“If there is anybody you really
wanted to succeed, it was Ernest. It was really sad to see how it
happened. How he couldn't move on. It broke my heart.”Craig Heimburger, a friend and former
Missouri football teammate of Ernest Blackwell, at left
ST. LOUIS — The blood won't come out of the blue couch next door.
Some stains don't fade away.
In this North St. Louis County neighborhood, near the banks of
the Mississippi River, not much else is left of that August
afternoon. What remains has, like the stains, a dreadful sense of
There's the front porch stoop where a neighbor held a 9-year-old
girl who had been shot in the chest and lay whimpering, “It
There's the scar on that girl, who will only say, “My daddy hates
me.” Ask her more, and she replies, “I don't want to talk about
And there's Laurel Hill Cemetery, Section 4, Lot 252, Space 3,
where shriveled flowers mark the grave of Ernest Jerome Blackwell
Sr. — orphan, MU football star, Chiefs football failure, father,
husband and attempted murderer.
The 29 tumultuous years of Ernest Blackwell are forever
intertwined with his final day, the story of his life now untellable
without the story of his death.
Those who knew him wonder how Blackwell arrived on that day with
so much rage in his heart, so much bad intent. Truth is, none of
them could peer into the man's soul and see the hate that grew until
it reached the breaking point.
On Aug. 11, 2004, Blackwell could take no more.
“Lord, why didn't I see the signs?” says his aunt Joyce Strong,
who mostly raised Blackwell. “Why didn't I see he was reaching out
for help? He must have been a ticking bomb waiting to go off.”
The day he died, Ernest Blackwell went to visit his aunt and
cousin. He'd been over a lot that week, which was unusual. He'd just
had a birthday. He had another child on the way. He and his
estranged mother were attempting to reconcile.
But only a week before, Blackwell's football dream had finally,
unceremoniously, come to an end. It was a bitter disappointment. At
6-foot-3 and around 250 pounds, Blackwell had spent months getting
in shape. He'd put together a video of himself running drills,
although the scouts in their fancy warm-ups had stopped paying
attention long ago.
He'd never been one to put himself out there, but this was his
chance to regain it all. Without football, Blackwell had complained
to friends and family, his life had little meaning.
“He was scared of not succeeding,” says his high school coach,
Blackwell took that tape to the St. Louis Rams. They told him no,
they were sorry, but maybe next year.
He was crushed.
Blackwell began to tie up loose ends, it seems. After being
rejected by the NFL for the last time, he went to “mend fences” with
cousin Sanders Phillips, from whom he'd drifted.
“He said he was sorry for the trouble he'd caused in the past,”
Phillips would say months later.
The first time Blackwell came over that fateful morning, Sanders
was still asleep. A few hours later, Blackwell stopped by again and
found his cousin in the basement. They talked for about 40 minutes.
At one point, Blackwell looked up and said quietly, “I'm so tired,
As he was leaving, he said goodbye again to his aunt. Later,
about five hours before he died, Blackwell stopped by a third time.
He stood in the kitchen, not talking a whole lot. As he turned to
leave, Strong stopped him.
“I'll see you later, big boy,” she said.
Blackwell looked at her. As he walked out the back door, he
turned, nodded and hung his head.
He didn't say a word.
Life began taking pieces from Blackwell when he was 6. One
morning, his father, Emmett Staples Sr., went to open his liquor
store. He never came home.
A gang ambushed Staples as he was getting out of his car and shot
him in the head. The boy went to the hospital to see his father
before doctors pulled the plug. The person closest to young Ernest
was gone — and so, too, was the child's sense of security.
“When he lost his daddy, he lost that,” Strong says. “He went to
cling to his mother, and she pushed him away. She pushed him out
into a cold world that he wasn't prepared for when he was 6 years
Blackwell had an older brother, Emmett, and they clung to each
other, picking up cans and selling them. They cooked and washed and
ironed. They got a paper route, earning a few dollars a week to live
“They were out there panhandling,” Strong says.
Before long, Blackwell lost what little home he had. According to
interviews with him before his death, his mother took her youngest
son and all his belongings to an orphanage. Wanda Staples repeatedly
declined interview requests for this story.
“I didn't ask to come here,” Blackwell said, reliving the moment
in an interview with former Columbia television anchor Brian Neuner.
“I didn't even ask to be born.”
So life began again for Blackwell at the Echo Emergency
Children's Home, located in a tough neighborhood near the corner of
St. Louis Avenue and Kingshighway.
The transition was unspeakably hard. He'd sit in his small room
“It would be holidays, and I was alone,” he told Neuner. “A lot
of my hate was lashing out at anyone who got close.”
After learning of her nephew's plight, after working through
miles of governmental red tape and the purchase of a bigger house,
Strong took in the boy. She treated him like a son. She felt his
pain. Once, when he was sick with the flu, she reached to wipe away
beads of sweat. He instinctively grabbed her hand.
“I'll do it,” he said.
Years later, as he started junior high, Blackwell tried to repair
the relationship with his mom. She was reaching out to him, and he
still wanted his mother. He began to spend a few nights there.
When he was 12, he asked Strong if he could spend a month with
his mom. After just a week and a half, Blackwell packed his things
and walked back to his aunt's home. He told Strong that he wasn't
“I just looked at him, and you could just see the coldness in his
eyes,” Strong says. “The look in his eyes, I could never get it out
of my head and I could not ever get over it.”
The day he died, Ernest Blackwell wanted to lie down. He went
into his bedroom on Spring Garden Drive. His wife, Amy, said she was
going to get some food and asked if he could look after their four
children — two daughters, a son and a stepdaughter.
His brother left to run an errand, and his sister, Annta, was in
the house. Annta heard a big kaboom and ran toward the noise.
Blackwell, who had no previous criminal record save driving without
a license once, had fired a round of birdshot from a Charles Daly
12-gauge shotgun into the chest of his stepdaughter, Adrienne
He had a dazed look on his face as he pushed by his sister.
“I killed my baby,” he said. “I killed my baby.”
Next door, standing at her stove cooking, Felicia Clark heard the
noise. Her account — with details added by Strong, who arrived on
the scene soon after the shooting — is the best window into the next
Clark heard screaming and thought Blackwell was playing with the
neighborhood kids as usual. He loved kids. But the screaming didn't
stop. Clark ran to her door, which was open to ventilate the house.
She remembers Annta screaming, “Help! Help! Call 911!”
“What's wrong?” Clark asked.
“She's bleeding to death,” was all Annta could say.
Clark's first thought was of Amy, who was pregnant and due any
“What is she bleeding from?” Clark asked.
“He shot her,” Annta said. “Oh, God, he shot her.”
Clark ran to Blackwell's porch. She didn't even stop to put on
shoes. Still thinking it was Amy who was hurt, she saw Adrienne
leaning against the house, her hand over her chest.
“Mrs. Felicia?” Adrienne said softly.
“What, baby?” she answered.
The girl moved her hand, and that's when Clark first saw a large
hole. She began to pray and helped the girl lie down.
“Am I gonna die?” Adrienne asked.
“Look up to the sky,” Clark told her, holding her hand, “and just
look at Jesus.”
“I'm gonna die,” the girl said.
“Look up,” Clark insisted.
“Mrs. Felicia,” the girl asked, “why did he do this?”
Blackwell had run down the street — he was raging now — and the
St. Louis police were rolling up. Still no paramedics. Annta was
standing in the front yard screaming. A neighbor came to help Clark,
bringing some towels. Amy arrived, and the cops tried to keep her
away from the porch.
When the first paramedic showed, he almost covered his eyes.
“Oh, God,” he said, before beginning his work.
A few yards away, Amy was hysterical.
“What happened to my baby?” she yelled.
His teenage years might have been Blackwell's most stable. He was
officially termed a “Desegregation Student.” Each morning, he'd park
his beat-up old Ford that Strong bought him — he lovingly called it
his “Get out and push” — at the bus stop and catch a ride 27 miles
to Eureka High School.
The depressing grays of concrete and the faded browns of
boarded-up windows gave way to brilliant oranges and reds and
yellows, if the season was right. City gave way to country, and
hills rolled ahead of the bus until a sweeping right turn put him
two miles away from Eureka, Mo.
This school wasn't like any place he'd ever known. The rooms were
high-ceilinged and spacious. The benches out front not only were
new, they were painted in the school colors, too. The place was kind
of cheery, and yes, Blackwell liked it here, even if his demeanor
His junior year, his first full one with the program, Blackwell
couldn't even crack the varsity football team. The typical problems
followed him: reliability, grades, trust, work ethic. Art Mueller,
Eureka's coach, was after the beefy running back to get in the
weight room. Even then, coaches dangled the NFL — if he'd work hard,
if he'd do his part, it could happen.
Something about that promise clicked. He believed, and his senior
year was magical: conference and district champs, 232 carries, 2,290
After each game that season, Blackwell cried, knowing he was a
little closer to losing what he'd been searching for all his life.
He liked going to the homes of his new friends and hanging out with
their families. Mueller remembers Blackwell stalling and stalling,
not wanting to leave the safety of the coach's car.
“He was scared to death to leave Eureka,” Mueller says.
When that year was over, player and coach sat in the stands, the
stadium lights off after their final game together. Mueller had
persuaded University of Missouri coach Larry Smith to offer
Blackwell a scholarship, to take a chance on the talented yet
“Coach,” Blackwell said, tears again rolling down his cheeks, “if
it weren't for you, I wouldn't have anything.”
There was silence. A few bugs buzzing in the dark.
“It's over, coach,” Blackwell said softly.
“No, it ain't,” Mueller said, forcefully, in his coach voice.
“It's just beginning for you.”
The day he died, Ernest Blackwell ran like a man on fire. He
sprinted two doors down to the left. There he saw a group of teenage
girls playing. At first they laughed; everyone knew he was
As he got closer, though, something in his eyes scared them. All
the girls made it over a nearby fence, except Ashley Davis. She had
a dog, which she tried to turn loose on him. But Blackwell, still in
shape from his last gasp at football, was on top of her before she
could. She begged him not to hurt her.
“Lord, forgive me for what I'm about to do,” he said.
“What are you about to do?” she asked, terrified.
He kicked her, his muscles flexing as he let loose his aggression
and anger. With each blow, he yelled, “Touchdown!”
After each kick, Davis scrunched into a tighter ball, helpless
against the powerful man. He began screaming, “Six!” The scene was
chaos: the screaming girl, the screaming sister, the frantic
neighbors, the bleeding 9-year-old on the porch.
Blackwell walked away but returned when Davis tried to run. He
beat her until she passed out, then went looking for his next random
He broke into the girl's nearby home, where he found her mom,
The woman called out for God, according to the police report.
“Jehovah,” she screamed, “please help me.”
Again, Blackwell replied, “Lord, forgive me for what I'm about to
He beat her until her face swelled and blood poured from her open
wounds. He screamed again and again, “I hate black women!”
He might have killed her, except that the police arrived. The
first officer through the door weighed just 150 pounds. He was no
match for Blackwell's fury and would last less than a minute.
MU coaches and players had heard Blackwell carried baggage,
though few of them knew the details. When he arrived in 1994, they
soon saw the anger.
Larry Smith was jogging one afternoon, near the corner of Stadium
and Providence in Columbia. He saw Blackwell walking to the football
facility, and, as he came up behind him, called out, “Hey,
Blackwell swung around to meet Smith, fists balled, arms cocked —
his default reaction. Smith began to understand how damaged the
young man was.
“It was just known that if you approached Ernest the wrong way
and if you got in his face and you pushed him in a corner, he was
going to become verbally belligerent and aggressive,” says former MU
All-American center Rob Riti. “I'd say even the coaching staff was
intimidated by him, and they coached him in a way that was less
aggressive than they'd coach some of the other players. They were
slow to become really critical of Ernest in a practice or drill.
“I almost feel odd saying this in light of current situations: He
was a guy that people thought could fly off the handle. Most of the
guys thought he was not to be trifled with. Someone the entire team
respected, and, at times, feared.”
After two years, though, tired of not playing, Blackwell just
quit. When he tried to get a release from Smith, the coach refused,
genuinely worried about what might happen to the player away from
the game. The coaches stuck with this young man, and, as he had at
Eureka, Blackwell began to trust them. Academic troubles tied him in
knots as a junior, but by 1997, he had found direction.
The coaches assured him again that hard work would equal NFL
glory, so Blackwell camped out in the weight room. He met a woman,
Amy Thompson, and befriended the team chaplain, John Werst.
“A lot of my efforts in those years was just helping him learn
how to make wise decisions,” Werst says. “But he struggled with that
because he hadn't learned how to trust people.”
Werst sat by Blackwell on the team buses and talked about God,
about forgiveness. Werst told him he should marry Amy, and performed
the ceremony at his home. He even went to Wal-Mart and purchased
rings; the couple couldn't afford any themselves. Blackwell's
playing time improved; in Columbia, they still talk about a 67-yard
touchdown run against Texas in 1997.
“In my four years in the NFL, I can honestly say, Ernest
Blackwell was the best athlete I ever played with,” says friend
Craig Heimburger, a Missouri teammate and former Green Bay Packer.
“He had such a turnaround at Mizzou. He found the Lord. He became a
husband. A family man. A father. I saw him going on and going
The Chiefs saw that potential and selected him in the seventh
round of the 1998 NFL draft. Kansas City's backfield was thin in the
months leading up to the season, and coaches believed Blackwell not
only would make the team, but play an important role as well.
Blackwell thought so, too; he bought a big red SUV.
Only then, Blackwell began to lash out again, to suspect
conspiracy, to shut down. He abruptly quit the team, though the
usually tough Marty Schottenheimer agreed to take him back.
Blackwell never recovered and was cut. The Dolphins gave him a
chance, too. He didn't make it there, either. In high school and
college, they'd been willing to wait, to nurture. But this was
business, and before it really started for Blackwell, it was
He returned the SUV and limped home to St. Louis. He found work
helping autistic children — friends maintain he loved kids — but he
never gave up on the NFL dream. They'd said the hard work would pay
off, and he still believed. Blackwell formulated a plan.
He'd put together a highlight tape, take it to the Rams and he'd
finally make it to the mountaintop. Then he would be a success.
The day he died, police say, Ernest Blackwell fought with the
strength of 10 men.
He separated the first cop's shoulder; more than three months
later, the man still hasn't returned to work. As he was going down,
with Blackwell reaching for the officer's Smith and Wesson service
pistol, the officer did two critical things. First, he ejected the
magazine from the gun, rendering it useless to the assailant.
Second, unable to speak into his radio, he hit his alert tone.
Officer in need of aid.
An alarm sounded in every car within range. It doesn't happen
much, this cavalry call, and when cops hear it, they drop everything
“That's the biggie,” says Lt. Kenneth Schmelig, commander of the
Bureau of Crimes against Persons in St. Louis County. “They need
help, and they need it now.”
More and more police officers jammed into the cramped quarters of
Trina Hicks' house, almost a dozen before it was over. Meanwhile,
Hicks and Ashley Davis limped three doors down, where their blood
would stain Felicia Clark's blue couch.
Blackwell struggled mightily, and the cops ejected their
magazines, just to be safe. It would take hours afterward to find
all the clips in the rubble.
They shot him with a Taser. He ripped the wire from his chest.
More Tasers couldn't bring him down. There were cops on all sides of
him. He was so big that one set of handcuffs didn't fit. It took
two, and still he wouldn't go down.
“I've never seen so many officers that were rattled,” Sgt. Mike
McFarland says. “Everybody was so shocked by his enormous strength.
I don't think anybody had ever seen a man this strong.”
With police officers atop him and his hands bound behind his
back, Blackwell slowly rose to his feet and walked — they all
remember he was walking, not running — from the house.
His aunt and wife and sister were outside, pleading with him. His
mother — who had recently begun to repair her relationship with him
and try to find a place in his life — had been called. The cops were
screaming about PCP and drugs. Strong remembers Blackwell looking at
her and simply blinking.
“Ernest,” she yelled, “please lay down. Don't make them kill
“It was like watching a horror movie,” she would say later. “It
was like an out-of-body experience. I'm looking at Ernest, his eyes
big. Annta's screaming, I'm screaming, his mother had made it to the
scene, she's screaming. We're yelling, ‘Please lay down. We'll work
it out. We'll get a lawyer.' ”
The paramedics injected him with a sedative, and, after about 10
hellacious minutes, Blackwell was put onto a stretcher in the middle
of the street, four cops sitting on top of him.
His chest, heaving a minute before, settled. He calmed, his rage
gone. No one knew it then, but the big man was dying. Even months
later, no one knows exactly what killed him. They do know that 29
years of anger spilled out into one August afternoon, and when it
was done, Ernest Blackwell didn't have enough life left inside to
keep on living.
After Blackwell died but before he was buried, Amy gave birth to
their second son, Eli. Blackwell had picked the name. He had flipped
through book after book until he found a word meaning strong,
blessed prince. Now Eli was fatherless.
“Not knowing your daddy when you are born is hard,” Amy Blackwell
The cycle that everyone hoped Blackwell had broken begins anew.
It's Amy's job now to succeed where her husband failed.
“I know,” she says, firmly.
A handful of teammates came to his funeral, which in the end, was
paid for by Blackwell's mother. The service was nice, even though
his last hours cast a long pall. It all seemed like such a
“If there is anybody you really wanted to succeed,” Heimburger
says, “it was Ernest. It was really sad to see how it happened. How
he couldn't move on. It broke my heart.”
No one has been able to move on. The debate over Blackwell and
his last day continues. The cause of death remains officially
unknown, and police say the autopsy report won't be available for at
least another month. Amy Blackwell's attorney has advised her not to
speak about that day.
Blackwell's aunt says he was lifeless before they loaded him into
the ambulance. The cops say otherwise.
“He didn't look like he had any mortal injuries,” McFarland
Toxicology reports later revealed Blackwell had marijuana in his
system, but no PCP or other hard drugs.
And the little girls? Well, Adrienne recovered fully. Everyone
calls that a miracle. When people ask Felicia Clark where God was on
that horrible day, she smiles. On the porch with that child, of
course. Ashley Davis and Trina Hicks have left the neighborhood.
Although they recovered physically, the mental scars remain.
The pain lingers, and so does the mystery of Aug. 11.
“We don't know,” McFarland says. “I wish I had that answer.
That's the question on everybody's mind, including us. We found
nothing in his system that would explain his behavior.”
And so, mere pieces are left behind. Four bright pink roses have
bloomed on the lattice above the Blackwell porch. Out at Laurel
Hills, the dirt is still fresh. It will be nine more months until a
headstone can go up, until the earth will have fully accepted Ernest
They've already written the inscription, remembering the man they
loved, the man of those first 29 years and not of those last 10
minutes. It will read: BELOVED HUSBAND. DEVOTED FATHER. GENTLE
That's his wife's quest now. To raise their children and to fight
for memories of the Ernie she knew, not the one with his mug shot on
the evening news. She's looking for old football footage, film of
his glory days, anything to show his children when people tell them
their daddy was an evil man.
“I want to give it to his sons,” Amy Blackwell says. “I want
people to know good things about Ernest.”
To reach Wright Thompson, call (816) 234-4856 or
send e-mail to email@example.com.
About the story
The account of the crime scene in this story came from extensive
interviews with St. Louis County police officers, excerpts from the
police report and interviews with two neighbors and a