Teen murder witness killed in plot made on recorded jail calls, family claims city failed to protect him
ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - The parents of a St. Louis teenager who was gunned down for witnessing another murder is suing the city, claiming their son’s death was preventable, and the plan to kill him was hatched inside the city jail on recorded phone calls.
Four people were arrested and charged with the teen’s murder, yet none were convicted.
News 4 Investigates uncovers jail call recordings and records the city won’t share publicly, as the family questions if justice was truly served.
MURDER AT THE BUS STOP
On the morning of Sept. 5, 2017, James Scales Jr. stood outside his family’s North City home, waiting for the school bus.
St. Louis Police said the teen was shot multiple times. James ran inside his house, where his mom called 911.
“My son been shot up real bad,” James’ mom can be heard saying on the 911 call recording. “He’s not doing anything. It’s a lot of blood. My whole hallway is filled up with blood.”
There was nothing anyone could do; James was pronounced dead at the hospital.
“My child is gone now when you could have prevented it,” said James’ mom.
James’ family agreed to talk to News 4 Investigates but asked that their names not be used since they’re concerned for their safety.
When James was killed, he was the main witness in a murder case. James’ family says he never got witness protection Missouri law and St. Louis city policy promise.
James’ family say the man he was supposed to testify against, 19-year-old Keith Graham planned James’ murder while he was in the City Justice Center and on recorded jailhouse calls.
“They killed him so he wouldn’t keep going to court telling what he knew, what he saw,” James’ mom said.
For her, that’s one of multiple failures. She, along with James’ dad and stepparents, are taking the city to court, suing for wrongful death and negligence.
“They were supposed to keep him safe, that’s what they said, not to lose another life,” James’ mom said.
2016 MURDER CASE
In 2016, the day after Christmas, James and his friend, 18-year-old Dwayne Clanton, were walking home from a friend’s house when Clanton was shot and killed. James’ family says James reported what and who he saw to the police, thinking his name would be confidential.
“They say anonymous tip, no that’s a lie, it’s almost like fraud,” James’ mom said.
Police arrested Graham, and he was charged with Clanton’s murder.
James’ mom claims someone put James’ name and address on court records. News 4 investigates tried to get a copy, but the records are sealed because Graham was acquitted.
“You gave them the address like, ‘hey here’s where you can find him, that’s who told on you,’” James’ mom said.
The city won’t talk to News 4 Investigates about that. In court records, prosecutors said Graham found out about James because “word reached” him.
Prosecutors say over the course of months, Graham, who was in jail, called friends on the outside, making plans to “hunt down and kill” James.
Those friends are William Pearson Jr., Terez Cook, and Devion Gordon. All three were arrested and charged with James’ murder.
JAIL CALL RECORDINGS EXPOSE MURDER PLOT
Jail call recordings were a main focus of the investigation. News 4 Investigates requested copies of the recordings from prosecutors. Prosecutors have not released any records to News 4 and have not provided any reasoning for why they’re withholding the records. Instead, News 4 Investigates obtained the jail call recordings from a judge.
One of the first jail calls came days after Graham’s arrest. In court records, prosecutors say he asked Gordon for help getting out.
“If you rush, they are going to look like oh he orchestrated something to come up out of there, most likely your phone call is being recorded bro,” prosecutors claim Gordon said.
Later in the call, Graham can be heard in the recording saying, “so all they need is a witness and I’m f*****, huh? I’m dead, huh?”
“Yeah,” prosecutors claim Gordon responds.
“I’m dead then,” Graham said.
On another day, prosecutors say Graham had a three-way call with Gordon and Pearson where they talked about getting him out in two months.
Almost two months after that phone call, someone shot up James’ house. No one was hurt, and James wasn’t home at the time.
In the responding officer’s report, he noted it was a “possible retaliation” because James was a witness in a “homicide investigation.”
James’ family claim they asked for protection that day.
“It wasn’t much they could do. They didn’t give us no help. We just left the home,” James’ mom explained.
Two days after the shooting, prosecutors claim Pearson can be heard on a recorded call telling Graham the hit on James’ house didn’t work.
“I’m out of the jam?” Graham can be heard asking on the recording.
“Oh that m*********** ain’t nowhere. Nowhere, I mean nowhere,” prosecutors claim Pearson said.
Over the next few months, James’ family says James was threatened multiple times. In their lawsuit, the family claims James was shot at while walking along Kingshighway Boulevard. According to the suit, on another day a man showed up at their house and told them “not to go to court.” In the lawsuit, the family says they repeatedly asked police and protective services for help.
“We reached out like, ‘hey can ya’ll place us somewhere, can y’all do something?’ Nothing was done,” James’ mom said.
Prosecutors say jail call recordings show Graham continued to call his friends to make plans to kill James.
“We going to do my plan. So, it – you good bro I say that. I got you,” prosecutors claim Gordon told Graham in one call recording. “You going to see it just keep watching the news.”
Within a few months, James’ family and prosecutors believe the plan went through when James was shot and killed.
Jail call logs show the day James died Graham talked to Gordon, who police believe made it clear he didn’t want to talk about the shooting but acknowledged the plan went through.
“Before you say anything bro don’t call my phone talking about none of that,” prosecutors claim Gordon said.
Before hanging up, prosecutors claim Gordon told Graham, “just come on home man.”
On top of dozens of recorded jail calls, evidence included cell phone GPS data which police claim put Pearson and Cook in the “immediate area” when James was killed. Court records show investigators found a ballistics match, meaning a gun used to shoot up James’ house was also used in his murder.
Almost six months after James was killed, Keith Graham, William Pearson Jr., Terez Cook and Devion Gordon were all charged in the murder.
2022 MURDER TRIAL
The trial started in April 2022. It took more than four years to get to that point. In that time the Scales family claim prosecutors mishandled evidence. Prosecutors tell News 4 Investigates they can’t comment because of the lawsuit.
Days before the trial began, the judge told prosecutors they couldn’t use dozens of jail calls. In a court order, the judge claimed prosecutors broke a standard rule of our judicial system and never turned over all of the calls to defense lawyers.
The judge also let defense lawyers tell the jury there may be evidence that could have helped their client’s case.
In the end, the jury didn’t find anyone guilty of murder. They acquitted Pearson, Cook and Gordon. Graham was acquitted for the murder James witnessed and James’ death. However, the jury did find Graham was involved in James’ death. He was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and tampering with a witness, both felonies.
Graham is in prison serving a 10-year sentence. News 4 Investigates reached out to all four men and their lawyers; none went on the record.
At the time of the arrests in James’ murder, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner released the following statement:
“Witness and victim safety is one of my top priorities, as witness intimidation strikes at the heart of the justice system. When I took office, I stated that we were going to do more prosecutor-lead investigations in an effort to help reduce violent crime and build confidence in the criminal justice system.
The case we charged today is an excellent example of how valuable these types of investigations can be to public safety. My team of prosecutors have been working for months on this case with the assistance of the police department, and we believe we have the evidence we need to hold these four individuals accountable for their actions.”
Gardner would not comment for this story.
“There was no justice at all,” James’ mom said.
James’ family sued the city before the trial and the acquittals, which is why the lawsuit focuses on the family’s claim that James wasn’t given witness protection.
“It really was just a failure at every single level, at every single turn,” said one of the family’s lawyers, Andrea McNairy, a Partner with Brown & Crouppen.
The family’s lawyers argue police and prosecutors had months to help James but didn’t.
“The city has a whole bunch of policies, procedures, rules that they have in writing, those don’t do a lot of good if they’re ignored,” said the family’s lawyer Anthony Laramore, a Senior Trial Lawyer at the Mutrux Firm.
POLICY ON PROTECTING WITNESSES
In St. Louis the “Witness/Victim Protection unit” is run by the prosecutor’s office, and police are supposed to work with them to protect witnesses.
The procedure for what’s supposed to happen is laid out in a Special Order that the police department doesn’t want the public to know about. News 4 Investigates asked for a copy of the policy in an open records request. The police department released a copy with large sections of redactions, claiming those parts are not open to the public.
News 4 got an unredacted copy that police gave lawyers.
One of the sections police hid explains, “any threat to a victim or witness will be documented.” The policy also states if there’s an immediate threat officers have to take “whatever security measures necessary” and they have to help make a “continuing plan” to protect the witness.
“People are trying to hide the ball and our clients are still suffering because of it,” Laramore added.
Despite continued calls and emails, no one at the St. Louis Metro Police Department, or the Prosecutor’s Office will talk to News 4 Investigates about the case and cited the pending lawsuit as why.
Police did send News 4 an email saying they follow their policy on witness protection. The email stated that James died before the police department had its own “victim advocate unit” which allows them “to do more.”
MILLIONS SET ASIDE TO PROTECT WITNESSES
Across the state police have been given more money to protect witnesses.
Last year lawmakers created the “Pretrial Witness Protection Services Fund.” It set aside $2 million that police can apply for by sending statements for costs related to witness protection.
News 4 Investigates uncovered most of the money is untouched. At this point, less than $20,000 has been spent.
State records show only four departments received funds, that includes St. Louis police who requested around $7,000.
“The problem is I don’t think that program is the solution,” said Missouri State Rep. Peter Merideth (D-St. Louis).
Merideth helps approve the budget. When asked if he believes something needs to be done about the fund Merideth responded, “Yes. I will be reaching out for one to the city to see if there is something I can do on my end at the state level to address that, or if they need a different program entirely which frankly, I think is the answer.”
Merideth says he wants to get to the bottom of why the money isn’t being spent, but he believes one reason is that people do not always trust the police.
“If they already don’t trust law enforcement, they don’t trust that they’re actually going to be safe in that situation,” Merideth added.
Any trust is gone with James’ family, who now hopes their lawsuit sends a message.
“It was just a job for you, it was a caseload, but you failed us,” James’ mom said. “I know one thing for sure, they didn’t protect James.”
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