FAYETTE, Mo. — Christopher Turner bowed his head as he waited in the front wooden bench of the Howard County courthouse. His elbows rested on his knees, hands clenched tightly together.
Beside him, his girlfriend placed her hands on her pregnant belly.
Whatever the court decided would shape the course of their futures and that of their child — who is expected to be born in July.
Turner, a Black football player at Central Methodist University, was facing 15 years in jail for allegedly assaulting a man he swears he never met. And in the months he awaited a trial on the charges, police twice busted down his door in the middle of the night and arrested him at gunpoint.
The tumultuous last year saw Turner spend months in jail, where he caught COVID-19 before the courthouse was forced to close because of an outbreak of the virus. He’s also struggled with post traumatic stress disorder from the two late-night arrests.
Flash forward to last Thursday, and Turner — a senior at the small private college 30 miles northwest of Columbia — was finally getting his day in court.
After about an hour, a decision was announced. His assault charge was dismissed.
He was free to live his life without an ankle bracelet or restrictions of his movements for the first time since police kicked down his door around midnight last August.
“I’m happy with the outcome and that I don’t have to deal with the justice system anymore because I know it’s not a true justice system,” said Turner, who is a criminal justice major. “Hopefully, I can stay here and graduate college so I can say, ‘Even though you tried to put me in jail, I still got my degree.’”
But the celebration was muted.
Turner’s roommate, Torrance Evans, who is also a Black football player at the university, still faces a resisting arrest charge stemming from the second late-night raid. He will return to court for a hearing in July.
Now both Turner and Evans face a hard choice. Do they remain in Fayette and finish their final year at Central Methodist?
Or do they follow the advice of many of the advocates from around the state who have jumped to their defense — and who traveled to Fayette for the hearing last week — who believe the young men should leave the town behind for fear of retribution and harassment from law enforcement?
“There’s been an uptick in enrollments at historically Black colleges (HBCUs) because people are afraid to send their children to predominantly white institutions,” said Kylar Broadus, Turner and Evans’ attorney who grew up in Fayette and has worked as a civil rights attorney in D.C. “These are the reasons why people are now afraid, and it’s a trend across the country.”
Broadus and the students’ supporters believe the two young men were targeted because they’re Black.
Fayette Police Chief David Ford, who became chief in November after the students’ arrests, said he did not want to comment on these claims.
Turner obtaining his freedom so close to Juneteenth — a federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States — is significant, said Nimrod Chapel, another attorney on the case and president of the Missouri NAACP. Yet, he vowed to continue to fight for Evans.
“These are the days I live for,” he said, after Turner walked out of the courthouse. “Chris gets to have his whole life ahead of them, with full knowledge of the threats and some of the consequences of living in this country and in the state. And he gets to make some choices.”
The alleged assault
According to the probable cause statement, a man identified as R.W. told police that on the evening of Aug. 5 Turner hit him with a car, then got out and fought with him.
R.W., who is also Black, is not a student but lives in Fayette — and he was the only witness.
Turner said he had never seen R.W. before he was arrested. He now knows that R.W. lives at the house where his girlfriend’s lost phone “pinged” several months earlier.
At the time of the alleged assault, Evans said he was with Turner going to Casey’s General Store to pick up a pizza for Janice Steacy, Turner’s girlfriend. They didn’t go near the area where the assault allegedly occurred because it’s not on the route from Casey’s and their home, Evans said.
After dropping off the pizza with Steacy, Evans and Turner say they went to a friend’s house in Columbia.
Cpl. Timothy Wells of the Fayette Police Department wrote in the probable cause statement that police arrived at Steacy’s door at 10:50 p.m., less than an hour after they responded to R.W.’s call. Turner was reached by phone, and Wells told him to contact the police about the incident.
Turner didn’t follow up, Wells wrote in his report, so the officers came back to the home two days later around 12:30 a.m., broke down his door and arrested him.
Turner has no previous criminal record, no history of violence and earns high praise from his coach and professors. Regardless, he was charged with a felony based on the statement from the victim, who does have a criminal record.
But as it turns out, R.W. wasn’t the only witness after all.
Abigail Wimberley, a white Central Methodist alum who had lived in Fayette for seven years until recently, says she was walking her dog around the town square when she saw what looked like the start of an altercation. A stocky Black man had just pushed R.W., who was her neighbor at the time.
She got a clear look and is certain the man wasn’t Turner or Evans.
The next day she ran into R.W. while talking to another neighbor. After asking what happened, she says he told her it was a drug deal gone bad.
She didn’t realize someone was arrested for the assault until she read about Turner in The Independent months later.
Although she knew coming forward was the right thing to do, she says she was worried doing so would put a target on her back. She decided to move out of town before giving a statement to the local prosecutor out of fear of retaliation from R.W. — as well as from local law enforcement.
“I knew that if I were a part of this and continued to stay in that town, and potentially was seen by law enforcement as the witness who invalidated their side of the case, that potentially anything I would report after this case was over would be seen as not important to them,” she said.
She believes Turner and Evans have a valid reason for fearing for their safety as Black men in Fayette. While there are many things she loved about living in Fayette, she says she enjoys them because of “white privilege.”
“Howard County in general is very much a sundown town,” she said. “As much as people want to say, ‘That’s not the case,’ I know many, many Black college students or athletes — or even towns people — who would also say that if it is after the sun has gone down, you are more likely to be profiled, stopped, questioned than if you were just a white person walking.”
Torrance Evans’ case
Turner is a free man. But Evans faces a felony charge of “resisting arrest and fleeing” stemming from the second time police kicked in Turner’s door in the middle of the night.
Evans went to the liquor store on Halloween night after a football game, while Turner stayed at home, still under house arrest and awaiting trial for the August assault charge.
How the rest of the evening played out depends on whose story is to be believed: Evans or the police.
Evans said police followed him back to his house, he believes because they thought he was Turner violating his bail. When he arrived, he panicked and called his football coach while running inside.
Evans, Turner and Steacy all swear police were only calling for Turner to come outside — feeding their belief they mistook Evans for Turner.
According to court documents, Fayette police say they were pursuing “an individual who was driving in a careless and imprudent manner.” He “disregarded” stop signs at three intersections, it states. The driver ignored the officer’s order to stop, the motion states, and went inside his house.
Turner said as he went to open the door officers busted it down with guns drawn. He dropped to his stomach. Steacy threw her body on top of him, pleading for officers not to shoot.
Still on FaceTime with Evans, their football coach, David Calloway, heard and saw everything.
“It was shocking,” Calloway said. “Just young men screaming, ‘I don’t want to die. I don’t have a weapon.’ Being on the other end of the phone, listening to them cry for help and scared, it was shocking.”
Calloway, who has been at the university since 2015, said he doesn’t disagree with Wimberley that Fayette is a “sundown town.”
But, he said, that’s the reality for Black men in general.
“Being a Black man in America, it ain’t any different being in Fayette with the sundown and at night as it is being in any other city right now,” he said. “What I’ve seen a big portion of my life, it isn’t just confined to Fayette.”
Evans said he knew what he was getting into when he came to Fayette. And he isn’t leaving.
“At the end of the day,” Evans said, “I’m not going to leave just because people don’t like to see me or don’t want me to be here.”
A Juneteenth action
Justice Gaston led members of the Reale Justice Network from Kansas City to Fayette as part of the group’s Juneteenth Bail out project. Turner represents freedom that African Americans are still fighting for, she said.
“We’re talking about two students here, who got their heads on right,” Gaston said. “No one’s having to tell them to go to class. They are leaders on the football field. We’re here not just to support them but for any student of color or Black student who wants to come to a small town and go to school. They should be okay to do that.”
Gaston and others are demanding that the university show the public — and particularly parents — that they support their Black students.
When asked about this demand, a university spokesman said in a statement to The Independent: “Central Methodist University had no role in this matter other than letting the legal system run its course. We have no further comment.”
The two cases shine a light on the importance of the community and university working in partnership to support their students, Broadus said.
“Both should make a concerted effort for the concern of the safety and health of the students that provide culture, sports, commerce and much more to the community and university,” Broadus said.
Since last fall, Turner and Steacy have been living in Tennessee, where his mother lives, and taking classes online. Now they have to make a choice about where they want to raise their family.
They both want Turner to finish school and be able to play football. Like Evans, he doesn’t want to feel like he was run out of town. But he has a family to think about now. And what he says he’s come to understand is that once the cops have targeted someone, they don’t stop until they’ve got a charge on you, he said.
As Steacy and Turner got back on the road to Memphis, they agreed: “We have a lot to think about.”