Queen Clay was at the kitchen stove cooking supper for her brother when the phone rang.
It was an acquaintance of her grandson, Montez Jackson, with more bad news for a family that’s dealt with more tragedy than most others could handle.
“Miss Queen,” the young woman said, “I am calling to tell you Montez’s body is laying out here in the Gompers.”
Police discovered the body of the 23-year-old Cahokia man on Sunday, Sept. 8 on a lot where a gas station once stood at the corner of Sixth Street and Martin Luther King Drive, near the Samuel Gompers Homes. He had been shot multiple times.
It was at the same place and under similar circumstances that police found Eric R. Roby, 30, Clay’s son, on the evening of May 14. He’d been shot and later died at a St. Louis hospital.
On March 7, 2014, the body of Clay’s daughter, Brandy Roby, was found partially nude and face down in a creek bed near the 2500 block of Morris Avenue, not three miles away from the abandoned gas station where her brother and nephew were gunned down.
In five years, Clay had already buried two children. She buried her grandson, Montez Jackson, Friday. None were older than 30 years old.
“Why?” Clay asks. “Why, my family? It was just four months ago, I lost my son to gun violence. Now, it’s my grandson. ...
“These young people are being killed everyday and that’s not right.”
Illinois State Police and East St. Louis Police are jointly investigating the three murders. They have not identified any suspects.
No arrests, no justice
This follows a trend in East St. Louis which, according to FBI crime statistics, averages 111.41 murders per 100,000 people — the highest per-capita rate of homicides in the United States. The national average is five murders per 100,000.
There have been more than 25 murders in the city through the first eight months of this year.
A Belleville News-Democrat investigation found there were 453 murders in East St. Louis between 2000 and 2018. Of those, 341 of them (or about 75%) remain unsolved. Of the 112 murders where criminal charges were filed, only 25% resulted in a first-degree murder conviction. About 80% of those violent deaths were caused by gunshots.
And 85% of the victims were males with an average age of 30 years.
Clay is another grieving mother demanding justice.
In a recent interview, she struck out at a society she says allows young people easy access to guns and at a law-enforcement community she says doesn’t seem to care.
“Somebody should be able to do something to get these guns off the street and out of our communities,” she said. “As long as it is easy for the kids to get these guns, the killings will continue. The pain is real and death is permanent. There is no coming back to this world.”
Justice, however, is complicated by the random nature of most homicides in East St. Louis, distrust of the police and a lack of resources within law enforcement, say U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, who grew up in East St. Louis, and Acting Illinois State Police Director Bendon Kelly, a former St. Clair County state’s attorney.
“When it comes to the police department itself, they’ve struggled here. You know their budget makes it hard to come up with the forces and people that they need. I’m going to try everything I can to help, but it is an uphill battle,” Durbin told a BND reporter for an article published in April.
Said Kelly: “It’s not a manpower problem. It’s not a policy problem. It’s a sustained mistrust that has built up over decades. It will take just as long to undo it, but we have to do it.”
Attempts to reach East St. Louis Police Chief Kendall Perry for comment were unsuccessful.
‘We have a right to this’
When Montez Jackson was murdered on Sept. 8, Clay said the area around the abandoned filling station was taped off as others gathered around the scene. Police were asking some for information about “Tez.”
Later, at Touchette Regional Hospital, his “granny” and other members of his family paced the hospital floor for 2 ½ hours before they could see his body.
“They said they were trying to resuscitate him,” Clay said.
What Clay didn’t see was the kind of police presence that gathered in the aftermath of the Aug. 23 shooting of Illinois State Police Trooper Nicholas Hopkins, who was shot while attempting to serve a search warrant at an East St. Louis duplex occupied by three men who have since been indicted on weapons and drug charges. Christopher R. Grant has been indicted further on a first-degree murder charge in Hopkins’ death.
Dozens of officers from East St. Louis, Illinois State Police, tactical units and SWAT teams flooded the surrounding neighborhood in a day-long standoff outside the building, which was later determined to have been empty.
Clay said she appreciated the show of force against Hopkins’ accused killer, but wonders why more concerted measures weren’t taken during the investigations into the deaths of her slain children and grandson.
BEHIND OUR REPORTING
Why we did this story
The Belleville News-Democrat contacts the families of murder victims in East St. Louis and the metro-east so that readers know how they lived as well as the way they died.
“Are we going to get justice, or is my grandson just another black man gone?” Clay said. “Let me say, I am hurting because of what happened to the state policeman. I wish he was still alive. I say prayers for his family, too. I am saying that (law enforcement) did what they had to do to make an arrest.
“We just want to see the same things. We want our neighborhoods to be safe. We have a right to this.”
East St. Louis police called in the elite Major Case Squad of Greater St. Louis just 19 times to help investigate murders in the city. Of those cases, the squad solved nine, the BND investigation found.
Court records showed East St. Louis Police hadn’t applied for a search warrant in a homicide in more than 15 years.
Clay wonders where the Major Case Squad was when her children and grandson were murdered.
“They are activated immediately in communities outside of East St. Louis, Washington Park, Alorton,” Clay said. “Well, our children’s lives matters in these neighborhoods, too.”
To Clay, security cameras, especially in the areas where violent crime is known to occur, and increased patrols are simple measures the city could take to deter violent crime.
“You got these dope heads on the corners ...” she said. “Other people’s kids have been killed. How many more of our children have to lose their lives on the same corner before someone does something?”
Another fatherless child
Kenrekea Hinkle, Jackson’s girlfriend and the mother of his 1-year-old son, said she is worn out by the shootings that happen daily. She said she learned of Jackson’s shooting from her sister while she was returning home from an out-of-town trip.
“She said she called to tell me my baby’s daddy was laying on the ground. He had been shot. I broke down,” Hinkle said. “I don’t know why he was over there. He was beefing with everybody out there.”
The motive for Jackson’s shooting remains unclear. Some on the street say it was retribution for snitching to police on someone, but both Clay and Hinkle doubt that.
“He grew up out there and I guess felt he had a right to be there,” said Hinkle. “I really wanted him to be here for his son. He was a good father and he wanted his baby.”
Antoinette Clay, a cousin to the victims, said she regrets that children in East St. Louis to have to grow up without their fathers.
“These children want to succeed in life. They want to see their fathers around as they grow up. The violence has to stop,” she said.