Gun violence is the result of a series of choices, some of them spur-of-the-moment, others made after much consideration.
The vast majority of men and women in Missouri convicted of gun crimes eventually go free. Next comes navigating life with a felony record, which is a complicated process.
They often have to go back to the neighborhoods where they were arrested, making it hard to escape feuds that had them protectively carrying guns. And the lucrative world of drug dealing can be a temptation when it’s tough to find or keep a job.
Many people also struggle with the effects of chaotic childhoods: “There’s not enough food or income in the house, and they’re neglected, and dad never comes around, and you see your mom taken advantage of,” former convict Willie Streeter-El explained.
Four people in the St. Louis area shared their stories of their gun convictions and what they’re doing to rebuilding their lives.
Willie Streeter-El’s criminal record was, as he explains, the result of his decision to “disregard his upbringing.”
“I had a mom and a dad. My dad owned his own truck company, so we had 18-wheelers parked in the driveway,” he said. “And here I am running down in the city to the projects to connect with drug dealers. There were certain people in the neighborhood that I formed relationships that was into a certain lifestyle.”
Streeter-El also had older relatives who were dealers. During the mid-1990s and early 2000s, he followed in their footsteps, racking up a half-dozen drug charges and a gun conviction. He said he was almost always armed.
“There is no honor among thieves, so when you choose a particular lifestyle, you have to understand the safety measures that come with that lifestyle,” he said.
The trafficking case earned him 10 years in prison — a background that would be a liability in most workplaces, but Streeter-El uses it to connect with the men he counsels at the Fathers’ Support Center. The agency’s four locations in metro St. Louis are mostly located in areas that experience a lot of drugs and violence.
“Some of the guys have paranoia issues about going to certain places to even go to class because of the problems that exist there, and so they struggle with it. But we tell them, you can’t bring the guns. You have to put the guns down,” he said.
Streeter-El helps the men learn to break off old relationships, and find a new support system. Those are the same skills the Fathers’ Support Center taught him when he was released from prison, which allowed him to win custody of his four children (his fifth was shot and killed in 2015).
“I’ve got a relative who has done a period of probably 20 years in prison over violence and drugs,” he said. “He’s recently released. Hopefully, he gets what I get, you know?”
Over the 20 years that Lee dealt heroin in Virginia and later St. Louis, he always had a regular job.
“I was just greedy,” he said. “I wanted more. I liked the fast cars. I like hanging out at night, spending the cash in the strip joints. I like being the big man in the crowd.”
The other thing Lee always had was a gun.
“It was like the Wild Wild West,” he said. “It was my life or theirs. I would rather be standing here than him standing here.”
St. Louis Public Radio is using Lee’s middle name because his workplace doesn’t know he has a felony record.
In 2001, Lee beat another man over a drug debt. That man called the police. Lee was armed, which meant a simple assault case became more serious. He pleaded guilty to armed robbery, burglary and kidnapping in July 2002, and spent 14 years behind bars.
Paroled in December, Lee said the street life no longer holds the same appeal.
“That life took 16 years of my life away from me,” he said. “That’s something I’m never going to ever let them do again.
And he knows he’s lucky he got the chance to turn his life around.
“On a number of cases I’ve pulled out my gun and I started firing at people,” he said. “I know how to hit what I’m aiming at. So yeah, I’ve shot a lot of people.”
Tracy White was never interested in dealing drugs, only taking them. She was addicted to crack cocaine for nine years.
White’s weapon of choice? Her fists. But that changed in the fall of 1998.
She’d been clean for seven months when she decided to celebrate her daughter's second birthday. One drink turned into a three-day cocaine binge. White spent most of it riding around with a man she knew from the Gravois Park neighborhood in south St. Louis.
After the pair got robbed of their drugs multiple times, her friend got a gun.
“We was just like, using the gun to scare them, not to shake nobody up or kill anyone,” White said.
By the third day, White had had enough and asked her friend to take her home. She was in the back seat when a guy jumped into the car.
“He pulled out a knife, towards my friend, and they were wrestling over the gun. The gun fell back there towards me,” she said. “When I picked up the gun, I turned it towards the young guy and it blew his brains out.”
White pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in 1999. She was released from prison in January after serving more than 18 years.
“When I got to prison I was very angry,” she said. “I was angry at myself. I didn’t want to cooperate. I got in a few fights. But then I started getting with positive people. I started changing my mindset. I wanted to do something different.”
White earned her GED, started mentoring younger inmates and joined Prison Performing Arts, with which she still works. “The only people that call me is some of my friends that were in prison with me — they also are clean. Church is always a good help,” she said. “I do a lot of theater, which I love.”
She’s focused on finding a job to support herself and her mother, niece and daughter.
“I can find a job that will take me with my background, but the jobs that I love, I keep losing them because of my background,” she said. “But I don’t give up.”
Arthur Boyle would carry a gun if he expected trouble when he was dealing heroin, a job he said gave him money and freedom, “come and go as you please.” But it wasn’t an everyday thing.
“Drug possession wasn’t a heavy charge,” he said. “A lot of the times, police officers didn’t even want to be bothered with the paperwork. But you got caught with a weapon, that was a serious offense.”
Boyle, who also used heroin, was armed in 1995 when he decided to rob a St. Louis scrap metal business.
“I was dealing drugs, and my addiction was so heavy that I was getting into debt. I was using more than I was selling,” he said. “Trying to recoup my losses, I decided to take a drastic action of doing an armed robbery. The result was getting arrested and incarcerated.”
Boyle spent 10 years in prison. He’s been out since 2006 and has held a job since then.
He chalks up the easier adjustment to life after prison to being in his 40s when he was put behind bars.
“In 10 years, I never had a fight, never was involved with drugs or pornography or anything that might be considered depraved in the prison system,” he said. “But at a young age, I would have possibly be influenced by some of them because that’s what everyone’s doing, and you want to be accepted.”
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