An 18-year-old Alton man is charged in connection with the drive-by murder of an 11-year-old boy, an innocent bystander in a growing dispute among other young people, police said Thursday.
Ta’Mon Ford, of Alton, is accused of firing the shots from a red 1999 Oldsmobile Alero at 5:16 p.m. Monday as he passed the Alton Acres youth center — shots that struck and killed 11-year-old Ronnell Jones. Police said there had been a long-running dispute festering on social media, and there had been talk of a fight taking place that day, but no hint that weapons would be involved.
But Ronnell wasn’t part of that dispute, and wasn’t part of any fight. Major Jeff Connor, deputy commander of the Major Case Squad of Greater St. Louis, said the intended target was in the crowd of more than 20 young people at Alton Acres that day. “He was as innocent as anyone could be,” Connor said.
Connor declined to give specific details about the dispute or possible motive leading up to the shooting, or about the steps that led to Ford’s arrest. But he said witnesses and community members have been very forthcoming and “cooperated greatly.” Earlier Thursday, police reported that they had located the car they believe Ford used in the shooting.
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Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons said the killing made him “tremendously angry.”
“It’s a terrible way to start a new year, and a tragedy that this family will suffer for forever,” Gibbons said. “This defendant’s actions showed that he had a complete disregard for the life of this young boy and everyone else at the Youth Center. He made the decision to try and resolve a dispute with a gun.”
Ronnell’s family is still reeling from his death. His brother, 12-year-old Armoni Jones, said the last time he saw his brother, Ronnell was heading out for basketball practice. He said his brother “needs justice.”
“Who goes to a neighborhood where kids are playing and starts shooting?” Armoni said.
Armoni was not at the center when Ronnell was killed. He was at home playing a game when one of his friends came running in and told him, “Your brother looked like he fainted.”
“They said he had a hole in his shirt,” Armoni said.
But the hole was a bullet wound. Ronnell was struck once in the chest and was pronounced dead at an area hospital.
The family is trying to “take it day by day,” according to grandmother Denise Hill. “There are too many children being killed by gun violence,” she said.
Ronnell’s mother, Sonya Dixon, thanked the Major Case Squad for its work. “Thank you for bringing (the suspect) into custody,” she said. “It’s a long recovery, but this is the start for me and my family.”
There were other people in the car at the time of the shooting, police said, but no other charges have been filed so far. Gibbons stressed that the investigation is not over.
“This is the beginning of the case in the court system,” he said. “There may be other charges, there are other things to be investigated.”
Gibbons said Ford has a criminal record, and will face as much as life in prison. The first-degree murder charge carries a penalty of 20 to 60 years, but he could face an additional 25 years up to natural life for using a firearm in the commission of the murder, if he is convicted.
Gibbons said strong prosecutions and long sentences are the main way society can fight this kind of violence. “There is no easy answer to solve violence, to stop a person from making this kind of terrible choice,” Gibbons said. “But we sent a strong message, and in cooperation of the community that comes together and sticks up for itself, for this little boy and his family ... That’s how we can have justice. We send a message that they will be held accountable.”
Ford is in custody at the Alton Police Department and soon will be transported to the Madison County Jail. Madison County Circuit Judge Richard Tognarelli has denied bail. The Major Case Squad that investigated the crime included officers from 15 police departments throughout the region.