On a steamy dog day afternoon in 1993, Shirley Ann Crook, 46, of Fenton, Mo., was involved in a fender bender with a local teenage boy. By anyone's standard, Shirley was an excellent driver. Both she and her husband Steven drove semi tractor trailers for a living. The teenage driver was another story. Christopher Simmons, 17, was sadly typical of a lot of Fenton High School seniors. He came from a broken home, drank a lot, smoked grass, and his absenteeism was legendary. He couldn't care less about school or his future. Later he would blame all this on having been abused by his stepfather Bob Hayes, recalling the time when as a toddler he'd been tied to a tree for hours while Bob Hayes fished. Other times Bob Hayes would take Chris to a local bar and load him up on whiskey for the amusement of the patrons. But then Chris also denied being abused by Bob Hayes. It depended on how he felt when asked the questions.
In his late teens Chris and his friends 15-year-old Charlie Benjamin, and 16-year-old John Tessmer took to hanging out at the trailer of an older friend, a 29-year-old convicted felon named Brian Moomey. Teenagers always seem to be able to find some adult who will let them hang out at their place, drink, get high, and maybe, if they can manage it, have sex. Sometimes if they needed cash for drugs or booze, Chris and Charlie would break into cars and nearby mobile homes.
At about the time of the accident, Chris, Charlie and John started discussing how it would be cool to kill someone. Chris' idea was to find someone to burglarize, then tie the victim up and push him off a bridge. Hey, how cool would that be? He told Charlie and John not to worry about getting caught because they were juveniles, so "they would get away with it." Chris had in mind this freak who lived next door to Moomey who everyone called "the Voodoo Man." Someone had told Chris that the Voodoo Man was rich and owned a chain of hotels, and it didn't seem to occur to Chris that a hotel owner probably wouldn't live in a ratty mobile home in a run-down trailer park. It didn't occur to any of them.
On Sept. 8, the three boys agreed to meet early the next morning at Moomey's place. From there they would walk to the Voodoo Man's trailer. But little Johnny Tessmer began to have doubts. He met Chris and Charlie, yes, but he told them he'd changed his mind. He was going home. They called him a few choice names, threatened him, but John was adamant. In the end they went on without him.
THE VOODOO MAN WASN'T home. Perhaps he was away at one of his hotels, enjoying a sauna. The boys decided to try elsewhere. Across the street from the trailer court was a sort of low-rent subdivision. It seemed as good a place as any for a murder. Chris and Charlie went along the street looking for an inviting target. They found one when they stumbled upon a mobile home with an open rear window. Chris reached inside and was able to open the back door. Once inside, he turned on a hallway light. Suddenly a woman's frightened voice called out: "Who's there?" The boys started for the woman's bedroom. Chris immediately recognized the woman. She was the one from the accident. What the hell was her name? Crook. Ironic, her name being Crook. Then Chris thought, Well, she knows who I am.
Chris ordered Shirley Crook out of bed and when she cried out they forced her to the floor, kicking and beating her, and in the process fracturing several of her ribs. Chris told Charlie to keep an eye on her while he rifled through the house looking for a weapon. Man, Chris was thinking, we probably should have brought a weapon if we were going to kill someone. In a cabinet he found a fat roll of duct tape. He hurried back to the room and went to town with the duct tape. He taped her hands behind her back, and when she again let out a cry, he covered her mouth and eyes.
"Let's go," he said.
"Where to?" said Charlie.
"The van, stupid."
They walked Shirley Crook outside and pushed her into the back of her minivan, the same one Chris, you know, being a little high, had run into a week before. Then they started driving toward St. Louis County. By now things were going remarkably according to plan. It was almost sunrise when they arrived at Castlewood State Park. They had driven about 15 miles. But when they opened the back doors of the van they found that Mrs. Crook had gotten loose. Anyway her hands were free and she'd gotten some of the duct tape off her face. She was pleading with them, hysterically, to spare her life. Take her money, whatever they wanted. Only don't kill her. Chris told her to shut the hell up and again applied the tape. Soon they were again on the move.
Not far from the parked minivan an old railroad trestle crossed the Meramec River.
"There," Chris said.
They stopped about halfway across the trestle and forced Shirley Crook to lie down. Chris took a piece of her purse strap, a bit of her bathrobe strap, and some electric wire and commenced to bind her hands and feet together. Then he went back to the van and found a bath towel and covered her head with that, and used the last of the duct tape to completely envelop the towel. Then he gave Mrs. Crook a good sharp kick in the ribs and she tumbled off the trestle into the murky waters of the Meramec. "Bubble, bubble," Chris said.
Later, during Chris' trial, Shirley's husband Steven would testify, "… she was terrifically scared of height. It terrifies me to think of her being blindfolded and knowing that she was -- because I feel that they would have talked about where they were going, and to be thrown off of a high spot would be really a terrible thing for her..."
A few hours later, after dropping off Charlie at home, Chris left the van in the trailer park and walked over to Moomey's. He bragged to Moomey about how well the murder went off. "I had to kill the bitch," he said. "She seen my face." About the same time two bass fishermen found Shirley Crook's body floating in the Meramec. She had been conscious up until the last second the river water filled her lungs.
BY NEXT MORNING the cops had been tipped off-perhaps it was by Moomey, or maybe it was Tessmer. It could have been any of a dozen people who were by then in the know. That afternoon the Fenton Police showed up at the high school. They cuffed Chris in front of his classmates and led him away. Based largely on his videotaped confession, which included a reenactment of the murder, Chris was accused of first-degree murder. Convinced that his juvenile status rendered him immune to serious punishment, Chris sneered at a deal for life imprisonment. The jury came back with a guilty verdict and gave Chris the death sentence, but the Missouri Supreme Court reduced the sentence to life. The justices cited Missouri's evolving standards of decency, which would not allow them in good conscience to sentence a 17-year-old to death. Life, yes. But not death.
Fortunately, the justices didn't have to offer any evidence to support their theory that society is evolving and getting more decent. They didn't have to refute claims that in the last forty years murder and crime rates have skyrocketed while test scores have plummeted. The plain people of Missouri will just have to take their word for it. Mrs. Crook's relatives sometimes wonder what world the justices are living in.
The case is now before the U.S. Supreme Court.
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