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Posted on Sun, Dec. 05, 2004
Blackwell
SHANE KEYSER/The Kansas City Star
“Lord, why didn't I see the signs? Why didn't I see he was reaching out for help?” says Joyce Strong, the aunt who mostly raised Blackwell.
Ernest Blackwell, who is 8 in this photo, was 6 when his father was killed while opening his liquor store.

On an August day, a 'ticking bomb' exploded




The Kansas City Star

“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 permanence.

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 burns.”

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 that.”

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, Art Mueller.

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, man.”

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 old.”

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 on.

“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 and cry.

“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 welcome.

“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 Thompson.

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 10 minutes.

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 day.

“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 remained sullen.

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 yards.

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 troubled kid.

“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 playful.

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!”

“Touchdown!”

“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.

“Six!”

“Six!”

Blackwell walked away but returned when Davis tried to run. He beat her until she passed out, then went looking for his next random target.

He broke into the girl's nearby home, where he found her mom, Trina Hicks.

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 do.”

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, Ernest.”

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 further.”

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 over.

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 else.

“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 you.”

“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 says.

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 waste.

“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 says.

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 Blackwell.

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 GIANT.

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 wthompson@kcstar.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 witness.


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