Tyrin Valentine had just pulled out of the drive-through lane at McDonald's when he heard the shots. His first instinct was to get as far away as possible, followed immediately by a flash: "I just need to go check on my little brother."
He turned around and drove back to the parking lot, where his brother Tyrell and a cousin had followed in a second car. "All the windows were shot up, and they had crashed into the trash can. He was in the car, like this," Valentine said, collapsing on an imaginary steering wheel as he recalled the incident weeks later. "His foot was on the gas pedal. They both got shot in the head. My cousin was at the drive-through window, he was bleeding, asking for help."
Valentine said police officers slammed him to the ground when they arrived on the scene. "I said 'Why are you doing me like this? I am the victim,'" he recalled. "My little brother just got killed."
It was the early hours of January 3 in downtown St. Louis. Tyrell Valentine, 20, was the city's first homicide of 2015. Since then, 61 others have been killed by gunfire. While the rest of the country turned its attention to the area last summer following the shooting death of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in nearby Ferguson, crime in St. Louis, which routinely ranks as one of the nation's most violent cities, continued to spiral out of control.
Tyrin Valentine shows a photo of his younger brother Tyrell, the first homicide victim in 2015 in St. Louis.
More than half the dead this year have been under the age of 25, including a 6-year-old boy named Marcus Johnson Jr. who was gunned down while recovering from heart surgery. In 2014, 159 people were killed in St. Louis, 138 of them with guns.
To keep each murder from being reduced to a quickly forgotten headline as the bodies pile up, the city's circuit attorney, Jennifer Joyce, launched a website earlier this week that features an up-to-date death toll, stories of both victims and perpetrators, and links to resources.
"My biggest fear is that people in St. Louis get numb to it and just kind of say, 'Well, that's St. Louis, that's just how it is,'" Joyce told VICE News from her office downtown a few weeks before the site's official debut. "The first step is going to have to be getting the community resolved to do something about gun violence and getting them to see if for the public safety and economic threat that it is to this city.
"Every day there's this steady drumbeat of bodies in the city of St. Louis," she added. "No one ever tells their story."
Victims of gun violence in St. Louis since the beginning of the year. (Image via StLouisGunCrime.com)
According to the new website, there were 1,844 shootings in St. Louis in 2014. The violence cost the city an estimated $197 million, though the site notes "you can't put a price on someone's life." Altogether over the last five years, there have been 13,000 victims of gun crimes in St. Louis.
Valentine shrugged at the grim statistics. "Everybody here knows what it feels like," he said. In addition to his younger brother's death in the McDonald's parking lot, an older sibling had been shot but survived. He said he knew 15, "maybe 20," people who had been killed before Tyrell, "but I had never seen it close like that before."
"Some people glorify stuff when they ain't been through it," he said, scrolling through photos of his brother on his phone. "But when my little brother got killed, it wasn't fun. I didn't find nothing cool about it. Killing people, there's nothing cool about it."
Valentine thinks Tyrell's murder was a case of random violence or mistaken identity. "He wasn't involved in anything. He was pretty innocent," he said. "It's hard for me to be out here now. I am used to being in the car turning around and chilling with him, and now I'm turning around talking to myself because I am so used to talking to him. We did everything together."
The brothers were months apart in age and only shared a father, who is in prison and not taking his son's death "too well," as Valentine put it. "He just feels like if he was out here it would have been different because he would have been guiding us and leading us on the right path, keeping us safe," Valentine said.
At Better Family Life, James Clark has been fighting gun violence for years.
Three months after Tyrell's death, Valentine was sitting in the office of Better Family Life, where James Clark, a community advocate, embarked on a "put down the pistol" campaign that on most days feels too quixotic for this city.
"There's something wrong when in some neighborhoods gun violence has been reduced to the level of a car accident," Clark shouts before a group of mostly young men, who have been drawn to the office by word on the street that the place helps with warrants, court dates, and jobs.
"We hear 'PA-PA-PA'," Clarks yells louder, jolting his audience into attention. "And all we do is say, 'Oh they're out there shooting again,' and we turn around, and we keep on talking. There's something wrong with that."
He speaks almost in aphorisms, repeating the same sentences day in and day out with unflinching conviction. "In our neighborhoods, violence has become accepted and expected," he says. "Them disrespecting you on Facebook should not make you want to shoot them."
And his favorite mantra: "The best way to stop a bullet is a job," which is partly what makes stopping bullets so hard in St. Louis.
James Clark at the Better Family Life office with one of the dozens young men he mentors.
"We have got to get to the root of the problem," Clark told VICE News from his office, where phone calls and visitors dropping in to ask for help constantly interrupted him.
"There is no quick fix," he said. "We have abandoned our neighborhoods and the human capital is now spiraling out of control. We need to go back into our neighborhoods and go rescue that human capital, that's the only way out. These young men are victims of a social system that said, 'We're not going to invest in the human capital in these neighborhoods'. We won't fix this as a flash in the pan, we need systemic change that delivers resources into our neighborhoods."
Clark, who says his stint in the army introduced him to the notion of different "systems," speaks in military terms of airdropping jobs and social services into St. Louis's poorest neighborhoods. He criticizes the billions of dollars the US government has spent overseas when a different type of war is being waged on his city's streets.
Clark uses a garden metaphor to describe the situation in St. Louis, calling the city's poorest neighborhoods "resource deserts" where even some of the most gifted residents are unable to flourish. "It's like when you plant a seed," he said. "You got sand, dirt, soil: you can plant a seed in soil that has minerals, and nutrients, and that seed is going to grow strong. Take that same seed and plant it in the dirt, with no nutrients, it's going to grow, but it's not going to grow to its full capability.
"The urban core is sand," he continues. "I know hundreds of young men who if they were born in a different neighborhood, they would be Ivy League."
After his brother's murder, Valentine started avoiding people. He said he "caught a couple cases," and was "just going in the wrong path." Since then, he's been trying to make sense of all the violence around him.
"Some people feel like if you kill somebody then you're a threat, you tough. It ain't like that. It ain't how you kill someone, it's why you kill someone," he explained. "At the end of the day, when you say you killed someone, 'Okay, bro, why did you kill them?' They won't give you no logical answer."
At Better Family Life, he recently came to pick up his brand new certificate as a lift truck operator. He started volunteering as a mentor to younger kids. Now he has to find a job.
Until Clark gets additional resources, this is how he is tackling gun violence in his neighborhood: One young man and one lift truck operating course at the time.
Clark and Valentine.
St. Louis's gun violence is not only the problem of young black men like Valentine, though they make up most of the dead. Joyce, the city's prosecutor, wants everyone in the city to recognize that the shootings are a collective issue, a proposition that has proved unpopular in some quarters.
"I'm getting a little push back, some people feel that I shouldn't be talking so much about gun violence because we're trying to attract people to St. Louis," she told VICE News. "This is not the most beautiful face of St. Louis. I've lived here my whole life, I deeply love this city. But this is the biggest threat that we face and it does no good to not accept it and talk about it."
She called gun violence "a complex problem," that authorities cannot "police, and prosecute, and incarcerate" themselves out of. Instead, she's pushing for more holistic solutions.
In a city where gun ownership is widespread and on the rise, Joyce wants people to lock up their firearms - 470 were reported stolen in the city last year, and 50 last January alone. "People come downtown and bring their gun because they are afraid to come to St. Louis without their gun, and then they just put it in their glove box out of sight, or maybe they put it in their trunk, not realizing that those are the first two places that someone who is stealing a gun is going to look," she said.
Rather than simply calling for more police on the street, Joyce wants the city to use "intelligence-driven prosecution," a model already in place in New York and other cities. She has encouraged her staff to get out on the streets, understand the community, and build cases against the handful of individuals who are responsible for the majority of the violence.
'When it all boils down, murders that happen in St. Louis, it's always about drugs and money.'
"When I heard that Manhattan with all its population had 36 homicides and we had 159, I went to Manhattan," she said. "Back in the day they had over 1,000 homicides. Something is different there."
Of course, what's also very different in New York state is gun control: New York City officials were empowered to tailor gun legislation to the city's needs. Most of the decisions affecting St. Louis are made a world a way in Missouri's state capital, Jefferson City.
"The decline in the murder rate and gun violence in New York City, which is a major success story compared to a lot of other places in the country, has a lot to do with these kinds of rules," Ted Alcorn, research director for Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy group, told VICE News. "Missouri, on the other hand, is a state that doesn't allow cities to do that. In fact, Missouri has taken a very hostile view of measures that could be put in place to combat gun violence."
In 2007, Missouri repealed its background check law, which some researchers argued led to a 14 percent increase in the state's murder rate through 2012. Last summer, the state legislature voted to amend the constitution to further ease restrictions, and a case is currently moving through the courts that will decide whether to restore the gun rights of convicted felons. Joyce said that idea "defies common sense."
"Why did we have to tinker with the constitution for no reason? What we've done is we have created concealed carry for criminals," the prosecutor said. "Until it stops being a political feather in people's caps to make Missouri the most gun-friendly state in the world, it's going to be tough. We need people to legislate responsibly on these issues and put aside their own political self interest and think about the safety of the people in this state."
With guns easily accessible everywhere, "it has become very normal for people to solve the smallest disputes with guns," Clark agrees.
"It's becoming increasingly the norm, with younger people," he said. "They have more access to venues to spark conflict - the internet, social media spawns a lot of conflict - and now we have guns, so now we're going to solve our conflict with guns."
St. Louis resident Derrick Thomas told VICE News that the gunshot that killed his younger brother was meant for him, possibly over a drug deal gone wrong.
"The rumor is, they was trying to get me, I was involved in a whole lot of things," Thomas said earlier this year, standing by his brother's fading memorial, a mountain of stuffed animals and notes discolored by sun and rain. Such makeshift shrines are a familiar sight on St. Louis street corners.
Thomas insists he is now a law-abiding citizen, but he still has no job, two teenage daughters, and too many problems to count.
"I am doing okay, some days be better than others," he said. "I am self-employed. You need some moving? I'm gonna try to help you move. You need some grass cutting? I'm going to try. Anything that's positive. Whatever it takes without harming a person or putting a person's life in danger."
The 36-year-old Thomas said he has witnessed a lot of gun violence, and that it has gotten worse over the years.
"I think there's so much murder because of fear, a fear of the unknown, really. It's hard out here," he said contemplatively, as if trying to explain the memorial in front of him. "It's a lack of jobs, that's one thing. It's a lack of love, lack of respect, people just frustrated. I think everybody got a sense that we are all going to die. But when it all boils down, murders that happen in St. Louis, it's always about drugs and money."
What about guns? "Better getting caught with it than without," he replied, echoing a sentiment common among St. Louis residents who have seen gun violence up close. It's an attitude that contributes to a cycle of vengeance. Valentine said he used to feel the same way, until his brother's death changed everything.
"When my little brother got killed, it changed the way I think," Valentine said. "Back then, I would have been like, 'Let's get revenge,' but now I am like, 'Everything happens for a reason.' I felt the message in my little brother getting killed. I don't think he got killed for no reason. He probably got killed to show us a different way. Violence is probably not the way."
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi
Photos by Alice Speri/VICE News