenile who couldn’t get into the club, told the Hills he was sitting beside Hill in his car when a shot was fired.

According to the lawsuit account, McDonald leaped from the car and took off running with security guards right behind him.

He got away and made it back to St. Louis about 4:15 a.m. He told Patrice Hill that her brother had been shot. Police never questioned McDonald, a friend of the family, and the Hills said his whereabouts now are unknown.

“No one from the police ever came over to talk to us or tell us what happened,” said Patrice Hill. “My brother did not die in vain. He meant something to everyone who knew him. It’s not vengeance we seek but someone needs to be held accountable.”

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Patrice Hill, the sister of John Hill. Derik Holtmann dholtmann@bnd.com

‘It was definitely planted’

Hill’s family has questioned the police account that a fully loaded, SKS semi-automatic assault rifle replica, equipped with a folding stock and a telescopic sight, was found in plain view on the rental car’s back seat. They think it was planted, perhaps to falsely show that Hill was dangerous and was shot by a security guard acting in self-defense.

Patrice Hill asked why anyone would lay such a deadly weapon in plain view on top of a jacket that had been lying on the rear seat where it could be easily seen.

“We think it was definitely planted,” she said, probably as a spur of the moment act.

Hill’s only criminal record shows an arrest for a misdemeanor marijuana charge that was dismissed.

“My brother did not allow anyone to bring guns in the house.” Patrice Hill said.

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John K. Hill

Illinois State Police forensic investigator Matt Davis processed the crime scene. He wrote in his report that East St. Louis Detective Marion Riddle, the lead investigator, told him there was no need to check the SKS rifle for prints.

Family members questioned this. They insisted John Hill’s fingerprints wouldn’t be on the weapon, but it might contain fingerprints from a security guard or even from Kirk Cochran.

Patrice Hill said the family also was surprised to learn police did not tow the rental car to the police station.

Nearly three days after her brother was shot, she said the car was still sitting behind Club Casino. She had it towed to the rental company in St. Louis.

As for any damage to the vehicle caused by backing into the security guard’s girlfriend’s vehicle, Patrice Hill said, “Except for the damage caused by the shot, there was no dents or anything on that car. … I don’t think they bothered to fully examine it.”

The case never made media headlines and the only public reference to the shooting was one paragraph in a News-Democrat crime roundup at the time.

Prosecution never occurred, despite a police report that states the alleged murder weapon was retrieved from the trunk of Kirk Cochran’s car in Belleville by his attorney in the presence of Riddle, the detective. The attorney declined to comment.

Because the Steven’s single-shot 12-gauge shotgun, believed to be the murder weapon, is a smooth bore weapon and fires large shells containing scores of pellets each, bullet comparison wasn’t possible.

But the case wasn’t entirely forgotten at the police department. A former East St. Louis police chief, who asked that his name not be used, said he pushed for the case to be resubmitted for prosecution and found that a video of the shooting was destroyed.

The former chief said he had his detectives send the case back to the state’s attorney’s office but never heard back.

Former State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly, now director of the Illinois State Police, said he could not find any record that the case was resubmitted. He did not become the county prosecutor until 2010.

A page from the police department incident form refers to the date and even the time of day that evidence from the shooting sent to the Illinois State Police crime lab then in Fairview Heights was returned.

The semi-automatic rifle, found in the back seat of Hill’s car, was made in China for Norinco, an American firm. It was logged into the police department evidence vault on Feb. 16, 2012 — 11 years after Hill was shot. The weapon’s serial number was listed as 720230 but other police reports stated its serial number was unknown. The rifle’s owner was never identified.

Fingerprints taken from the crime scene were logged in a month earlier. The shotgun, believed to be the murder weapon, was logged in a decade earlier — in May 2002.

If prosecution had ever been seriously considered, these items would have been provided to East St. Louis police.

Pierre Cochran, the suspect’s cousin, was caught up in a federal sting operation while still an Alorton police officer. In October 2005, he was sentenced to 14 months in federal prison for attempted wire fraud for using cellphones to coordinate extorting customers of male prostitutes. Cochran, who cannot work as a cop, could not be reached.

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Police and investigators outside of Club Casino on March 29, 2010 Derik Holtmann dholtmann@bnd.com

Police identify suspect

The police file obtained by the BND listed Kirk Cochran as a suspect within minutes of officers arriving at the scene.

The first person to call the police dispatcher was identified as Keisha Jones, “...stating that she was the female that called the police and that she had witnessed the shooting.”

An East St. Louis cop called her back but Jones then said she didn’t actually witness the shooting and turned off her cellphone. BND reporters were unable to locate her.

Two other male club customers were interviewed and listed as “witnesses.” They also could not be located.

Nowhere in the material supplied to the BND was a reference as to who identified Kirk Cochran.

However, the initial police report states, “Mr. Cochran was working as a security guard for Club Casino and has been identified as the person responsible for the shooting of John Hill.”

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2010 file photo of police officers gathered outside of Club Casino in East St. Louis.

A mystery at the hospital where Hill was taken and died has perplexed the victim’s family as well.

Patrice Hill said that on Tuesday or Wednesday after the shooting, which happened on an early Sunday morning, attendants at Barnes Jewish Hospital Intensive Care Unit were cleaning the room where Hill lay in a coma.

The family waited outside. She said that while they waited a nurse, who they came to identify as a woman from Belleville, told them two plainclothes police officers had removed “lead fragments and gravel from a tray” in Hill’s room. The nurse declined to comment.

Patrice Hill said family members asked an attendant at the hospital front desk for the names of the detectives, and later learned their names were not listed with East St. Louis or the State Police.

“We think they were probably destroying evidence,” she said.

A reference to this incident is contained in their lawsuit.

The lawsuit reads, “Someone from the police department confiscated evidence from the Barnes Jewish Hospital ICU. The head nurse has this documented. East St. Louis Police Department does not know who this is.”

The incident is noted in a police report, but there is no information concerning whether possible evidence was stolen.

Officially, the murder of John Hill is listed on the police department’s “Homicide List 2001.” It was the 24th and next to last homicide of the year. It was assigned to Detective Riddle who listed it as “U/A,” meaning it remains under advisement at the state’s attorney’s office.

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