St. Louis man accused of locking disabled man in basement for years


by Chris Nagus / News 4

Posted on September 27, 2012 at 9:32 PM

Updated Friday, Sep 28 at 11:22 AM

ST. LOUIS (KMOV) – A woman says her brother was locked in a man’s St. Louis basement for five years while he cashed her brother’s welfare checks.


The man in question did not deny cashing the checks or locking a man in his basement, but also said he had a perfectly good explanation. 

When News 4 first caught up with Cliff Cockrell, he denied who he was.

But after a few minutes, he agreed to take a seat and talk about why 54-year-old James Dean was locked in his basement for years.

During an interview with Dean, he said “didn’t go anywhere for five years.”

His sister Cheryl said “he looked like he was in a concentration camp, he’s aged so much.”

She said her brother suffered a traumatic brain injury more than a decade ago. During his recovery he developed a drinking problem, which is how he got hooked up with Cliff.

Cheryl said Cliff “helped take care of alcoholics.”

Sheryl moved to California and assumed her brother was in good hands. But on a trip back to St. Louis, things got weird.

“My brother started opening up to me, he was under lock and key and could never leave” Cheryl said.

At the building where James was living, the windows have bars. Some are solid glass block and the front door is steel.

Cheryl was concerned about what would happen in a fire, so she called the police.

The St. Louis Police Department confirms the locks on the doors were put on backwards, something Cliff did not deny.

News 4 asked Cliff if it was his idea to lock James in the basement.

“We had to keep it where he wouldn’t run off and get drunk,” he said.

When asked about the dangers of a fire starting, Cliff replied “we have a phone and everything in here.”

Cliff agreed to take News 4 on a tour of what Cheryl called the dungeon, a basement of interconnecting roofs.

“He (James) could come all in this area he had a refrigerator, he had heat,” Cliff said.

The outside smoking area was caged in with concrete ceilings and walls and the gate was locked.

Another man, a guy named Joe, was sitting on a bed.

Cliff said Joe had a key and was able to get out when he wanted.

Cliff said he considers the basement an apartment and the people with disabilities tenants.

He admits he controls their welfare benefits.

News 4 asked him if he had power of attorney for a number of the individuals who live in the building and also if he handled their disability checks. He confirmed he was the representative payee for Social Security.

Cheryl said Cliff “had my brother go into Social Security and sign over his check and also Clifford got control of his food stamp card.”

James told me he did not see any of that money over the last five years.

Missouri State Senator Jane Cunningham watched News 4’s interviews with Cliff and James and has serious concerns.

“Even the owner says he locked him, wouldn’t let him leave for five years, so that certainly does look like false imprisonment,” she said.

But Cliff said he’s not licensed and just got a visit from state investigators.

Cliff was asked if he had any documentation that James Dean would have been a danger to himself if he was allowed to come and go.

“I don’t have that,” he said.

Cliff said he helped James when nobody else wanted to care for him, and ultimately got him off alcohol. It was James’ mother who asked him to help, he said.

Cliff also said James was initially allowed to leave without supervision, but would come back drunk.

Later James could leave but only with supervision.

The case is now in the hands of investigators, who will ultimately decide who’s right.