East St. Louis mother warned son he’d die violently if he didn’t kick his drug habit

Audrey Crymes and her son, Justen Conner, talked often about his drug addiction and her fear that his life would come to a violent end if he didn’t quit doing drugs.

They had recently talked about him going into a rehab again. He told her he wanted to.

He left her Belleville home for the last time early on the morning of Thursday, Aug. 29, before she could tell him she found a bed for him at a rehabilitation facility.

“I was trying to get him into rehab,” she said. “They had just called me and told me a bed was ready. I never saw him to tell him. I think he was avoiding me.”

Conner, 32, was found dead in the street in the 1600 Block of Belmont Avenue the following Tuesday, Sept. 3.

A witness told police Conner was shot at 2:57 a.m. and identified a 43-year-old Godfrey man as his killer. Albert C. Ross was charged with first-degree murder last week.

Justen Conner and his son, Justen Provided

Charges against Ross allege that he pointed a gun in the direction of another person then attempted to hide it from police knowing he had a previous conviction for attempted burglary. He was subsequently charged with aggravated discharge of a weapon, felon in possession of a firearm, and obstructing justice.

Conner had been battling drug addiction for years, said his mother, though police have not discussed possible motives in his shooting.

“I told him he had three choices — jail, rehab, or death. And, if you go through death’s door, there is no way back,” she said.

“Talk and pray”

Though she was not certain, Cryme said her son told her he was using fentanyl, but wanted the help to stop.

“All you can do is talk and pray. He was my child from birth,” she said. “You knew at some point this day was going to come. You don’t know when or how. I believe in God. Everybody is going to leave here.”

In the meantime, she said her son was taken too soon and that there was more to him than his drug addiction. He was a good family man, she said, and a generous father to his three children, ages 13. 8 and 7, Jayla, A-hnesty, and Justen.

Mother Audrey Crymes and sons Justen, center, and Larry Provided

Crymes said her son “is always going to be in my presence, spiritually and physically. I will always remember his personality. He was very forward and very honest.”

Conner traveled often with his children, the youngest of which still believes their father will be coming home, Crymes said. In addition to their annual trip to Branson, they’ve been to the Wisconsin Dells and a water park in Indiana.

He planned to take the 7-year-old to Branson to celebrate his birthday on Sept. 5, two days after Conner was killed. His mom didn’t deny him the celebration, though — she took the boy and his siblings on the trip the family took annually.

“That’s Justen”

Crymes said she learned of her son’s death from his brother, Larry, after Conner’s girlfriend called him.

“She said something was wrong, but she didn’t know what,” Crymes said. “We were watching the news and the report was about a man murdered in East St. Louis. My son said, “That’s Justen,” without really knowing.”

Confirmation of that bad feeling was devastating to Conner’s family, especially his brother.

“They were very close. He’s not doing so well right now,” Crymes said. “When he got off from work, he often rode to the area where his brother hung out and rescued him from the streets. He didn’t have to be there. I have been dealing with his behavioral issues since he came into the world.

“When you are on drugs, you will steal to get that. He said he wouldn’t steal from people, but he would steal from stores and take his chance of going to jail.”


Why we did this story

In an attempt to put a face on violent crime victims, the News-Democrat tries to find out what it can by talking to family members and others. This is the story of Justen Conner, of East St. Louis, who was killed on the streets on Sept. 3, 2019.

Crymes said she sent her son money, did his laundry, visited him, and tried to encourage him.

“I never gave up on him, even when he went to jail.”

Conner was convicted in 2016 of aggravated battery with intent to commit bodily harm, and had several convictions for retail theft.

Crymes said she didn’t know the man who has been accused of killer her son, who would have turned 33 in December. She says she is happy police have filed charges.

Now she wants justice.

“I would love for him to stay in jail. He killed my child. He may kill another person,” Crymes said.

“Love of my life”

Jesterica Rockett, Conner’s girlfriend and the mother of his three children, said she is trying to figure out her life without “the love of my life.”

The two have been together since the 11th grade, she said. Rockett said someone on the street told her the bullet that Justen took was intended for someone else. Police have not verified that information, however. “He was an innocent bystander. His children and I are going to miss him so much,” Rockett said.

“He was a good father. He read stories to his three children at night, got their clothes out for the next day. He even took care of his girl’s hair,” she said. “Because he was the kind of man who spent time with his children, that made me love him even more.”

She said when the couple had disagreements and weren’t around each other, Conner always called his children.

Rockett said when she was preparing for her test to become a phlebotomist, she was nervous and lacked confidence. Conner. encouraged her, told her she was smart, she said.

“He called me his back bone. We were in sync for many years,” she said. “His jokes were corny, but he would laugh so big he made it funny.”

Crymes said she loves to watch the news, “but I get tired of hearing everyday all day about somebody being shot, somebody being killed,” she said. “It’s crazy … just sad.”

Justin’s aunt, Annette Crymes, known as Aunt Nett, said, “I helped to raise Justen. Justin was a beautiful spirit, always helping people. He loved his mother. ... I would take a bullet for him if I could. He deserved so much more than this world gave him. The saying is .. It takes a village to raise a child, but it also takes a village to destroy one, too,” Annette Crymes said.

Visitation will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday with a noon funeral service at Miracle Deliverance Temple, 2316 Cynthia St., Cahokia.

Carolyn P. Smith has worked for the Belleville News-Democrat for 18 years and currently covers breaking news in the Metro-East. She graduated from the Journalism School at the University of Missouri at Columbia and says news is in her DNA.
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