ST. LOUIS • Follow Martin Luther King Drive west from the Mississippi River, through the heart of the city, until the street name changes after a set of railroad tracks just inside the county. On the right is a classic stone entrance to a cemetery, where, on a recent day, gravediggers were busy on a hill.
They worked amid a landscape of tombstones, from tall granite blocks to groupings of flat stones lying flush with the soggy ground. In the spirit of a high school yearbook, some of the stones have color photographs of the deceased.
The collage of faces - a teen here, a 20-something there - offers a snapshot of young people caught in a culture of violence.
The new grave on the hill was for Jade Hamilton, a 16-year-old girl who was shot in the neck Feb. 20. Three men approached the car she was in at Mount Pleasant Park in south St. Louis. At least one of the men opened fire, an incident that turned out to be a meager offering for the day's news in a city that had 144 homicides in 2010.
"It doesn't make sense," grumbled Adam Osborne, 24, one of the gravediggers at Lake Charles Park Cemetery. "Someone gets shot, then someone gets shot for that, then someone gets shot for that."
He added: "Do they think it's going to end by killing somebody?"
Guns, drugs and poverty have plagued St. Louis for generations, but officials say age-old ways of settling disputes are now eclipsed by violence that can escalate in an instant. African-Americans fall prey at striking rates, with nine out of 10 homicides in the city involving blacks. And of those killed, half are males under the age of 30.
Gun violence has become so common that it's no longer jarring. But one daring shooting three months ago was impossible to ignore. It put the spotlight on gangs in particular because of where it took place: outside a funeral home near the city's cultural center.
The unsolved case served as a reminder of a world in which gangs offer a support system for youths and for adults who have racked up felony offenses. It's a world in which someone who reaches the age of 35 is considered a survivor. And it's a world that city aldermen don't want to associate with their wards.
Bystanders are often quick to suspect gangs are involved in brazen crimes. An FBI report indicates that gang membership is on the rise and is to blame for as much as 80 percent of the crime in certain areas.
The city of St. Louis has 92 known gangs, from the Compton Street Crips to Village Mob to the Krazie Vietnamese Boys, according to police records, in addition to many outside the city.
Officials hesitate to mention any of the gangs because they don't want to validate them, though others argue that residents need to know who's running their neighborhoods. Gang killings are typically targeted, but crimes such as vehicle thefts and robberies are often random.
It's hard to tell who is responsible. A rigid no-snitch code on the street - "Snitchers and talkers get stitches and walkers" - often gives police no suspects, while leaving victims to settle their own beefs, either out of honor or fear of attack. And beefs can last for years.
Police Chief Dan Isom said gangs can be useful in identifying certain individuals, but he downplayed the issue, saying the criminal landscape was much broader.
"Oftentimes when you say gangs, it just stops at that: ‘We need to just get rid of gangs,' " he said. "Well, it's not that easy. It's about a culture within certain communities where violence is an option for too many people."
That could involve a gang, or two or three people who don't like each other or a domestic dispute, he said.
That could involve killings of young people such as Jade, whose death remains a mystery, illustrating how difficult it can be to place a neat label such as "gang-related," on a killing.
Jade was buried March 1 in an area of the cemetery called the "garden of memory." The hillside is planted with many more sad stories.
GANGS OF ST. LOUIS
It's hard to get a full grasp of gangs because some officials don't like to acknowledge their existence, according to the FBI. There also isn't a uniform definition. The agency describes a gang as a "group or association of three or more persons with a common identifying sign, symbol or name who individually or collectively engage in criminal activity that creates an atmosphere of fear and intimidation."
There are roughly 20,000 street, motorcycle and prison gangs nationally, with about 1 million criminally active members, up from 800,000 in 2005, according to the report. More than a third of students in urban schools report witnessing some sort of gang activity, with numbers also on the rise in suburban and rural areas.
Many modern gangs grew out of groups that developed in the 1960s and '70s, but the introduction of crack cocaine in the 1980s and '90s was a game-changer. Neighborhood men became even more violent because their livelihoods were at stake, helping explain why homicides in St. Louis peaked at 267 in 1993.
In recent years, criminologists have not seen an expansion in street-level drug markets, despite the struggling economy. There have been jumps in prescription drugs, which don't bring the same wrath as street drugs.
Experts say St. Louis gangs are generally not organized but rather a loose collection of people, which can make them harder to control.
"Our gang problem is just like St. Louis," said Beth Huebner, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "Everybody is very localized. It's where you're from."
The fragmented playing field keeps gang members from riding public transportation or taking a job in an area where they aren't welcome. It motivates people to carry weapons. It makes merging public schools complicated, with children as young as 12 and 13 joining gangs.
For a study presented in 2009, Huebner interviewed youth and adult offenders in confinement and found that juvenile gang members were four times as likely as other offenders to own and fire a gun; adult gang members were two times as likely.
They join gangs for protection, to make money from drug sales and other crimes, and for social support.
"Some of these children have come out of homes that they have been raped in, have been beat up in," said the Rev. Richard Jackson of Florissant, who works with families involved in the criminal justice system.
"They want the same things as you - you want a house, you want a car, you want a career," he said, adding that they didn't join gangs "because they were overly loved."
A longtime member of a gang called 44 Bud said gangs actually try to help young members and that his group had even talked about starting a Big Brother-style program. The man, 35, is twice as old as many gang members, and he is a father who has done time in prison and been shot several times.
He said many members didn't see the point of trying to compete for few available good jobs, especially if they have a felony on their record.
"What is minimum wage going to do for you and your family?" he said. "By the time you go to McDonald's and put some gas in the car, you are broke."
Experts expect the situation to worsen as St. Louis struggles to replace its old industrial complex. The city and surrounding areas have high concentrations of poverty, which are breeding grounds for gangs.
"Take the industry out and throw in the guns and the drugs, what do you got - chaos," said Kabir Muhammad, 49, a former member of the Beam Street gang who consults on the topic of gangs for area school districts.
North St. Louis gang detective James Stagge cautioned that the term "gang" is sometimes thrown around too loosely. Many youths just want to be in a clique or in a dance or rap group.
The latest fashions can also be deceiving - saggy pants or dreadlocks or shirts of a certain color. Rather than stick out, he said, youths dress to fit the neighborhood look.
"Kids gotta do what they gotta do to survive," he said. "You got a lot of good kids out here who are just trying to make it."
Adults say they don't move to a different neighborhood because they don't want to start all over again. They also can't get replacement value for their houses, let alone enough for a solid down payment.
Even in death, victims of violence are surrounded by stories of tragic endings.
Down the hill from Jade at Lake Charles Park Cemetery is the fresh, unmarked grave of Trevlan Glass. He was 31 when he died. A paraplegic from an earlier shooting, he was gunned down Nov. 30 outside Reliable Funeral Home in a dispute that involved people in gangs.
Glass rests in section 4-A, near a pond with swans and geese. He's buried beside LeRoy W. "Big Poke" Coleman, who was "Created on" Sept. 5, 1975, and "Hated On" Sept. 10, 2009, according to his tombstone.
Beneath "Rest in peace" and "We love you" chiseled in stone, Coleman stares back in a photo that shows him wearing a red hat backward. He was shot about midnight in his car, which then rolled into a home on Edmund Avenue in Hillsdale, according to a news report.
Fifteen paces to the right is a tombstone photo of Joey O. Richmond. He wears a decorative chain around his neck; a front tooth is covered in gold. He is a "Beloved son, brother and father." Shot once in the forehead and three times in the torso, officials said his death on June 16, 2010, was connected to another homicide the same day in Pine Lawn. He was 26.
Not far from there is Vitterio T. Walls of Jennings, sporting a thin mustache and a white shirt. It was Christmas 2001 when somebody shot him in the face at close range. The 26-year-old was found slumped over the steering wheel of a car, the engine still running, in the parking lot of a fast food restaurant near Kingshighway and Delmar Boulevard.
In the same area rests James January III of north St. Louis County, whose tombstone photo is protected by a small flip-up cover. He was shot 10 years ago in a car loaded with other men. He was 18. His killer, Robert Jenkins, was 19.
These days, Jenkins earns $100 a month translating books into Braille at a Jefferson City prison on No More Victims Road.
Serving a 28-year sentence, he said in a recent interview that the time in prison perhaps saved his life. He has taken advantage of computer training and opportunities to write.
He's amazed at the number of young men coming into prison who have made similar poor choices.
"They really didn't have any motives," he said. "It's like they were just mad."
In his case, he said, he wasn't in a gang. But, he added, he was associated with the Castle Point neighborhood in north St. Louis County because he lived there. He said he started carrying a gun after his home was shot up on two occasions in a "turf war."
"You equate growing up in city life to being in battle. That's how most kids see it," he said. "What kid do you know who would carry a gun every day? That's where the madness comes from - the mindset of the youth."
The results of that mindset can be found at the cemetery, where the roster of violent, early deaths grows too quickly.
Earlier this month, at the short service for Jade, one of the people gathered to say goodbye was Maurice Jones, 20.
"I've been up here six times and, like, two have been natural causes," he said.
After Jones and the rest of the small crowd dispersed, the graveyard crew stepped in, lowering Jade's white casket into the ground.
One of the crew had spray-painted a grid on the grass next to her grave. The blue lines marked where the next burials would be.