After his ‘little brother’ was murdered in Kinloch, author Ben Westhoff sought answers
In 2005, Ben Westhoff became a mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters and was paired with a tiny 8-year-old with a “gigawatt smile.” That boy, Jorell Cleveland, would become like family, a regular presence in his home as Westhoff’s career took him from St. Louis to New York City to Los Angeles and then back to St. Louis again.
But not even two years after Westhoff and his family bought a home in St. Louis and again began seeing Cleveland and his family more regularly, the 19-year-old was murdered, shot point-blank one summer afternoon in Kinloch, Missouri.
The killing forced Westhoff to take a closer look at the teenager he thought he knew — and left him with unsettling information. His investigation revealed that the shy, sweet kid he’d once known had developed a penchant for guns and started selling marijuana. Ultimately, he also identified a likely suspect in his killing — someone who may have killed Cleveland because he felt threatened in prior interactions.
More than anything, the investigation forced Westhoff to look at St. Louis’ deep divides — and his own inability to steer his beloved “little” away from the dangers that affect so many youth in St. Louis’ tough neighborhoods.
“I began losing confidence in the everyday tasks of raising my own boys,” Westhoff writes in his new book, “Little Brother: Love, Tragedy and My Search for the Truth.” “If I couldn't take care of Jorell, what made me so sure I could take care of them?”
“I was trying my best, but it was clear after he died that maybe my best was just not good enough,” Westhoff explained on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “I had young kids at the time, and we really didn't live all that far from where Jorell lived. And it just kind of sunk my confidence in parenting generally.”
But as Westhoff acknowledged, there is a vast difference between the suburb where he was raising his two sons and Cleveland’s life in Ferguson. It wasn’t just that Westhoff’s kids are white and Cleveland was Black. Their school districts offered wildly different opportunities — and Westhoff’s leafy street offered far more security than Cleveland’s, where gun violence was common.
“It started really from the time we both arrived in St. Louis,” Westhoff explained. “We're both outsiders, I'm from Minnesota, and Jorell's family is from Arkansas. And yet, when we moved here, I ended up in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods; he ended up in one of the poorest.” After being displaced from the city’s Forest Park Southeast neighborhood during a period of rapid gentrification, Cleveland’s family wound up in Ferguson, which, not long before the teen’s murder, became a national symbol of Black residents living under the thumb of a white minority.
“Jorrell was caught up in a situation that was untenable from the start,” Westhoff said.
By the end of Westhoff’s book, he feels reasonably certain he’s identified Cleveland’s killer — and an astute reader is likely to agree. Even so, he knows the killer is extremely unlikely to be prosecuted. That’s not something the author said he needs to have closure.
“I basically just want what his family wanted,” he explained. “And that's how I've undertaken this whole process. I did this for them. And they wanted answers, but they didn't necessarily need someone to be thrown in prison.”
Westhoff’s hope comes not from the idea of seeing someone led away in handcuffs — but for real change for kids growing up in places like Ferguson and Kinloch. He said his great desire is that people overcome the St. Louis area’s infamous segregation to truly get to know others who aren’t like them — and work to address the region’s inequality.
“It’s so easy just to think that's how life is, there's nothing we can do about it, it's always been this way, it's always going to be this way,” he said. “But the more you actually know about places like north county, learning about the whole diverse population of St. Louis, the more educated you are, you start to see that things really can be done. There just has to be the will to do it.”
What: “Little Brother” book launch with Left Bank Books
When: 7 p.m. May 25
Where: Ethical Society of St. Louis, 9001 Clayton Road, St. Louis, MO 63117
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.