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A developer abandoned a U City neighborhood. Its homes became a police training ground

A view from inside looking out on Mayflower Court in University City. A row of four police SUVS are parked, as well as a large armored van. Three armed officers stand near the back of the van in tactical vests.
Nichole Angieri
Police officers assemble on Mayflower Court in University City for tactical training on Tuesday.

Updated on May 9 at 3:40 p.m. with additional details from homeowners.

After publication of this story, University City residents Ana and Ryan Huttsell contacted St. Louis Public Radio to report that the St. Louis County Police Department is continuing its tactical training on uninhabited homes on Mayflower Court.

According to the couple, officers and police vehicles arrived on the block without notice on Thursday.

Ana Huttsell said she was worried about her two young children and dog being outside in their backyard.

"It's just a little scary to think about that," she told St. Louis on the Air. "There are so many things that can go wrong."

Ryan Huttsell said he understands the need for police training, but argued that homeowners should have been alerted to what was going on. He shared a video that showed armed officers in tactical gear entering the rear of a neighboring home. The video begins with the sound of a loud bang.

"It's kind of a surprise," he said. "A SWAT team rolls up in front of our house, there's cop cars all around us. What's happening?"

St. Louis County Police Department Sgt. Tracy Panus said Thursday that the department's officers did attempt to place signs around the street with notice of the exercises.

"We were not in anybody's backyard that we did not have permission to be in. We were only in the vacant houses," she said, adding, "we do our best to notify the residents as far as posting signs."

Panus said she reviewed the video shared by the Huttsells and showed it to tactical officers to evaluate what it showed. She said that no flashbangs were used during the drill, and that the loud sound at the beginning of the video is from a door being kicked in, not an explosive.

Original story below:

In 2008, Nichole Angieri opened her front door for the first time as a homeowner on Mayflower Court in University City. Over the next decade, she got to know her neighbors as part of the fabric of a multigenerational community. She walked to her favorite restaurants. She listened to birds in her backyard.

“I have wonderful memories,” Angieri said, recalling the Easter egg hunts, gardens and kind neighbors who helped with her children when they were little.

“My children grew up climbing all of the trees in all of the neighbors’ yards,” she continued. “It was our community.”

Today, the street is unrecognizable to her. Nearly half its 16 homes are vacant, abandoned in the aftermath of a yearslong development that erected a Costco in University City while pushing out immigrant-owned businesses.

Two weeks ago, Angieri opened her door and saw something new on Mayflower Court: Numerous police vehicles and officers were staged at the entrances to homes, where they drilled on their positioning with battering rams and other tactics for forced entry. The officers came back to Mayflower multiple times to use the homes that once held Angieri’s neighbors as practice targets.

Angieri called the drills “another violation against the residents of Mayflower Court's ability to live peacefully and undisturbed” in a Tuesday email complaining to city officials.

“We have already been disturbed by the noise from the construction, the light pollution that we now experience from the parking lots, and the removal of beloved trees that lined our streets,” she told St. Louis on the Air.

The homes on Mayflower spent years in the shadow of the adjacent, $190 million Costco-anchored development. Other nearby neighborhoods were subject to buyouts and the threat of eminent domain. Mayflower was supposed to be next for that treatment — instead, commercial real estate firm Seneca abruptly pulled out of the deal last summer, stunning homeowners who had refused to move.

Larry Chapman, president and CEO of Seneca, blamed the reversal on losing key retailers, as well as rising interest rates. He told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in December 2023, “We are disappointed, just like the homeowners are, that we were unable to close.”

Seneca quickly sold the seven homes it had bought on Mayflower. The new owner allowed the St. Louis County Police Department to use the homes for tactics practice.

“We train wherever people will give us facilities, buildings, businesses or homes,” Sgt. Tracy Panus said in confirming the practice. “We sign agreements with them.”

Panus said that the training on Mayflower did not involve the use of loud noises like flashbangs or battering rams. "We try to be as cognizant of the community that we're in as possible.”

Panus said the department also alerted University City before conducting the drills. “We wouldn't just go into a municipality and train there without them being aware of what's going on,” she said.

For Angieri, the new reality of her neighborhood is hard to stomach. She is adamant about staying in her home and standing up for what is left of her community.

“My children unfortunately have spent the last seven years watching their neighborhood be dismantled. They have slowly watched neighbors move out. They have gone from a fully secure, safe neighborhood, and overnight, to a neighborhood with boarded-up buildings.”

“Next,” she added, “is for me to continue to fight for my neighborhood.”

To hear more about the police presence on Mayflower Court and how homeowners like Angieri are dealing with a development that’s reshaped their community, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast or Spotify or by clicking the play button below.

Why SWAT teams are using U City homes to train
Listen to Nichole Angieri and producer Danny Wicentowski on 'St. Louis on the Air'

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 produced by Ulaa Kuziez, Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Roshae Hemmings is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."