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Police Had A Suspect, Evidence In Killing Of Young Mother — But They Never Made An Arrest

Alexis Winston was found shot to death in her apartment in the John Robinson Homes in East St. Louis.
Florince Harlan

Editor’s note: There were 341 unsolved murders in East St. Louis between 2000 and 2018. In many of these cases, police had evidence and suspects, but no charges were filed. Here is one of those cases. This article originally appeared in the Belleville News-Democrat.

An early morning phone call with a frantic woman’s voice is countered by the dispatcher’s measured, calm tone.

“He’s breaking in my house now. Please hurry! Please hurry! Hello?” the woman cries.

The young mother gives the police her address. There’s a rustling, then a cry. The conversation goes quiet, but the woman didn’t hang up.

“Hello? Hello?” the dispatcher calls into the open line.

Someone was inside the apartment now, the dispatcher tells responding officers.

“He has to be on site now. She’s yelling at them.” the dispatcher says into the radio microphone.

The line goes dead. The dispatcher tries calling back, but each series of repeated rings ends with “Please leave your message for …” Once. Twice. Three times. Police sirens wail over the dispatcher’s radio. They were too late.

The officers found Alexis Winston, a 23-year-old single mother, dead in her bedroom. Shot in the head, the chest and the back. Royal Spencer, her 18-month-old baby girl, spattered with her mother’s blood, lay in her crib, just feet away.

Winston lived in the John Robinson Homes public housing complex, one of the most dangerous place in the most dangerous city in America.

But it doesn’t seem Winston is a victim of random violence.

East St. Louis Officer Andre Henson answered the call on Aug. 8, 2017, to the John Robinson Homes, Apt. 38E. As other officers arrived at the scene to back up Henson, they spotted a silver or white sedan leaving the area fast. When the arriving officers got to apartment 38E, they noticed the kitchen window was broken. Henson went in and found Winston’s body, her cellphone on her right thigh.

Her phone information showed Winston was messaging someone in the hours before her death, court records showed. Winston and Ronald E. Spencer III, a former boyfriend, had been arguing.

East St. Louis Police called in the Major Case Squad, something they don’t normally do, to help them solve the murder. They applied for search warrants within hours. They wanted to look at Spencer’s cellphone.


Spencer and Winston were locked in a legal battle. Winston wanted to prove Spencer was Royal’s father. Then, she wanted to collect child support from him to help provide for baby Royal.

Spencer had twice failed to show up for court for paternity testing. The judge was getting impatient. He set a hearing for Aug. 9, 2017, for Spencer to take the blood test. If he didn’t, he would be sanctioned by the court.

Police question suspect

Florince Harlan, Winston’s mother, said she didn’t know Spencer. He didn’t come to family events. He hadn’t come inside when he came to pick up her daughter.

Police questioned Spencer. He told them Winston tried to contact him, causing friction between Spencer and his girlfriend, Velvetee Dillard.

Winston’s cellphone revealed she and Spencer had been texting, calling and communicating on Facebook Messenger, even up to hours before her murder. Spencer told police he erased the messages with Winston in the hours before the murder, but he didn’t explain why, according to the search warrant affidavit.

The detectives physically examined Spencer, who had cuts on his arms, hands and back, the search warrant application stated.

The injuries happened when he was changing his oil in his silver 2001 Chevrolet Impala, he told them.

During an interview with Spencer, police asked him whether he had a gun.

Spencer told them he didn’t have a Firearm Owner’s Identification Card, but used to own a 9mm — the same caliber that killed Winston. Police checked, and Spencer did have a FOID card, according to the search warrant.

Spencer lived in an apartment on Arrowhead Drive in Collinsville with his new girlfriend, but told detectives they were arguing over the child support issue with Winston.

He told police he left for his mother’s house in Belleville about 5 a.m. on Aug. 8, 2017 — the morning of the murder.

Surveillance tape taken from near the crime scene showed a silver car, that detectives thought was a Chevrolet Impala, heading north on Bond Avenue about 3:52 a.m. Detectives then went to a Caseyville car wash and asked to see their surveillance tape. It shows traffic on Illinois 157 about 3:08 a.m. That footage showed a car that appears to match Spencer’s heading south, according to the search warrant.

Another surveillance camera records a car, police noted, that is believed to be a silver Chevrolet Impala headed north on Bond Avenue at about 3:52 a.m. The recording was made 10 minutes before the murder and taken less than a block away.

Last November, Spencer’s Chevrolet Impala was parked outside his apartment one afternoon. Reporters noted the car appeared to have dents and bumper stickers that would have made it look unique for the common make and model of car.

Ronald Spencer's car is parked outside his Collinsville apartment. Stickers and hail damage make the car distinctive.
Credit Beth Hundsdorfer | St. Louis Public Radio
Ronald Spencer's car is parked outside his Collinsville apartment. Stickers and hail damage make the car distinctive.

Dillard, Spencer’s new girlfriend, told police that Spencer may have left around 4:30 a.m. after the argument. She told police she and Winston had been arguing over the phone, text message and social media over the child support issue.

Dillard allowed police to search their apartment. They found a pair of grey Converse All-Star high-top tennis shoes in the master bedroom with what appear to be blood on them. An Illinois State Police crime scene report showed there were partial footwear impressions taken from beneath the broken kitchen window of Winston’s apartment. The tread on the soles “were deemed consistent with the shoe prints located at the crime scene,” the search warrant stated. The report didn’t say whether they were men’s or women’s shoes.

Winston wanted to be independent, her mother said. She moved into the John Robinson Homes with her daughter a few months before the killing. But a metal security screen was missing over the kitchen window that would later allow the killer access to Winston’s apartment.

Harlan alleges in a wrongful death lawsuit against the East St. Louis Housing Authority that Winston asked several times for the screen to be replaced. The lawsuit is still pending.

No charges were filed in connection with Winston’s murder.

Twenty days after the killing, Spencer was finally ordered by the court to take the paternity test. The results came back two months later.

The results showed he wasn’t Royal’s father.

Follow Beth on Twitter: @bhundsdorfer

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

Beth Hundsdorfer is a reporter with Capitol News Illinois.