Tom and Huck Don't Live Here Anymore

Childhood and Murder in the Heart of America

Ron Powers

St. Martin's Press

Tom and Huck Don't live here Anymore
1
ROBIE AND WILL
Late on a Tuesday afternoon in November 1997, around suppertime, two sixteen-year-old Missouri boys got into a 1988 Ford Bronco II and went out looking for some way to pass the time before heading over to the local Baptist college to watch a basketball game. They slipped into the continental cortege, the perpetual flow of kids in cars looking for something to do, some way to break through the blankness.
Their town was Hannibal, Missouri--"America's Home Town," as it billed itself in tourist brochures, a salute to its legacy as the boyhood home of Mark Twain. The teenagers were named William D. Hill and Robie Wilson. Wilson (he pronounced his name "Robbie"), a serious-faced boy with short-cut blond hair and a sturdy build, was the son of a Hannibal city councilman and letter carrier named Kyle Wilson. He did not live with his father, who was twice divorced, but with his mother and her new husband. Hill, also blond, was an athlete, tall and muscular. He had recently moved to town from Iowa with his mother and stepfather.
With Hill at the wheel, the two kids cruised around town for a while, looking for girls, for friends, for anything besides what they knew was and wasn't there.
Not much to do.
They stopped for a snack at a fast-food franchise, then headed out onto the streets again.
It was around six P.M. when they spotted the jogger.
They had found themselves rolling aimlessly along Pleasant Street--Pleasant Street of America's Home Town. The figure trotting toward them, up the grade, was a sixty-one-year-old machinist with Car Quest Auto Parts and an amateur railroad enthusiast named James Walker. Like Robie, he was a lifelong Hannibal resident. An army veteran, he had been married to Virginia Elliott Walker since 1957. Virginia, a pale and soft-spoken woman, had for a time served as the president of the Helen Cornelius Fan Club. Ms. Cornelius, a Hannibal native and country-western singer, had enjoyed some success as a three-time winner on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour and later as an RCA recording artist in the 1970s. Her best-known hits were "We Still Sing Love Songs in Missouri" and "Tweedle-de-dee." The couple had one son, Michael Ray Walker, who lived in St. Louis.
Just now, James Walker was about midway through his five-mile run, which he made several times a week, always along the same route. He was at work on his goal of completing fifty-seven miles of running by the end of the month. Another fifty-seven, to be chalked up in December, would give him a thousand miles of running for the year.
Pleasant Street is an east-west road, both arterial and residential, near the western edge of town, two lanes of asphalt, no sidewalks. It had originated as a wooden plank road in about 1835, some sixteen years after first settlement, by a man named Fry, who cut it through three miles of hardwood forest in return for half of the fledgling town's remaining unsold lots. 1835 was the year of the birth, near Hannibal, of Samuel Langhorne Clemens--Mark Twain, the great mythifier of American boyhood.
Winter dusk had settled in on this November afternoon. The streetlights had been turned on, and Walker was wearing his customary bright yellow shorts, reflective vest, and orange fluorescent hat.
Walker chugged eastward on Pleasant, on the left side of the road, facing traffic. Hill and Wilson cruised westward on the downgrade. As they drew near the approaching figure, one of the boys--it was never conclusively established which--asked the other, "Do you want to door him?"
It was William Hill, the owner of the Bronco and a promising high school baseball player, who had clued Robie Wilson in on "dooring"or "awarding the door prize." The two had talked about it the previous summer, while idly tooling around a small lake. "Dooring" was a car stunt pulled occasionally in Iowa high school parking lots. It entailed a driver drawing alongside a student on foot while the frontseat passenger opened the door, giving the student an unexpected whack.
On this Tuesday, though, the recipient was to be not a high school student but an elderly man. And the "door prize" was to be administered not at a parking-lot crawl but at thoroughfare speed.
The Bronco closed on Walker in the 2500 block of Pleasant, a longish stretch in which the edge of the asphalt gave directly onto steep grassy lawn. The unsuspecting Walker had no route of escape.
What happened next differs slightly in the retelling by each boy. In either version, they made two runs at Walker before they struck the man.
William Hill later testified that it was Robie's idea to "door" the running man. Hill went along with it more or less offhandedly.
On the first pass, Hill swerved in Walker's direction, but perhaps because of the wind, Robie Wilson had trouble pushing the door open. "I missed him," he told Hill. Hill would testify that Robie urged him to go back.
Hill was reluctant, he said, but drove to the bottom of Pleasant and turned around. The Bronco retraced its route up the grade, overtook Walker, and continued up Pleasant a little way. Then Will Hill U-turned and made his second run.
Robie insisted that the first time they passed Walker, nothing happened; there was no discussion about "dooring." At the bottom of Pleasant, Hill made a right turn onto U.S. Highway 61 and headed north toward Hannibal--La Grange College, the site of the game. But after a block, Hill turned right again and looped back along a road parallel to Walker's route.
Whichever version of the story was correct, the Bronco was soon bearing down on James Walker for a second time.
Reemerging on Pleasant, with the trotting figure in his sights, Hill angled the car toward the man and, according to Robie, ordered Robie to open the door. Scared and confused, Robie complied.
Whatever the truth, James Walker paid the consequences. He never grasped what was about to happen. As the car approached,he made no effort to dodge out of the way. Robie Wilson pushed his door open. The onrushing steel caught Walker full in the face with explosive impact. The window glass burst, sending an eruption of shards back into the Bronco and outward along the pavement. The force was such that the window behind the passenger's seat shattered as well.
Robie Wilson glanced back at the collapsed figure and yelled, "Go! Go! Go!" Hill gunned his damaged car down Pleasant Street. He veered left into a more secluded, curving street called Shepherd Place, hurried along its tree-lined downhill contours until its terminus at St. Mary's Avenue. There he turned left again and took off along the central spine of Hannibal. At some point, Hill turned right off that spine--now Broadway--and plunged the Bronco down into one of the town's older, shabbier enclaves: a latticework of short, sharply angled streets fronted by century-old bungalows with peeling white paint; by sheds, freestanding garages, truck gardens. He drove a couple of blocks through this area to Market Street, a long and narrow winding hive of taverns and storefront businesses, early-century brick and wood frame, that once had teemed with raucous honky-tonk nightlife but now lay mostly dust-caked, abandoned, and Gothic. He pulled up near a cramped little bar and pool hall called the Water Hole, where he knew he could find his stepfather.
The Water Hole and the sagging storefronts alongside it formed a line of decay that was interrupted, less than a block to the east, by a jarringly spotless structure, all right angles and chrome and assertive colors. It spread, still under construction, like a nesting starship that had touched down on a dead planet. This was a half-completed service station.
New service stations and old bars formed a conspicuous proportion of commercial Hannibal, a glum dialectic. Corporate prosperity shouldering in on local subsistence. A vacuum of organic, selfsustaining community, scaled and designed for harmonious habitat by human beings. In their economic and architectural extremes, and in what was missing in between, the bar and the service station represented a significant vision of the America that in the 1990s presented itself to its young.
Before entering the tavern, Will Hill took his billfold out of his back pocket and put it on the seat of the Bronco. Then he found arock and placed it inside the truck's cab. These items were meant to buttress the story that was already forming in Hill's mind, the story he would tell the Hannibal police.
Inside the Water Hole, Will Hill located his stepfather and told him the story he had rapidly formulated. Then he telephoned the Hannibal police and gave them the same version: his Bronco had just been vandalized, he said; someone had thrown a rock through the window, probably to get at the billfold that he had accidentally left on the driver's seat. (Why the billfold should still be on the seat after the vandal struck, Hill was perhaps not prepared to say.) When a squad car arrived at the bar a few minutes later, Will got in and sat beside Officer Darren Smith while he elaborated on the lie. He'd gone inside the bar to play pool at about five-thirty, he said, and when he came out an hour later he saw that someone had broken two windows in his car.
After Hill told his story, the officer let him go and he drove the damaged Bronco home, exchanged it for another car in the family, and the two boys went on to the basketball game.
A neighborhood man driving home from work came upon James Walker as he lay unconscious with massive face and brain injuries amid the glass shards. He called an ambulance. Emergency medical technicians tried to give Walker first aid at the scene; then they took him to Hannibal Regional Hospital, recently relocated from the town center to a field a few miles west of town. The next day Walker was transferred to a trauma unit at Blessing Hospital in neighboring Quincy, Illinois. He lasted another day, and then, on November 14, he died.
 
 
THE NET BEGAN to close on Will and Robie almost at once. While they were still at the game, the Hannibal police, who had never really bought Hill's "vandalizing" story, had begun collecting evidence linking the Bronco to the bloody hit-and-run on Pleasant Street. Sometime during the evening, Officer John Dean drove out to the Hill house on Moberly Avenue and examined the vehicle. Moberly is a short east-west street on the extreme southwestern edge of Hannibal, about two miles from the Mississippi riverfront and perhaps a mile west of the Water Hole. It dead-ends near an abandoned Moose lodge and thegrounds of the Northeast Missouri Humane Shelter. The little street forms a southern border of a small community called Oakwood: once a settlement, later joined to Hannibal by the spine of another nineteenth-century plank road, and finally incorporated when that road became Market Street. Moberly lies below Market in an old cluster of floodplain bungalows wedged between the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks and Bear Creek. The tracks and the creek parallel Market in a meandering line toward the town center.
Checking out the Bronco's badly dented right door, Officer Dean found some orange fibers, the same color as the material in James Walker's fluorescent hat. He also collected some glass from the mostly hollowed-out passenger window; it would prove to match samples of the glass taken from the point of impact on Pleasant Street--glass that was demonstrably from a Ford product. Officer Dean spoke with Hill's mother, informing her of the pedestrian collision.
Mrs. Hill confronted Will with this information when he got back home. Panicky now, Will called Robie's house. Robie lived several hundred yards east of Will, on Kenwood Street. Robie's stepfather, Jim Beilsmith, answered the phone. A service garage owner, Jim had just returned home from an evening attending EMT classes; he was training to be an EMT to bolster his skills as a reserve deputy sheriff for Marion County. At the training site he had heard some radio transmissions detailing the collision; later, he had met some of the EMTs who'd been at the scene and listened as they described the injuries to Walker.
"It's after ten," Jim pointed out to Will. "No calls." "It's an emergency," Will replied. "Right," said Jim. "Everything's an emergency. You're a teenager." "No," Will said. "This is really an emergency." Jim handed the phone to Robie--who had started to undress for bed and was without a shirt--and gave him a two-minute time limit.
Nita Beilsmith, Jim's wife and Robie's mother, pondered this exchange as the two withdrew from Robie. A former EMT herself, Nita had a job with the Marion County Ambulance District and kept a police scanner at home. Nita had heard the transmission too, and just now, as she and Jim headed for their bedroom, she was thinking about something Robie had said in passing as he darted into the house and toward his bedroom, twenty minutes past his curfew: The window in Will's Bronco had been broken.
Robie listened to his friend for a few seconds before he tore into his parents' bedroom and shouted, "I gotta go to Will's. It's an emergency !" Then he fled the house into the late-autumn night, still half clad. A few minutes later he called from the Hill house: "Come over. We've got to talk. Something's happened. Someone's been hurt."
At the Hill house, anxiety and wariness reigned. Two reconstituted families, unfamiliar with one another, groping in the night to comprehend the horror their children might have wrought and what to do about it. There was some discussion about how to deal with the police and disparities in the two boys' stories. In later court proceedings, it was suggested that someone in the group--a tangential adult who may have been drinking--loudly warned the boys, "You better get your stories straight! You better get them together!"
It was Jim Beilsmith who reached a point of resolve that ended the confusion. The reserve deputy sheriff abruptly stood up and said, "We're leaving. That's it." He returned to his house, phoned the police department, and told the clerk that his stepson Robie Wilson had information relevant to the collision with the jogger.
 
 
WHEN ROBIE ENTERED the police station after school the next day, he told the same story that Will Hill had told to Officer Smith. At the high school, he and Hill had behaved as though nothing of particular importance had happened to them. But they could not keep completely silent. A girlfriend of Hill's would later testify that before Walker died and before any charges were filed, Will admitted to her that his Bronco did indeed strike the running man. They'd only planned to scare him, Will told her; he guessed he'd gotten too close. In the months of rumor, gossip, and embellishment that inevitably ensued, some Hannibal High students would recall that one or the other of them had actually bragged about the dooring. At least one young woman thought she'd heard them boast that they had practiced on dogs.
On November 20, a week after James Walker died, Hannibal police arrested William Hill and Robie Wilson. Hill was picked up at Hannibal High School, Wilson at the Hannibal Alternative School, a separate facility for "problem" students.
This time, the two boys presented a new version of their essentialinnocence. Yes, they had been driving on Pleasant Street on that Tuesday afternoon, they acknowledged. Yes, they may have struck something. But the evening was dark, the pavement on that stretch extremely bumpy, and besides, the passenger door of Hill's Bronco did not shut properly; he had to keep a towel wrapped around it so it would stay shut. If anything resembling the charges against them actually happened, it was purely an accident.
The two were charged with involuntary manslaughter, leaving the scene of an accident, hindering prosecution, tampering with evidence, and concealing an offense. Their names were withheld from the local newspapers, radio, and TV for several weeks, even though nearly all of Hannibal soon learned their identities. They were only sixteen. Juveniles.
Children.
 
 
BY 1997, AMERICA may have been a country in the throes of a "great escape" back to its small-town roots, but it was also a country in the early throes of a dreadful reckoning: it had somehow lost connection with its children. These two truths were in some ways interlinked. The dimensions of this breach, as they grew ever more insistently visible, were vaster than any of the partial symptoms that mainstream America had been fitfully acknowledging since the end of World War II: "juvenile delinquents," "beatniks," "hippies," "dropouts," "slackers," "rebellious" children of "dysfunctional" families.
The disconnection--or whatever it was--could no longer be tidily expressed in terms of fringes or aberrations of extremes (though many Americans, especially those in public life, continued to try). In the pit of its stomach, at the base of its nighttime fears, America was starting to perceive that something horrible had metastasized. America's children, as a category, had unaccountably turned alien.
Many of the country's thirty-four million adolescents had withdrawn from, or had never engaged, America as it was understood by older adults: a grand social fabric of laws, economics, family cohesion, responsibilities, education, opportunities, meaningful work, a history expressed in mythic idealism.
Hundreds of thousands had drifted from households (most oftenbroken and abusive households) into the burgeoning gangland netherworld. A million and a quarter had run away from home, whether toward some demimonde or simply toward the horizon. Another 273,000 were homeless.
Violence, particularly gun violence and its ceaseless depictions in media, saturated the consciousness of children. American kids killed and were killed by guns. Drugs and alcohol absorbed countless millions.
Gun homicide committed by teenagers tripled from 1986 to 1993, even as murders by people over twenty-five showed a significant decline. Early adolescents were the prime victims of assault. A million kids a year between the ages of twelve and nineteen were victims of violent crime.
In 1995, some 2,227 kids were suicides (an increase of about 120 percent over 1980). A Harvard Medical School study found that 23 percent of its 8,098-member study group had serious depressions before turning twenty.
Marijuana use more than doubled between 1991 and 1994. In addition, the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that two-thirds of eighth graders reported having tried alcohol; a quarter said they were current drinkers; 28 percent admitted they had been drunk at least once. Eleven thousand died each year in car crashes, half of them as a result of drunk driving.
The evidence of extreme youthful alienation had not exactly been obscure before the dreadful reckonings at the end of the decade and century. It had been accumulating in America for some time. In late June of 1990--at about the same time the $1.5 billion Hubble Space Telescope was found to contain a debilitating flaw; about the same time that the tab for the savings and loan bailout was being estimated at $500 billion; about the same time the ex-mistress of the ex-mayor of the nation's capital city was testifying about crack cocaine, opium, and marijuana escapades with His Honor--the New York Times announced on its front page that "today's youth" could not care less about any of it.
Citing the results of two recent national studies, the Times quoted one of them as declaring that the generation of young adults then aged eighteen to twenty-nine "knows less, cares less, votes less and is less critical of is leaders and institutions than young people of thepast." This generation--a "backwash of the baby boom" composed of the "baby bust"--seemed almost to be rebelling, as the Times phrased it, against rebellion. It went on: "The indifference of this generation--to politics, to government, even to news about the outside world--is beginning to affect American politics and society ... helping to explain such seemingly disparate trends as the decline in voting, the rise of tabloid television and the effectiveness of negative advertising."
A report prepared by People for the American Way framed these trends as a "citizenship crisis," noting that for the first time in fifty years, younger members of the public were not as well informed about issues in the world as older people. As recently as 1972, half the population between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four had voted. By 1988, the percentage had dropped to thirty-six. When asked about what did matter to them, most young respondents mentioned getting jobs, relief from "stress," and the fear of AIDS and drug addiction. Some mentioned their concern that the minimum drinking age had gone up. A few others cited "rights"--mostly, as it turned out, the "right" not to be hassled by the police. One young woman cited as an example of "rights" infringement a security guard's insistence at a rock concert that she and her boyfriend stop turning on their cigarette lighters.
By the end of the decade--the years of Robie Wilson's and Will Hill's midadolescence--that generation of "young adults" had matured toward early middle age. Now they were watching (or not watching) as new generations of the young edged even further from the core. The so-called gen X materialized, flared brightly, and then receded from pop consciousness. Its replacement was something darker, more amorphous: a formless mélange of statistics, images, styles, news reports, warnings, and behaviors that as yet had no organizing logo or name.
Whatever it was, this new manifestation of "youth" drew adults into responses far more intense than mere perplexity, exasperation, or puzzlement. It ignited a potent mixture of anger, hatred, and terror. It fueled a growing rejection of social institutions that had been designed and refined for more than a century to safeguard the interests of the young. Welfare, public-school funding, and the criminal-justice system became principal targets of this rejection.
But mainstream America's response to the youth crisis took other, more paradoxical forms as well, forms that seemed to spring from some deep schizophrenic wound in the national psyche.
Even as grass-roots America fretted, fulminated, and recoiled at the multiplying pathologies of youthful behavior, corporate America found ways to encourage and exploit that very same behavior for commercial profit.
Beginning in the mid-1980s and continuing throughout the nineties, the interlocked legions of advertising, entertainment, marketing, and technology unleashed a fusillade of imagery designed to exalt the most morbid symbols of teenage fear and alienation. Historic restraints and self-restraints melted away: restraints built over generations to shield the young from violence and its mimetic attraction, from the burdens of premature sexuality, from irrational material greed and envy, from a loss of empathy, from a collapse of faith in loving intimacy and communal purpose. From gangsta-rap music to shock-jock radio to slasher movies to interactive computer/video games saturated in images of extreme violence, to TV programs and commercials glorifying sexual obsession and predatory, "outlaw" aggression, the corporations drove home the ethos of nihilism and despair: soul-blights to be soothed, however temporarily, only by extreme stimulation and consumption.
This orgy of dark imagery, this extended national episode of wound worrying, begged comparisons to the sadomasochistic compulsions of a severely disturbed individual. It made a rough kind of rational sense only when one considered that many of the young corporate designers and brokers of these images were themselves recent émigrés of the same youth culture that had absorbed milder versions of this onslaught since birth.
 
 
BY THE AUTUMN of 1997, a new mimetic response would form, one that in time would finally focus the full attention of the host society: shooting assaults by adolescent boys in public schools.
Six weeks before Will and Robie got into the Bronco, a sixteen-year-old boy in Pearl, Mississippi, brooding over a breakup with his girlfriend, shot his mother to death, then made his way to the town high school and shot nine students, two of them fatally. It was thethird school shooting in America in less than two years. There would be more. West Paducah, Kentucky, would erupt within two weeks; Jonesboro, Arkansas, four months after that; then Edinboro, Pennsylvania, in April 1998; then Pomona, California, four days after that; then in May, Fayetteville, Tennessee, and Houston, and Onalaska, Washington, and Springfield, Oregon. Littleton awaited.
By the mid- and late 1990s, fully one-half of America's teens had experimented with some form of high-risk or moderately high-risk behavior, some action that made them dangerous to themselves or others. A few extreme eruptions of such behavior (the school shootings, some inexplicable suicides, the odd gang rape) made national headlines and fueled a growing but inchoate national debate. Most episodes, however, were simply absorbed, endured, and folded back into the fabric of American community life.
 
 
AS WILL AND Robie awaited their fates, life in the town, the state, and America went on.
The Christmas season drew near, and the state of Missouri focused its public energies on several pressing issues: the impending collapse of the public-school system in St. Louis, the rising popularity of casino gambling, and an epidemic of methamphetamine production and use, which the governor of the state called "an epidemic of evil."
In mid-December, St. Louis mayor Clarence Harmon announced that he was prepared to take over a school system beset by violence, racial tensions, and abysmal performance scores by largely impoverished students. He likened the system to "a giant snowball rolling down the hill toward St. Louis" and flattening everything in its path. He said he was considering removing the St. Louis school board and replacing it with a chief executive to be appointed by himself.
A good education, the mayor said, was the only hope for many of the children in the system. "We've got some neighborhoods that are sort of like third-world countries," he remarked. "And I'm not the first person to say that."
At about the same time, a Missouri state senator named Ronnie DePasco, a Democrat, was putting the finishing touches on a constitutional amendment that would grant license protection for existing riverboat gambling casinos that float in artificial basins. The so-calledboats in moats had begun to sprout up on landlocked sites around Missouri after the state approved "riverboat gambling" in 1994; the state supreme court later ruled that "riverboat gambling" meant gambling on actual surface streams of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.
While the senate anticipated DePasco's amendment, it debated for several hours a bill that would expand the state's Medicaid system to provide health insurance to more than ninety thousand uninsured young people. The measure never made it to a vote.
On December 18, a campaign was launched in St. Louis aimed at helping compulsive gamblers overcome their addictions. The campaign was sponsored by the Missouri Riverboat Gaming Association (a pro-gambling trade group), the state Gaming Commission, the Missouri Lottery, and the Department of Mental Health.
The methamphetamine crisis had seized hold of the entire rural Midwest by the late 1990s. Since 1996, some sixty-two meth manufacturing labs had been shut down in the Hannibal area alone. The epidemic had hit the heartland just a few years earlier--the result, experts believed, of shrewd market-expansion forays by Mexican traffickers based in California. Its ingredients were easily accessible: ephedrine, an over-the-counter component of cold and asthma tablets; fertilizer; battery acid. Intensely addictive, easy to make, savage in its paranoiac aftereffects, meth was a cottage-industry product in a thousand midwestern barns, sheds, shanties, and basements. Its leading consumers were teenagers.
On December 22, William Hill, who had by then turned seventeen, was certified to be tried as an adult. His parents hired a lawyer. Hill immediately agreed to testify against Robie Wilson. The Marion County prosecuting attorney, Tom Redington, dropped all charges against Hill except leaving the scene of an accident. He posted bail on a bond set at $25,000 and returned to school.
Robie Wilson remained in custody in a St. Louis--area detention center.
A few weeks after classes resumed at the start of the new year, a teacher at Hannibal High School overheard some boys talking about Will Hill in the school library.
The boys were hoping that Hill's case would get settled pretty soon. The baseball season was coming up in a few weeks. We really need Will on the team, one of the boys was saying. We're countin' on him.
Copyright © 2001