• author
    • John Wood

    • October 15, 2016 in Columnists

    To thrive and die in north St. Louis

    Pruitt Igoe new
    Vershell Little was 25 years old when she was shot five times at point blank range on a north St. Louis sidewalk. An abusive ex-boyfriend tracked her down and then laid in ambush, killing the hard-working young woman on her way to work. Vershell died on that sidewalk after identifying her killer. The Post Dispatch posted a short story about another domestic-related murder on the city’s violent north side.

    Jefferson Avenue cuts a start boundary between downtown St. Louis and the “north side.” The adjacent neighborhoods are a worst case study in urban blight, gangs and violent crime. Center to this community is the intersection of Cass and Jefferson Avenues, once dominated by the Pruitt Igoe “projects.” Pruitt Igoe was a ’50s urban experiment in affordable housing that within years of reaching capacity, turned into a festering urban sore. Many would argue that Pruitt Igoe was such a colossal failure that it depressed the collective soul of St. Louis.

    When I met Vershell, she lived with her family two blocks from the 57-acre field that once housed the 33 massive buildings of the infamous projects. By the time she was a teenager, Pruitt Igoe had long been demolished, but the “projects” still ruled the north side. To this day, the area is still characterized by blocks of trash-strewn vacant lots, dotted by strips of occupied and derelict houses. Google a satellite map of Pruitt Igoe and you land on a large green square surrounded by the devastation of absolute urban poverty.

    Vershell Little Lee circa 1990 St. LouisYou would have never guessed Vershell grew up in the most dangerous neighborhood in St. Louis. She was impossibly small, but radiated warmth beyond her big smile. Everyone in her family was bigger, stronger and louder, but she had the only car, job and diploma. Despite being in hiding from her ex-boyfriend, she frequently returned home to ferry her invalid mother to medical appointments, cook and clean. Vershell took responsibility for her mother, despite the fact that a grown brother and sister lived at home.

    At her funeral, the story was passed on to me that the sister of her ex-boyfriend had shared Vershell’s home after spotting Vershell outside one afternoon. That particular day, she was heading for Lambert Field to catch a plane. We had reconnected via Grandmother and during a conversation, Vershell asked me what it was like to fly in a “big jet plane.” Instead of trying to describe the experience, I bought her a ticket to visit me in Reno, where I was living. For a long time, I felt partially responsible for her death because a week after she returned home, Vershell was dead.

    I met Vershell about five years earlier while training to be a manager for Western Auto Tire and Service. Part of the training included filling in for managers at different Western Auto stores around St. Louis. One day, I was assigned to the store in Jennings, Missouri, where she was the head clerk. She was very easy to like. Vershell was not only very pretty, but was an amazing employee. Despite her diminutive size, Vershell, who was just over four and half feet tall, did everything from stock tires to run shoplifters out.

    Shorty after I met Vershell, I quit Western Auto, but we remained and grew as friends. Eventually we found ourselves dating, which lasted for about a year. She really liked getting out of St. Louis and enjoyed camping out at a rural, mouse-infested cabin I maintained for my grandparents. After we broke up, I returned to Northern California and Vershell married a man that she worked for as a housekeeper and caretaker. Several years later, they separated and she started dating the man who would eventually waste her one summer morning on a sidewalk on the north side of St. Louis.

    I hadn’t heard from Vershell in a couple of years when I got a call from my grandmother telling me “that cute little girlfriend” called here looking for you. My grandmother Jimmie Lee liked Vershell. They were both petite, smart and strong women. As usual, my grandmother, who seemed to know everyone, knew some of her people. Unbeknownst to me, Vershell and my grandmother had remained in contact even after I moved back to west. Later my grandmother told me that Vershell often came over and sat with her, often talking about the challenges she was facing with her marriage and family. They had many things in common, one of which was living in north St. Louis.

    The last time I saw Vershell alive was when I walked her to the gate for the flight back to St. Louis. We chatted about the good times we had exploring Lake Tahoe, Sacramento and San Francisco. I took her four-wheeling on my favorite back country roads and showed her as many of the big vistas of Northern California as I could in five days. Vershell had never been far from St. Louis, so sitting on a mountain top, looking down on Lake Tahoe might has well have been a rocket trip to the Rings of Saturn. Before boarding the plane, she stated very clearly that if I called, she’d come back to stay.

    The last picture I took of Vershell was shortly before she got on the plane. Vershell asked if I had any quarters and I surrendered the three left over from our last casino adventure. She began feeding them into a nearby slot machine and the second quarter hit a $60 jackpot, triggering all the bells and lights. The last photo was of her and that big smile, holding two heavy cups of quarters. That was also the last picture many of her friends and family saw, as it was used on her obituary.

    Vershell’s ex-boyfriend was never brought to justice even though she identified him as her murderer. A few miles from where Vershell died, St. Louis County Sheriff deputies found him sitting in his car at a gas station. As they approached his car, he shot himself dead without saying a word.

    What happened to Vershell happens dozens of times a day, all over the United States. Angry, distraught or otherwise emotionally ill men shoot and kill the women they allegedly love. In many cases, they take the lives of innocent family members and their children as well. Although some domestic violence murders are perpetrated by women, men kill the women they “love” by an overwhelming majority.

    The accusations flying on both sides of this year’s Presidential election made me remember Vershell Little Lee. I have been amazed at the women who give a pass to abuse perpetrated on other women as innocent “locker room banter” or justify a wife’s attack on the victims of her husband’s sexually predatory behavior.

    I wonder if they would be so generous with their support if they had been the victim.

    • What a heartbreaking story. It reminds me of a similar murder right here in my home town, right at the doorstep where I work. What is it about some men who feel compelled to kill the very person they love? Better dead than in someone else’s arms? Where is the tipping point between love and hate?
      This scenario plays out across the country every single day… heartbreak and death by the thousands.
      Thanks for this poignant story… in the middle of Domestic Violence Awareness Month too.

      • Maya Spier Stiles North

      • October 15, 2016 at 10:48 pm
      • Reply

      I am presuming you mean Hillary Clinton when you refer to a wife being unkind to the “other women.” I would doubt that she would have seen them as victims of his sexually predatory behavior. I suspect she saw them as having an affair with her husband. I can pretty much guarantee I wouldn’t be cherishing anyone who had sex with mine.

      That said — every day, women are slaughtered by men who claim they love them but who are, in fact, incapable of real love. No, they see women as property and when property misbehaves — for example, thinking it can leave of its own free will — property must be corrected. Severely, if necessary.

      Tonight, hubby and I watched a TV drama about a rape victim on trial for murdering her rapist. Turns out she was innocent, but in the middle of it, I stopped him and reminded him of the four major instances of rape or molestation I endured, the first as a 4 year old child. I reminded him that 75% of women endure this. We then watched Master Chef, which had opened this year with the phalanx of men saying vile and derogatory things about their female opponents, none of whom were known to them. Their being female was enough. Later, the men targeted the most vulnerable woman for targeted, misogynistic bullying and broke her so that she gave up and left. Now they’ve turned their sights on another woman, pulling the same crap. Of course they haven’t been called on it by the producers, but even my husband, not normally the most aware of misogyny, was horrified.

      Point is, we live in a world where women are not considered fully human by a vast portion of other half of our species (or even human at all) and it’s considered so routine that a woman gets pulped or raped or even murdered like your beautiful, radiant Vershell and it’s treated as if it’s beneath much more than a moment’s notice.

      And just like people of color are heartily and justifiably sick to death of racism, women are sick to death of being little more than property or prey to far to many of the people we only want to love.

    • Maya said what I was going to say. Except for the tv drama. I have also been raped as have many many women I know so I am really not willing to give a pass to any so called “Locker room ” behavior. That said, your story brought tears to my eyes and even though I was convinced I was ” over” my personal experience ( the worst of many in any case) Donald Trump’s behaivior has shown me that I most certainly am not and if we are going to plunge back into 1950 with this boob it will just be proof that many of us do not give a rat’s ass about women in general. I don’t think a wife being angry with her husbands mistresses ( I’m still waitng for proof of guilt before jumping on the sexual misconduct wagon) compares to admitted sexual harrassement and even pride in said behavior. Back to your story. Sorry, I got riled up there. You are correct in your assessment of the problem. This will keep hapoening as long as we allow and even encourage it. It’s terrifying!

      • Abria

      • June 23, 2019 at 6:36 pm
      • Reply

      John wood…you wonder if “they” would be so supportive if they were the victim….the answer is YES! im the daughter of ms lee’s killer and i think of them both daily. I was 2 years old when my father murdered this beautiful lady. And ive prayed for her family probably more times than i prayed for my own strength & understanding. Be blessed!

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