Kevin Johnson's date with the executioner
Kevin Johnson killed a Kirkwood cop. After 17 years grappling with his guilt, his only hope is a last-minute reprieve.
This story was commissioned by the River City Journalism Fund as part of its inaugural series, Shadow of Death, which considers St. Louis County’s use of the death penalty.
It’s been nearly 20 years since Kevin Johnson fired seven shots into William McEntee, killing the Kirkwood police sergeant in front of horrified onlookers, but Johnson can still recall the day in striking detail. The seeming smirk on McEntee’s face that triggered his anger. Johnson’s 12-year-old brother’s lifeless body, carried away on a stretcher two hours before. The time, down to the minute, that a chance encounter with McEntee resulted in the Kirkwood officer’s brutal death.
But still, 17 years of obsessive contemplation has brought Johnson not much more than confusion — and regret.
“I don’t even know why the shooting happened,” Johnson says. “I still to this day think about it.”
The story of what happened in Kirkwood on July 5, 2005, varies depending on who you ask. The version prosecutors tell begins that evening, when Johnson shot and murdered McEntee, a husband and father of three, after he tried to carry out a warrant for Johnson’s arrest.
Johnson’s supporters contend his story starts several years before, when childhood abuse and neglect in what was then an impoverished neighborhood, Meacham Park, forged a young mind that was moments away from falling off an edge — and that the death of Johnson’s 12-year-old brother Joseph “Bam Bam” Long earlier that day tipped him over it. Bam Bam suffered a seizure as police searched for Johnson, who watched as McEntee barred his mother from entering the house to aid her dying son. Bam Bam died that night. How could Johnson not snap?
But here are the facts. Then-St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch successfully convinced a predominantly white jury in 2007 to sentence Johnson, who is Black, to the death penalty. Johnson had two trials. The first ended with a hung jury. The second resulted in his death sentence after the jury deliberated for four hours. Appeal after appeal has since been denied.
Johnson’s case isn’t just a holdover from a time when St. Louis County elected a prosecutor who enthusiastically pushed for the death penalty — a prosecutor who’s since been ousted in the post-Ferguson movement that swept St. Louis. It’s also a rare case of Missouri seeking to execute an offender for a crime he committed as a teenager. Since the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in 2012 requiring states to rethink how they handle youthful offenders, Missouri has executed only one man for a crime he committed as a teen.
Johnson currently has an application pending with the Conviction and Incident Review Unit in St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell’s office. The unit conducted a preliminary investigation and believes further investigation may be warranted. However, one of Johnson’s former trial attorneys now works in Bell’s office, creating a conflict of interest. The unit asked the Missouri Supreme Court to refrain from scheduling Johnson’s execution date until a new special prosecutor can take his case.
In August, the court scheduled Johnson’s execution anyway. Barring a successful last-minute legal maneuver, Johnson will die by lethal injection on Tuesday, November 29.
For now, Johnson doesn’t know whether he should hold out hope or prepare for death.
He’s 37. He was 19 when he killed Officer McEntee. He has a daughter, a new grandson. He says he wants to live for them.
'I started to get mad'
At Potosi Correctional Center in Washington County, Johnson tugs at the sleeve of his gray polo shirt. He uses it to cover his elbow as he talks, as if the surface of the metal prison table is too hard to rest on. Tattoos cover both his arms. They’re nearly indiscernible from behind wire mesh glass, but one on his left arm sticks out — a St. Louis Blues note.
Before his incarceration, Johnson was an athlete. His friends and teammates on Kirkwood High’s football team called him “Rockhead” for the way he bulldozed opposing teams with the top of his seemingly impervious head. His coaches had high hopes.
Today, at 5-foot-8 and 200 pounds, Johnson is burly. His voice is soft and his words intentional; he’s eager to talk. He’s written two books, one about his early childhood and another about his life in prison. But he’s never actually talked to a reporter before — and he wants, in what is likely among the last few weeks of his life, to state his case.
Yet he doesn’t assert his innocence or complain about life’s injustices. He lays blame on himself.
“I think as humans, we tend to shift the blame,” Johnson says. “I don’t think [McEntee] did anything that was wrong that day that I can even blame him for.”
On the day Johnson killed McEntee, Kirkwood police were looking for Johnson. A fight with his daughter’s mother, Dana, had turned physical about two years before, and Johnson had landed a misdemeanor assault charge. Police believed he’d violated the terms of his probation.
Around 5:30 p.m., two Kirkwood officers saw Johnson’s white Ford Explorer parked outside his grandmother’s house in Meacham Park.
Johnson saw them arrive from a bedroom window, where he was watching his two-year-old daughter, Khorry, sleep.
The two officers walked up to Johnson’s vehicle. He was worried they would tow it, so he woke up his beloved little brother, Bam Bam.
“‘I was like, ‘Man, hey, go give these keys to Grandma Pat, [tell] her to act like she’s driving it so they don’t take my car,’” Johnson testified in court, according to trial transcripts.
Bam Bam ran next door to their grandmother’s house, and Johnson watched from the window as his brother gave the keys to their grandmother, who dangled them in the air to show the cops she was going to drive the Explorer.
But almost immediately, she turned back toward the house and shouted at the police to come quickly. Bam Bam had collapsed on the floor.
When Johnson was six, his mother had given birth to Bam Bam. Although Johnson didn’t understand it at the time, Bam Bam was born addicted to crack and had a congenital heart defect.
“I fell in love with him the first day I held him in 1992,” Johnson explained in a message from prison. “He had tubes in his nose and right then we connected because our mom had hurt us both. I felt a bond and an immediate desire to protect him.”
And so Johnson watched in horror after Bam Bam’s collapse. He saw the officers walk to the porch, and it looked to Johnson like they were stepping over something. They gestured for everyone to leave the house.
McEntee arrived at the same time as an ambulance — and as Jada Tatum, the mother of both boys, rushed into the house. Johnson watched as McEntee booted her out, then “tussled” with her as the officer “pushed” her to stop her from going back in, according to Johnson’s account.
“It looked like they was fighting, and I started to get mad,” Johnson testified. “Then eventually my mom just stopped. She went into the yard and started crying.”
Then Johnson watched paramedics carry his little brother away on a stretcher. Looking back, he says he could tell Bam Bam was already dead. The boy’s foot dangled lifelessly. His tongue hung out of his mouth.
It all happened so quickly, and everyone left except for McEntee and Officer Christopher Nelson. They walked next door to tell Johnson’s great-grandmother what hospital Bam Bam was being taken to. When they asked if Johnson was in the house, she said no.
But Johnson was right there, and McEntee spotted Johnson through the window. He tapped Nelson’s shoulder, and Nelson turned to look too. McEntee made eye contact with Johnson and gave what he saw as a “subtle smirk.”
That perception — the officer’s facial expression, the grieving teenager reading it from the window — would change two lives forever.
An officer called 'Big Mac'
He can’t explain why, but when St. Charles County Police Chief Kurt Frisz received a call that a Kirkwood sergeant had been shot in Meacham Park, he knew it was McEntee.
“I called another academy classmate and said, ‘I think it’s Mac,’” Frisz says.
Frisz led the St. Louis County Tactical Operations Unit at the time. He and McEntee had attended the police academy together about 20 years prior.
Like most who knew McEntee, Frisz described him as a gentle giant with a personality almost as big as his physical size. The 19-year Kirkwood police veteran towered over most at 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds.
“He made it a pleasure to come to work,” says Tom Seymour, a Kirkwood officer from 2001 to 2004. “He was always available for any type of advice you would need.”
McEntee was 43 at the time of his death. His three children, a daughter and two boys, were 13, 10 and 7. His widow, Mary McEntee, said the family declined to be interviewed for this story.
Neither Seymour nor Frisz recall McEntee having bad blood with residents. But there were tensions between police and people in Meacham Park. The largely Black neighborhood had been annexed by nearly all-white Kirkwood barely a decade before.
“Meacham Park was an area that required extra due diligence,” Seymour says. “From a police officer’s standpoint, you had to really keep your head on a swivel and stay on point.”
Some residents of Meacham Park say “Big Mac” had a reputation. Johnson himself claims that a year before their deadly interaction, McEntee grabbed one of his friends by the neck after that friend mocked McEntee. This led to a “fight” with the officer as Johnson’s friends piled on him. They ran away when McEntee got a hold of his gun.
There is no record of anyone complaining about such an incident. But Romona Miller, now a retired Kirkwood High School assistant principal, said she complained about McEntee around that time.
Miller was a science teacher at Kirkwood High in 2005 — the first Black teacher to hold the position. A few students told her about an officer they called “Mac.” She heard McEntee had escalated a situation to the point that another officer had to cool things down.
“I had never heard the kids talk specifically about a person, so that was concerning to me,” Miller says.
Miller brought her concerns to the Kirkwood police but never heard back. A spokesman would later tell the St. Louis Beacon that the chief had no recollection of Miller reporting McEntee.
“I often wonder, if that had been taken more seriously, we could have avoided a lot of this,” Miller says.
'I didn’t realize I was shooting him'
About 30 minutes after Bam Bam was taken away on a stretcher, his grandmother confirmed some terrible news: He was dead. Johnson recalls kicking his bedroom door off its hinges; he then roamed Meacham Park “trying to get a grip on things” while screaming, “He killed my brother!”
“I felt so many emotions, but guilt over Bam Bam’s death consumed me the most,” Johnson says. “Had I not bothered him with my foolishness, he’d still be alive.”
By then, word of Bam Bam’s death had spread across Meacham Park. Johnson fielded question after question. “What happened?” “Cuz, is it true?” Johnson recalls trying to smile, wanting to put on a tough front.
Not even two hours had passed when Kirkwood police received a call about someone shooting off fireworks in Meacham Park, just one block from where Bam Bam had collapsed. McEntee returned to the neighborhood around 7:30 p.m. to respond to the call. When he stopped to talk to three kids, he and Johnson locked eyes once again.
What happened next was a blur. The way Johnson recalls it, he turned from a conversation with a cousin to see McEntee in his patrol car.
Throughout his life, Johnson’s anger manifested in different ways. He mostly directed it at himself in his younger years. Why was he so unlovable? Why did his auntie make him jump up and down for hours in a corner after he got in trouble? But as Johnson grew older, the anger started to spew outward. He’d get in fights. He’d yell at people who wronged him.
When he overheard his ex, Dana, say she didn’t care about him anymore, he raged, slapping her several times, earning a misdemeanor assault charge — the same one that led to the probation violation that had police looking for him that day.
What Johnson felt when he saw McEntee for the second time that day was different. McEntee turned his attention from the kids with fireworks as Johnson tried to slip past his patrol car. When they made eye contact, McEntee “again gave a subtle smirk.” That’s when Johnson pulled out his gun and started firing.
“At that time, I didn’t realize I was shooting him,” Johnson says. He didn’t see McEntee, he says — he saw “visions” while in a “trance-like state.” He saw again the sly smirk he believed McEntee had previously flashed through the window. He saw his brother’s limp body, and McEntee holding his mother back from attending to Bam Bam.
People nearby would later tell Johnson he shouted “you killed my brother,” but Johnson has no memory of this. He reached into McEntee’s car and grabbed his gun. McEntee had enough wherewithal to speed away but quickly crashed into another car and then a tree.
Disoriented, Johnson started to run, heading toward Khorry’s mother’s house. Some testimony suggests that he told his mother that McEntee let his brother die, so he needed to see what it felt like to die.
Then he stumbled into the crowd surrounding McEntee and his crashed vehicle.
McEntee was bleeding from several spots, mostly on his face. One of the five bullets Johnson had fired went through McEntee’s mouth and severed his tongue, so as McEntee tried to climb out of his car, he couldn’t talk. Someone opened his driver-side door, and he fell out of the car.
The crowd parted as Johnson approached McEntee struggling on the ground. As the sergeant crawled on all fours, Johnson fired another shot to the back of McEntee’s head.
Johnson could hear his heart thumping. From the crowd, he heard his little-league baseball coach say, “Kevin, Kevin.”
One of McEntee’s eyes was missing. Pieces of his skull and brain matter were exposed. A firefighter who worked with McEntee for 18 years would testify at trial that he couldn’t recognize the sergeant when he turned his body over.
An “irresistible gravitational pull” seemed to draw Johnson to McEntee’s body. He stumbled and landed on his hands and knees. One hand landed in a puddle of McEntee’s blood on the ground. “What have I done?” Johnson remembers thinking.
Then he ran to his car and fled.
Two dead cops
On December 1, 2021, more than six months before the state moved to execute Johnson, his legal team filed an application with St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell to investigate allegations of pervasive racial discrimination on the part of his predecessor, Bob McCulloch.
McCulloch was handily reelected six times by majority-white St. Louis County, but after the death of Michael Brown at the hands of a Ferguson police officer, Black voters turned out to oust him. Never in his 27 years in public office did McCulloch prosecute an officer-involved shooting to an actual indictment. That includes Michael Brown’s killer, Darren Wilson.
McCulloch’s own father, a St. Louis city officer, was killed in the line of duty in 1964, but he insists the tragedy never affected his work.
“It’s kind of irrelevant,” McCulloch says. “In 1964, I was 12 years old. It wasn’t a police officer who was killed in the line of duty. It was my father not coming home.”
In 2018, his last year in office, McCulloch delivered a speech at a conference that was so seemingly offensive that an entire county’s worth of Oregon prosecutors walked out. McCulloch reportedly mocked the American Civil Liberties Union and took jabs at Black Lives Matter.
A professor at the University of North Carolina researched McCulloch’s track record at the behest of Johnson’s legal team. Frank Baumgartner’s report, released this September, examined about 400 McCulloch-era homicides that would have been eligible for the death penalty in St. Louis County. All told, as prosecuting attorney, McCulloch won death penalty convictions against 23 men. Fifteen were Black.
Baumgartner’s report found McCulloch’s office was more likely to charge first-degree murder, seek the death penalty and obtain a death sentence in cases involving white victims than minority victims. He found homicides with Black victims had a 4 percent chance of leading to a death sentence. Ones with white victims had a 14.1 percent chance.
In Johnson’s case, his lawyers claimed McCulloch wrongly used a peremptory strike to eliminate a Black juror. The woman had worked as a foster parent with Annie Malone Children’s Foster Home, where Johnson once stayed as a child.
In a later dissent, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Teitelman said Johnson’s case should have been sent back for a new trial. The Black juror shared similarities with white jurors who had substantial contacts with the division of family services, he wrote, yet they were allowed to stay on.
Testimony from behind the scenes at Johnson’s first trial suggests what he was up against. The trial ended with a hung jury divided 10-2, with the majority favoring a lesser, second-degree murder conviction.
According to a filing by Johnson’s lawyers, the two holdout jurors voiced “racially biased opinions during deliberations.” Two white jurors kept “loudly repeating they couldn’t vote for second degree because Kevin would get out and hunt them down,” another juror recalled in an affidavit. One white juror “kept yelling things about ‘your neighborhoods,’ and ‘you people,’ when talking to Black jurors.”
Johnson’s supporters also note that McCulloch sought the death penalty against all four Black defendants his office prosecuted for killing a police officer.
But prosecutors did not seek the death penalty for Trenton Forster, the white 18-year-old who killed Officer Blake Snyder in 2016. He received life in prison without parole even though prosecutors argued Forster had, in a way, planned to murder a cop. They pointed to social media posts and text messages in which Forster said he wanted to kill, “fuck the police” and “I want to take them out.”
McCulloch says a huge difference between Johnson and Forster’s case was that Forster had “severe mental issues.” That’s even though Johnson had been treated for depression and ADHD in early childhood and was later diagnosed with multiple psychiatric disorders. Johnson, who by all accounts acted impetuously, received a harsher sentence. And that’s even though Johnson, like Forster, was still a teenager at the time of his crime.
Johnson’s age is important to consider when discussing his case, says Megan Crane, co-director of the MacArthur Justice Center. The U.S. Supreme Court largely didn’t embrace the psychology of youth until a landmark case in 2012. Miller v. Alabama holds that mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional for juveniles.
While Johnson was not legally a juvenile at the time of his crime, the court embraced in Miller v. Alabama what science makes crystal clear and what most parents already know — that kids are not like adults; their brains do not fully develop until age 25, or possibly even later.
Johnson’s offense has a lot of the hallmarks of a typical youth crime, according to Crane.
“It was extremely emotionally driven for him,” Crane says. “He just watched his brother die while police stood by and possibly prevented his family from intervening. He’s acting on emotion, he’s acting on impulse and anger, and doesn’t have the cognitive skills to pump the brakes on that.”
'Among the most extreme cases'
News that a cop had been killed and the shooter was on the loose spread quickly. While he was on the run, Johnson saw McEntee’s face everywhere on TV. Reporters said McEntee was a father of three, which caused Johnson to let out “a deep sigh of shame.”
While Johnson has never apologized personally to the McEntee family, he says in an email from prison that’s because he hasn’t had the chance. He says he thinks a lot about what he’d say to them.
“I would like to look them in their eyes and assure them that this was not a planned killing,” he wrote. “To live with the fact that I took another man from his kids eats at my soul daily!”
After three days on the run, Johnson turned himself in. People who knew him were stunned to learn he’d taken a life.
“I was very, very surprised,” Miller, the former Kirkwood High administrator, says. She knew Johnson as a quiet and respectful student, and so did most of his educators.
“I just could not believe it,” says Melissa Fuoss, who taught Johnson English in high school. He wrote a poem in her class about giving his baby daughter a bath, which she always remembered.
“It seemed completely impossible Kevin would do that,” Fuoss says.
What memories Johnson has from early childhood are not good ones. He wrote in a book he authored in prison that around age three or four, his mother left him and his older brother alone for hours or days at a time “likely to sell her body for crack cocaine.” When they got hungry, they’d try to catch and eat the roaches that roamed the “rundown garage” they lived in. His father was incarcerated for most of Johnson’s adolescence.
Around the time Johnson was four, the state sent him and his siblings to live with different family members. He lived with “Aunt Edith,” who at first seemed like the mother figure he’d yearned for. But his aunt was mercurial, and over time became abusive, according to a later assessment of Johnson. A 2016 psychological evaluation noted how Johnson was whipped, beaten and maced by various caregivers and directed by uncles and cousins to join in sex acts as a prepubescent child.
Johnson’s repeated exposure to violent abuse and neglect “is among the most extreme cases that this psychiatrist has ever seen in his 40 years of practice and 30 plus years of performing psychiatric evaluations in connection with capital litigation,” forensic psychiatrist Richard Dudley wrote.
In times of high stress, an entity Johnson says lived in his head would take control of his body. Kris was tough, aggressive and angry. Johnson liked Kris at first; he kept him company when he was lonely. When Johnson tried to commit suicide at a group home as a teenager, he says it was Kris who forced him not to, even as another voice, Kyle, encouraged him to.
Johnson was on the wrong path. He got into fights. He was repeatedly kicked out of group homes as a teen after his aunt forced him out of the house for violating her rules. Only in prison did he get his GED.
In the day before Bam Bam died, Johnson dealt with suicidal thoughts. His daughter’s birthday had been two days before, and he later told Dudley he felt unable to do everything he wanted to do for her. It felt like his life was falling apart.
Johnson suffers from a long list of psychiatric disorders, according to Dr. Dan Martell, who assessed him, including attention deficit and intermittent explosive disorder, which causes impulsive and aggressive acts.
In addition, Martell says Johnson has a frontal lobe impairment and appears to have been exposed to drugs as an infant, issues that Martell says almost certainly came into play when Johnson killed McEntee.
“The combination of Mr. Johnson’s psychiatric disorder, ADHD, frontal lobe impairment and IED greatly contributed to his behavior of explosive impulsive aggression, including his behavior during the instant offense … his moral compass was effectively ‘offline’ at the time of the instant offense,” Martell says.
Rachel Jenness never saw Johnson’s aggression. She taught him in kindergarten and first grade, and to this day describes him as one of her two favorite students — “[Johnson] was smart, smart, smart.” He read fluently, had neat handwriting and came to school sharply dressed.
“He never had bruises or marks, but he would occasionally smell of urine,” Jenness says. She theorizes that Johnson’s aunt forced him to go to school in his urine-soaked clothes as punishment for wetting the bed.
Johnson’s aunt told Jenness she could spank the boy (she refused). Johnson later wrote of his embarrassment with how his aunt would come to school to spank him but didn’t show up for bring-your-parent-to-class events.
“I definitely thought about adopting him,” Jenness says.
Still, Johnson’s aunt appeared to care about his education and showed up when she was called.
“I remember his grandmother being at school often, so it wasn’t like ‘Oh my gosh, this child is so deprived,’” says Pamela Stanfield, Johnson’s elementary school principal at Westchester Elementary. “At that time, we didn’t know. Looking back, I think if we had intervened sooner, maybe this would have never happened.”
'I have to hold up my head and face it'
At her grandmother’s home in Meacham Park, Khorry Ramey soothes her newborn baby Kiaus as he rocks back and forth in an electric rocker. He fusses softly when his mother isn’t talking. He’s incredibly small and delicate, born just days after what would have been his great-uncle Bam-Bam’s 30th birthday. This is Kevin Johnson’s grandson.
Ramey smiles when she explains her baby’s name. “It means ‘rejoice.’”
It’s an odd ray of light in an otherwise tragic situation. Her father murdered McEntee barely a block away from the house where she is now. It’s the same house she lived in for most of her life.
Johnson was incarcerated since she was two, and when Ramey was four, her mother died in front of her. An ex-boyfriend shot Dana Ramey in the head as they walked home from Walmart. Johnson and Dana were both teens when their daughter came into their lives. Johnson always calls Khorry Ramey “his sanity.”
When Dana died, Johnson wanted to know everything about her murder. He imagines this is what the McEntee family wants too.
“I think a lot about what I’d say to them,” Johnson says. “I put myself in their shoes. What can you say? What would I want to hear from the person who took my loved one away? I can say ‘I am sorry.’ I am sorry, but what is that gonna do for them? I would want to make them feel better.”
When Ramey talks of her father and mother, she speaks only of love and acceptance.
“Even though he’s been incarcerated my whole life, it’s almost like he’s still been there,” Ramey says of Johnson. He bugs her about bad grades and listens to her boy problems. When she told Johnson she wanted to be a nurse, he had friends in the medical field reach out.
Johnson’s supporters are seeking a legal reprieve; not to release him from prison but to spare him from death. If he receives clemency, Johnson says he wants to do whatever he can for Ramey. He wants to be there for his new grandson. He wants to “motivate other inmates to turn their lives around.” He’s held multiple leadership roles while in prison.
One man is not convinced: the prosecutor who put him there, McCulloch. “So he does wonderful things — and good for him — while he’s in prison,” McCulloch says. “It doesn’t alter the fact that what he did merited a death sentence. When it’s time for the punishment, it’s time for the punishment.”
The odds of clemency are against Johnson, and he is trying to face the alternative. “If I die, then I have to hold my head up and face it,” he says.
When the Missouri Supreme Court set his November 29 execution date on August 24, he counted. Ninety-seven days.
In his early days of incarceration, Johnson admits he would have rather died than spend the rest of his life in prison. Many family members have lived to their 80s, and the decades seemed to stretch before him overwhelmingly. He lived without love in those days, he admits. Now he wants to live for his daughter.
It’s torturous to know his life has an expiration date. Family and friends talk to him all the time — he’s almost like their therapist, he says. He passes the days writing, watching TV, talking to family and friends, reading the Bible — whatever he can do to take his mind off things.
Mostly, he daydreams. He travels back in his mind to 1999. That wasn’t a particularly good year for him, he says, but for some reason that’s where he goes. He was 14, and that’s around when he entered his first group home.
It’s almost obsessive, how he plays back different moments with the same recurring characters while he roams Potosi Correctional Center’s prison grounds, music on his headphones.
One of his sisters told him this was “maladaptive daydreaming,” but he can’t seem to stop. He likes to relay different events in his mind.
Only in this version, he does everything right.
Riverfront Times' Ryan Krull contributed to this report. For more on the River City Journalism Fund, which provided funding for this project and seeks to support local journalism in St. Louis, please see rcjf.org.