ST. LOUIS • One teen was charged with murder, two more were held and a fourth was sought Monday as officials spent another day trying to quell speculation that the bludgeoning death of a Bosnian immigrant was racially motivated.
“There is no evidence that this was a crime occasioned by the race or ethnicity of the victim,” Mayor Francis Slay declared in a formal statement. He added, “Speculation that this attack had anything to do with the Ferguson protests is absolutely unfounded.”
Police have been saying the same thing about the killing of Zemir Begic, 32, who was beaten to death with at least two hammers near Gravois Avenue and Itaska Street about 1:15 a.m. Sunday.
Robert Joseph Mitchell, 17, who lives on Winnebago Street, turned himself in at city police headquarters late Sunday and was charged with first-degree murder and armed criminal action. It was unclear whether two other suspects in custody, juveniles 15 and 16, will be charged as adults. Police said they know the identity of a fourth participant, who is sought.
Mitchell and one of the two juveniles in custody are black, police said; the other is Hispanic.
According to court documents, members of the group yelled at Begic, his fiancée and two others as they walked to Begic’s car. As the vehicle drove away, one teen jumped on the back and began beating on it. Begic stopped and got out, and one of the men taunted him to fight before all four attacked — and continued to beat him after he fell to the ground.
“We think it was wrong place, wrong time,” police spokeswoman Schron Jackson said.
Detectives do not believe the attackers took anything but Begic’s life. He died at St. Louis University Hospital, suffering injuries to his head, abdomen, face and mouth.
Jackson said there was nothing in the suspects’ criminal backgrounds to suggest they would do something of this magnitude.
Slay wrote: “I don’t know what happened to them or to their families to lead these young people to commit such a horrific crime. It’s disturbing. We do not know their past. Their futures, though, will be as grim as the judicial system can make it.”
About 300 people gathered Monday afternoon for a two-hour vigil near the scene in the Bevo Mill neighborhood — about three times as many as had gathered Sunday night. Many were worried that racial tension had fueled the killing.
Some demanded more police attention, which Chief Sam Dotson promised Sunday.
Alderman Carol Howard said the community has experienced an uptick in crime since the summer. “I don’t know why,” she said. “This has been a safe, stable neighborhood; we want to keep it that way.”
Data from the police department show that in a comparison through Oct. 31, crimes against persons in Bevo Mill were up 2 percent in 2014 over 2013, and crimes against property were down 6.1 percent. Overall crime was shown as down 4.8 percent.
Homicides and robberies were down 66.7 percent and 32.3 percent respectively, but aggravated assaults were up 24.1 percent.
Lewis Reed, president of the Board of Aldermen, wrote a letter Monday to the Board of Estimate and Apportionment, asking the budget director to research ways to pay for more police. It echoes a call already made by Dotson, citing continuing protests since the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson Aug. 9.
Reed wrote: “From what we have seen during the past week, there is no indication that the protests and demonstrations are going to be slowing down any time in the near future. We should not ask the members of our police department to continue to work 12-hour shifts indefinitely. This could lead to morale problems as well as diminishing returns with respect to effective law enforcement.”
Some who gathered at the scene Monday talked of surviving war in their home country and coming to America for a better life, only to be met with a crime like this.
“We need to stop crazy people in the street,” said Dan Movc, a Bosnian who came to St. Louis a decade ago.
The crowd chanted, “Bosnian lives matter!” taking a cue from Ferguson protesters who often rally with the call, “Black lives matter!”