After Ralph Yarl's shooting, Black Kansas Citians worry they're 'always going to be just Black’
The week started with shock and grief as the city learned that a Black teenager, Ralph Yarl, a high school junior at Staley High School in Kansas City, had been shot in the head and arm as he rang the doorbell at the wrong house while trying to pick up his little brothers. Andrew D. Lester, the 84-year-old white homeowner, later told police he shot the 16-year-old because he was “scared to death.”
As details of the story emerged, shock and grief rapidly turned into outrage. Neighbors, activists, celebrities and public officials demanded an explanation for how a slight, unarmed 16-year-old, described as a good student and caring brother and son, could be seen as a threat, and why police allowed the alleged shooter to go free after less than two hours in custody.
Justice Gatson, founder and director of the Reale Justice Network, addressed hundreds of people who gathered outside Lester’s house on Northeast 115th Street in Kansas City’s Northland Sunday afternoon, three days after the incident occurred.
“None of us want to be here today doing this, we should be somewhere enjoying our families on this Sunday,” she said. “We cannot and will not be silent when Black children are under attack.”
Her voice got louder and angrier.
“My son delivers food every morning, and some of yours do too, and sometimes you go to the wrong address,” Gatson said. “You should never have to worry your life will be taken.”
Lester told police he was in bed when he heard the doorbell ring. He said he grabbed his .32 caliber revolver before going to open the door.
Police documents indicate he told police he was “scared to death” when he saw Yarl on the other side. Lester claims that’s why he pointed his gun at the teenager and fired two shots, hitting Yarl in the forehead and arm.
While this wasn't an officer-involved shooting such as those that have driven much of the national debate about guns, race and policing, the incident added new fuel to the conversation in Kansas City.
Why was Lester, who was taken into custody the night of the shooting, released so soon? Why did it take so long to send the case to the Clay County prosecutor’s office for review?
And the question that protestors believe underscores all others: Why did Lester feel the need to shoot Yarl in the first place?
Reigniting debate over race relations and guns
As attention to the case snowballed into Sunday afternoon, Kansas City Police Chief Stacey Graves called a press conference.
“That is still an active investigation. But … I do recognize the community’s response to this particular incident,” Graves said. “On the information we have now, it does not say it was racially motivated.”
The next day, four days after the shooting, police turned the case over to Clay County Prosecutor Zachary Thompson.
Thompson told reporters there was “a racial component” to the case.
As the Kansas City story went viral, Yarl’s case became the latest face of violence against Black youth. Celebrities such as Halle Berry, Jennifer Hudson and Kerry Washington expressed sympathy and calls to action online.
Kansas City Chiefs superstar Patrick Mahomes told reporters in Texas he was praying for Yarl.
“It should have been an easy kind of conversation,” Mahomes said, “and this kid being able to pick up his family members, and being with his family right now and not in the hospital.”
On Tuesday, hundreds of people of all ages and races gathered in front of the Charles Evans Whittaker Federal Courthouse in downtown Kansas City, Missouri.
Nes Kohn, 33, was there with several other moms who were friends of Yarl’s mother, Cleo Nagbe. The women are part of a tight-knit Liberian immigrant community north of the Missouri River. Kohn remembered when Ralph Yarl was born. Her grandmother, she said, used to babysit him. Now she was terrified to let her 9-year-old son run free in a neighborhood she’s long viewed as safe.
“Every day he leaves my sight, I wonder, is he going to be next? Is the neighbor going to shoot him?” she asked. “This is creating hatred in people like me that don’t need to have that.”
Patricia Doe, 31, said members of the small Liberian community take care of one another. They teach children right from wrong, she said, and to respect other people. She said what happened to Yarl suggests these lessons are increasingly irrelevant to the safety of kids in her community.
“It doesn’t matter where you come from or how good your family is,” she said. “We’re always going to be seen as just Black.”
Rev. Vernon Howard, president of the Greater Kansas City Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, insisted in fiery rhetoric that it was clear race played a part in Ralph Yarl’s case. “We cannot deny that the state of Missouri is one of the most unsafe places for Black people in America,” Howard said.
Others reminded protestors that in 2017, the NAACP issued a first-of-its-kind advisory for minorities traveling through Missouri. The NAACP cited a hostile climate in the state, including legislation that put the burden of proof more heavily on minorities who sue businesses for discrimination.
In a moment that provided some much needed relief on Wednesday morning, the Yarl family’s attorney, Lee Merritt, tweeted a picture of himself sitting next to the young man on an outside bench.
“I was blown away to be able to sit with Ralph on his porch and talk about music, and talk about how this experience has been for him,” Merritt later told reporters outside the Clay County Courthouse. “To speak with him at all — he is a walking, literally walking, talking miracle,” he said.
In court Wednesday for his arraignment, Lester wore khaki pants and a blue button-down shirt. Sunglasses hung off his front pocket.
The session lasted just minutes. Few words were exchanged. Lester approached the judge hunched over and using a cane and pleaded not guilty to two felony charges of first degree assault and armed criminal action.
After the arraignment, Merritt, Yarl’s attorney, said he was disappointed the judge did not revoke Lester’s bond, though Lester does have certain restrictions: He is barred from owning a firearm and from having contact with Yarl’s family. Also, he had to give up his passport.
As the week came to a close, weary residents tried to make sense of more violence around the country. Two cheerleaders were shotand wounded in Texas when one mistakenly got into the wrong car, and a 20-year-old in New York was shot and killed when the driver of a car she was riding in went to the wrong address and pulled into the driveway.
Unique Hughley, 24, a graduate of Paseo Academy for the Arts, addressed the community’s exhaustion and rage in a spoken-word performance at one Kansas City protest.
“This is for Ralph. Running with a bullet in his head. Running still toward peace. We demand justice … you can’t kill us. Two gunshots is never enough.”
So what happens now?
It will be several weeks before we hear more from Andrew Lester and the prosecution.
In the meantime, there are a lot of questions left unanswered.
This week, KCUR reached out to residents of the Kansas City Metro through our texting service to ask how they were feeling about the case and what questions they wanted answered. We heard from a lot of people wondering about law enforcement's response and what it means for race and justice in the city.
Through the dozens of responses we received, these are two of the most common questions.
Why was the shooter released so quickly?
Many people expressed confusion over why, after Kansas City police were called to the scene of the shooting, Lester was only held for a short time before being released.
“I just don't understand why they didn't have enough evidence to charge him that night,” said one resident from North Kansas City.
At a press conference on April 16, Kansas City Police Chief Stacey Graves said that after consulting with the Clay County Prosecutor, they decided to release Lester because they believed it would take more than a day to compile enough evidence to bring charges.
In Missouri, a person can be held for up to 24 hours for investigation of a felony, after which they must be charged or released.
“[I think] the KCPD handled this fine,” said one resident from Independence. “However, it seems they should have been able to obtain plenty of evidence within the first 24 hours.”
According to the probable cause statementfiled by the Clay County Prosecutor’s office, Lester was brought to KCPD East Patrol for questioning at 11:22 p.m. on April 13. According to two people working in the KCPD Detention Unit who were interviewed by CNN, Lester was in police custody for only two hours before being released at 1:24 a.m. on April 14.
The same statement showed detectives conducted an interview with Yarl within 24 hours of Lester entering police custody. This interview was labeled as an “informal cursory interview” and not considered in the investigation.
Speaking to NPR’s All Things Considered, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas said the city will review the KCPD’s decision to release Lester.
“I think we're going to have a pretty thorough review about the steps that were taken, ways we could always do better in the future,” Lucas said. “What I will say is that thanks in large part to a lot of the public outcry that we heard and the hard work done by detectives, we were very able — quickly able — to get charges in. But I think there will be real questions about all of that along the way.”
Why is Lester not facing hate crime charges?
Although Lester is charged with two felonies, a hate crime charge is not among them, despite demands from protesters and Yarl’s family.
Clay County Prosecutor Zachary Thompson said his office was not filing a hate crime charge because it carried a lower range of punishment than the two charges Lester is facing.
In Missouri, hate crimes can be classified as a class D or E felony, the two lowest level felonies a person can receive. They carry a maximum sentence of seven and four years, respectively, with no minimum sentencing requirements. The charge of assault in the first degree carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.
“I get that the sentence is shorter, but can you not charge it as an additional component?” wondered one resident from Lee’s Summit.
Yarl's attorney Lee Merritt met with Thompson on Tuesday to discuss the case.
“Mr. Thompson appears sincere in his desire to get a successful conviction,” Merritt said at a press conference. “We’re frustrated with law enforcement, the agents working for him, in their failure and denial to get this family due process come last week.”
Merritt has claimed that the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the shooting as a federal hate crime. Federal hate crimes have a maximum sentence of life in prison.
What questions do you have?
KCUR will keep reporting on this story in the weeks and months ahead. But we want to hear from you.
You can text "KCUR" to 816-601-4777 to tell us your thoughts on the Ralph Yarl shooting and what you want KCUR to help answer next.
Savannah Hawley-Bates and Peggy Lowe contributed to this report.