Boulder killings bring back dark memories for survivor of National Supermarkets massacre, St. Louis’ deadliest shooting
ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - Harold Meyer has made this trip before. He has been making it for years now. He spends the night at a friend’s condo at the Lake of the Ozarks, then continues on to Jefferson City where he sits in a parole board room with Donnie Blankenship. But after watching what happened in Boulder, Colorado yesterday, today’s trip felt eerily different.
“I heard about Colorado, and at first I thought, ‘Wow!’’ Meyer said. “Especially with the grocery store. But the more I thought about it, I realized it wasn’t really the same. Colorado was an active shooter. We were gunned down execution style.”
Meyer began bagging groceries for National Supermarkets when he was a sophomore at Hazelwood East in 1973. Promotions came fast. By 1987, before he turned 30, Meyer was the youngest store manager in the St. Louis market, running the National Store at 4331 Natural Bridge on the city’s northside. The area was going through a recent boom, as the grocery store was surrounded by a Kentucky Fried Chicken, Jack In The Box, Schafers Hardware, the Chrysler Plant, Sound Town, and a Dairy Queen.
And when quitting time rolled around at 10 p.m. on the Friday night of Labor Day weekend, Meyer popped open a can of Busch to celebrate. There would be some cleanup and bookkeeping to do, and then the seven employees that remained would head out for the holiday weekend. But not this time. Around 10:30 p.m., a man was sticking a gun at Meyer’s head demanding he open the safe. Then he split open his head.
There were two gunmen. The employees, six men and one woman, were ordered to lie down next to each other, faces down. Meyer remembers whispering to the female employee next to him, “This isn’t good.” She whispered back “it will be okay.” Meyer knew better. “No, it won’t,” he said.
Meyer was right. Within seconds, and with no exchange of words, the gunmen fired approximately eight shots at the employees’ heads, execution style. As the bullets flew, most of the employees were shot in the back of the head and killed instantly. Meyer, crammed at the end, was shot in the side, hand and face, covered in blood. He was still alive, but played dead, and waited.
“I thought I was going to die,” Meyer said. “I was hurt, but I knew I was still alive. And then it was like ‘What am I going to do now? The only choice was to play dead and wait.”
But then, one of the gunmen ran out of bullets. He went to the security guard laying in a pool of blood, grabbed more bullets from the guard’s pockets, reloaded, and began firing again.
“That’s when I thought ‘oh no, this is it,” Meyer said.
Finally, the assailants filled a money bag and fled. Their take was about $7,500, mostly in wrapped stacks of $1 bills. But they also took something else: A Bi-State bus pass, good for a week beginning on the following Friday.
Meanwhile, Meyer crawled to a phone and tried to call 911. The operator couldn’t understand him.
Chris Hennicke was still in the building stocking shelves when he heard the gunfire. He ran out and saw a gunman standing over bodies. He turned and ran back, then heard more shots. He then crawled up on the roof, spotted a woman walking down the street, and hollered for help. Soon, he saw the gunmen leave the store and drive away.
Police would receive their first call around 11:30 p.m., a full hour of hell after the gunmen entered the store.
The five people murdered would be the worst mass killing in the history of the city of St. Louis, surpassing the four people who were gunned down inside Pope’s Cafeteria in 1980. The victims were 49-year-old Rose Brown of Ferguson. She was the lead cashier who tried to reassure Meyer that everything would be okay; 16-year-old Michael Marr of St. Louis, a bag boy who tried unsuccessfully to leave work early that night to start his weekend; Kenneth Bass, a 27-year-old janitor from St. Louis; 34-year-old Michael Bean of Overland, who was the store’s stock manager; David Spahn, a 27-year-old security guard from Glasgow Village, who would die after being rushed to Barnes-Jewish Hospital. The other four died at the scene.
That left two. Meyer, and Richard Fortson of Jennings, the store’s service manager. Fortson, 32, was consumed by the shooting and would die a few years later. And that left Meyer, in critical, but stable condition.
The massacre received national news coverage. St. Louis City police put 17 detectives on the case. In Meyer, Fortson, and Hennicke, police had three eye witnesses. From the beginning, they suspected a possible inside connection to the killings. And within a week, they arrested four men and charged them with murder. Meyer was skeptical when police showed up at his hospital bed and showed him their mugshots.
“I told them those weren’t the gunmen,” Meyer said.
And the evidence against the group quickly crumbled, and they were set free. Days went by, then weeks, then months. Pressure mounted on the police department, especially after the initial arrest fell apart.
And then in November, two months after the killings, detectives got their big break. Police stopped a 1972 blue Ford Maverick for speeding in St. Louis County. Jimmy Kennedy could not prove he owned the vehicle. He gave police permission to search the car, and they found a gun in the trunk. Kennedy initially told police he bought the gun off the street, but when detectives later discovered it was the same gun taken from the security guard the night of the National killings, Kennedy quickly changed his story, saying the gun was given to him by a man named Donnie Blankenship.
Detectives began digging into Blankenship, who was from Hanley Hills, and discovered he was friends with Marvin Jennings of Overland. And then their second break: Jennings had worked on the overnight cleaning crew at the National Supermarket during the week before the killings. Both men were in their 20′s. Police would eventually arrest the pair after they tried running out of a friend’s house.
“They got the right guys that time,” Meyer said. “I wasn’t 100 percent certain until I heard Jennings voice. Once I heard his voice, I knew. I will never forget that voice.”
Jennings was convicted on five counts of first degree murder, along with numerous other charges. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole. He is currently incarcerated at the maximum security prison in Potosi. Blankenship was convicted of second degree murder, sentenced to life in prison, and is incarcerated in Charleston, Missouri. His parole hearings are in Jefferson City, where today, as always, his words rang in Harold Meyer’s ears.
It will be nearly a month before the parole board makes it’s decision.
Harold Meyer is 63 now, considers every day a blessing, and still carries around a bullet that has been lodged in his chest for 32 years. He spent his life managing eight more grocery stores in the St. Louis area, has recently retired, and is now engaged. His son Jason has followed in his father’s footsteps, and is one of the youngest store managers in the St. Louis area.
The old National Grocery on Natural Bridge has been torn down. Gone too are all the establishments that surrounded the store, long since replaced by a gas station, a liquor store, and a chop suey restaurant.
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