It’s the summer of death in St. Louis and bullets are flying.
Twelve children have been killed. More have been shot.
Kimberly White doesn’t want her 3-year-old daughter to be one of them.
“Bullets don’t have names,” she says.
It’s why she broke up with the man she loves on the very day she helped get him out of jail.
It was July 12, and Bobby Johnson had just walked out of the City Justice Center.
“My head is spinning,” he told me.
Earlier in the day, Johnson had faced the possibility of a 30-year prison sentence for violating his probation. White, his fiancée — at the time, at least — had called me to tell me about the case. It was remarkably similar to the case of Carlos Johnson, whom I had written about a couple of weeks before.
In that case, Carlos Johnson was sentenced to 15 years in prison by St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Steven Ohmer for violating his probation by breaking the law. The problem with the case was a county jury had determined he didn’t actually break the law. Carlos Johnson was acquitted of the charges against him, including being a felon in possession of a gun. Ohmer had sentenced him to prison anyway, ignoring the public defender’s request for a delay until after the county jury ruled.
The standard of proof is lower in probation cases than criminal trials. Perhaps that’s one reason why Missouri is second in the nation in the number of state prisoners who are locked up on probation or parole violations, at more than 54% of the state’s inmate population.
Bobby Johnson’s case was also before Ohmer. He had been sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2016 for drug possession charges, but he received a suspended execution of sentence, which meant if he stayed out of trouble he wouldn’t go to prison. But Johnson did get in trouble. He was arrested in 2017, accused of being a felon in possession of a gun.
Johnson was also on probation in a federal drug case at the time, and Judge Catherine Perry sent him to federal prison for nine months for a probation violation. But while he was in prison, the city dropped the gun possession charge against him. Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner won’t say why the charge was dropped, but one of the police officers who made the arrest was later arrested for assault. The other officer’s story was inconsistent, according to Johnson’s attorney.
Johnson says the case was dropped because he was arrested by “dirty cops.”
Whatever the case, when he appeared before Ohmer, his attorney, Mark Hammer, argued that the reason for the probation violation no longer existed. Hammer won the argument. Ohmer let Johnson go. He is still on probation.
“I think the right thing got done here,” Hammer said.
White was elated. Until that night.
Johnson went right back to the streets, to hang out at a gas station off Cass Avenue, near the Cochran Gardens projects where he grew up. He wasn’t necessarily doing anything wrong, but White begged him not to go. The 48-year-old mother of three girls wanted him to come with her to Moline Acres in north St. Louis County, to get away from the streets, to get a fresh start.
She was thinking about her 3-year-old.
It’s been a particularly violent summer for children in St. Louis, many of them killed in drive-by shootings, sometimes when they happened to be standing or playing near somebody else who was targeted. Police blame the drug trade for most of the shootings.
“They don’t care where they’re shooting these days,” White says. “I don’t want my child to be part of that.”
Johnson isn’t a bad guy, White says, but she understands why he can’t escape the pull of the streets. It’s all he’s known his entire life.
“He’s good-hearted,” she says. “He wants to save everyone.”
But she had to leave him to save her daughter, White says.
She didn’t want to be in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and have a bullet add her daughter’s name to the list of children who have already died.
Kayden Johnson. Charnija Keys. Myiesha Cannon. Eddie Hill IV. Xavier Usanga. Jashon Johnson. Devaun Winters. Kristina Curry. Derrel Williams. Jason Eberhart Jr. Kennedi Powell, who like White’s daughter, was 3. And Jurnee Thompson, who was shot and killed Friday.
Most of those children died near their homes, where their families have little choice but to live in tough neighborhoods where they can afford the rent.
White had a choice to make to try to keep her daughter out of harm’s way. So despite months of effort to get Johnson out of jail, she had to let him go.
“You’ve got to love your kids,” White says. “But you also have got to love yourself.”
It’s a lesson she hopes other single moms — and men like Johnson — can learn before the summer of death consumes them in a hail of bullets with no names.
“The streets don’t love you,” White says. “They love no one.”