Shauntay Henderson remembers coming home from her first day of school as a little girl and telling her grandmother about all of her new friends.
“You ain’t got no friends,” her grandmother replied. Doretta Henderson wanted to teach Shauntay the difference between a friend and an acquaintance.
Such distinctions were important growing up in the Charlie Parker Square public-housing development, a collection of angular, one-story, slate-gray residences near 12th Street and the Paseo. Doretta — Miss Dottie, as her friends and neighbors called her — was a community activist in the ’60s and ’70s, fighting for civil rights and welfare rights.
But here’s Doretta’s granddaughter, wearing a bright-orange jumpsuit, sitting in a plastic chair with her elbows propped up on a desk in a tiny visiting room in the Jackson County Detention Center. Her short, black hair is combed back from her face. She wears a relaxed expression — not sullen and seething, like in the mug shots splashed over newspapers and TV screens last spring. Not jeeringly defiant, as she looked the day after police caught her and paraded her, handcuffed, in front of cameras on her way to face a judge last April 2. After nine months in near-solitary confinement, 25-year-old Henderson signals in her demeanor mostly bored resignation. Her smile reveals a gold cap on one tooth. She got the gold cap when she was 17. Her grandmother didn’t approve.
Last March, FBI agents would have given $100,000 to have Henderson sitting in their custody.
Today, though, she’s sitting in front of her attorney, Patrick Peters, and a reporter from The Pitch.
Henderson has hired Peters to represent her in a trial scheduled to start March 31. In inner-city circles, the handsome, chain-smoking Peters is known as the criminal defense lawyer. (His son once told him that a rap song praised his skill in coaxing dismissals from judges and light sentences from juries.) Henderson is going to need one of Peters’ miracle defenses.
She’s accused of gunning down 21-year-old DeAndre Parker in front of witnesses as he sat in his truck in the parking lot of a Red Bridge Road gas station on September 2, 2006. She has pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree murder and armed criminal action.
On March 5, 2007, at a press conference in front of a white police van parked at Linwood and Prospect on the city’s east side, Kansas City Police Chief Jim Corwin told members of the media that the streets of Kansas City were the site of a gang war and Henderson was at its center.
The next day, the FBI issued a federal warrant for Henderson’s arrest, on a tip that she’d left the state. The FBI told the media that Henderson might be concealing her identity by dressing like a man and that she should be considered violent, armed and dangerous.
Police took her into custody on March 31, 2007, the same day that her mug shot was added to the FBI’s Most Wanted Fugitives list — alongside a suspected child murderer, a notorious Boston mobster named James “Whitey” Bulger, and Osama bin Laden.
Today, at the Jackson County Jail, Peters stares at Henderson’s hands. “You have the smallest hands I’ve ever seen,” he says, as if he’s envisioning himself in court: Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, my client couldn’t have pulled the trigger — just look at her tiny hands.
Henderson’s fingers are thin and delicate and pale. They look as though she’s been sitting in a bathtub too long. Ever since she was a little girl, she has chewed her fingernails compulsively.
“I know,” she says, glancing down. “I been looking at that.”
During the first week of March last year, a string of drive-by shootings startled the metro. When the week was out, one 22-year-old man was dead and 10 people had been wounded. The firepower on display was impressive. The heavy artillery found at one crime scene, near 30th Street and Agnes, included an AR-15 fitted with two large drum magazines capable of firing 100 rounds without reloading, prompting police spokesman Capt. Rich Lockhart to conclude that patrol officers were “outgunned.”
Sgt. Brian Jones and his officers on the assault squad interviewed witnesses with the zeal of homicide detectives because, Jones says, shooting victims tend to turn around and become shooters. “They’re not going to do the legal thing. They’re going to tell the police to go take a hike and retaliate themselves. So the victims in one assault became the suspects in another. That’s where the media gets the term ‘gang war.'”
During the squad’s investigation, Henderson’s name surfaced.
“Everyone was describing this masculine female at the scene,” Jones says. Masculine, he explains, as in “the way she wears her hair, the way she carries herself, her mannerisms, the way she dresses. I don’t know if she was the shooter, but she was there.”
Jones says he still doesn’t know what caused the violence to erupt last March, except that it was a gang feud and Henderson was involved. He describes Henderson’s enemies by numbered streets in Kansas City: “They were 33rd [Street]. A lot of them were 31st. A lot of them were 24th. A lot were 12th. For some reason, they were forming bonds between different sets and picking on others. I assume [it was] just allegiance to whatever gang she was in.”
At the end of that week, Corwin used the term “gang war” during his press conference at Linwood and Prospect. The police chief stood in front of a poster plastered with mug shots of fugitives, Henderson included.
“Anonymity will not be their friend anymore,” Corwin said. Pointing out Henderson’s photo, he said, “I believe she’s right in the middle of all of this.”
Henderson was the only suspect Corwin named that day. The faces on the poster left the impression that she was being pictured with other members of her gang. But according to Detective Joseph Marinella of the KCPD homicide squad, that wasn’t the intention.
“I think those were people that other units had identified as people we wanted the public’s help in locating,” Marinella explains. “In fact, we got several calls like, ‘Hey, my son’s face was up there next to Shauntay, and he didn’t even know her.’ I was like, ‘Hey, that’s not what it meant.’ I know that’s what it sort of looked like.”
Nonetheless, Corwin’s press conference triggered an avalanche of tips to the police. The Kansas City Star reported that some officers were working 18-hour days tracking down Henderson. Officers held one stakeout at Bannister Mall and another at an inner-city gas station, responding to sightings of Henderson that turned out to be false. Community activist Alonzo Washington recorded YouTube videos of himself begging Henderson to call him so he could help her go to the police. Former Mayor Pro Tem Alvin Brooks used several of his regular one-minute radio spots on KPRS 103.3 to urge Parker’s alleged shooter to turn herself in.
Two MySpace pages attributed to Henderson appeared on the Web: “Who Dat Girl” and “Girl on the News” were decorated with wintry photos of Henderson’s neighborhood, around 12th Street and the Paseo, and snapshots of a woman resembling Henderson clowning around in a dingy-looking kitchen, exhaling greenish clouds of smoke. People commented on the page with messages such as “Free ‘Tay!”
People from all over the metro claimed to know her. Some said she wished she were a man. Some said she was a rapper. People came up with a motive for Henderson’s alleged crime: They said she’d been the victim of a gang rape and now was armed with a list of the names of the men who had assaulted her; she’d turn herself in once they were all dead.
A tipster told the KCPD that Henderson had shaved her head and was dressing as a man; the police released an awkwardly doctored photo of what Henderson would look like bald.
Police also took seriously a tip that Henderson had fled to Iowa. Allegedly crossing state lines while a fugitive earned her a federal warrant.
On March 19, police received an anonymous tip that Henderson was hiding out at an apartment complex at 2800 Park Avenue. Police and tactical units, along with FBI agents, surrounded the building. More than 50 law-enforcement officers spent six hours before giving up because Henderson wasn’t there.
FBI spokesman Jeff Lanza says a local FBI agent assigned to Henderson’s case made the argument for putting her on the Most Wanted list. “It’s somewhat of a sales job because there are other agents around the country trying to get people on the list as well,” Lanza explains.
On March 31, the same day that agents secured Henderson’s Most Wanted status, a tip led police to the Sycamore Hills apartment complex in the Northland. When police knocked on the door, a husky voice said, “I’ll be right there.”
Henderson kept the officers waiting while she put on her shoes. She called out that she didn’t want to be shot. When she emerged, the 5-foot-5-inch, 130-pound fugitive wore a black T-shirt and had a full head of hair. She went quietly into custody.
Was Henderson really as dangerous as the police and the media had made her seem?
Though police have presented prosecutors with other cases allegedly involving Henderson, she has been charged with second-degree murder and armed criminal action in the death of Parker, not with masterminding a crime spree. Marinella, of the homicide squad, says Henderson was the target of investigations in other squads. “But nothing ever stuck,” he says.
“How long has she been in custody and she still hasn’t been charged with anything new? That right there … ” Marinella trails off, then adds, “Sometimes knowing somebody’s involved and proving somebody’s involved are two entirely different things.”
Corwin says that if he had to do it all over again, he’d handle Henderson’s case the same way. The police chief is still convinced that Henderson was the center of a gang war — even though he says he isn’t exactly clear about which of the gangs she belonged to.
“I don’t remember ,” Corwin told The Pitch on January 10 of this year. “I think she was bouncing around all over the place, if I remember right. I feel like I’m not being very helpful, but it’s been a long time ago.”
On her way to the visiting room at the Jackson County Detention Center a few minutes before meeting a reporter, Henderson passed a group of kids on a scared-straight jailhouse tour.
“What school y’all go to?” she asked them.
Westport, they answered. They looked young, like middle-schoolers.
Henderson tells the reporter that a guard snapped, “Henderson, stay back.” The warning clearly bothered her.
She wasn’t going to do anything to the kids. She says she told them to stay in school.
Henderson basks in the warmth of the drab visiting room. Though it’s 40 degrees outside, she complains that air conditioning blows on the prisoners in their modules. Warming up in the shower is no use; the water’s cold. She stuffs the air vents with toilet paper to clog them, though guards warn her that they’ll write her up for the offense. Written reprimands lead to revoked privileges, but Henderson has few to lose.
She’s locked in a cellblock where misbehaving inmates are kept in solitary confinement. Guards tell her that it’s for her own protection, though she can’t tell whether this does her much good. “I pass people in the hallway,” she says. “If someone wanted to do something to me, they could.”
Minimal physical activity and three greasy meals a day have put some weight on Henderson, who estimates that she’s gained 15 pounds. “I think it’s all in my thighs and my booty, though,” she says.
Henderson’s attorney, Peters, won’t let her answer questions about her case because he doesn’t want to jeopardize his defense at her upcoming trial.
Nonetheless, she ticks off the rumors she says aren’t true.
She says she never left the state while on the run, the whole basis of the federal charge that landed her on the Most Wanted list. “I never even seen Iowa,” she says. “I have a cousin in college there. I felt like they were putting him in danger by saying I might be there.”
She obviously didn’t shave her head. “One of my friends called me and told me, ‘They got you on the news bald-headed.'” She says she told her friend, “Quit playin’.”
She says she never created MySpace pages to taunt authorities. “I’m like, What is MySpace? I really didn’t know.” Though Henderson claims ignorance about the Web site, a MySpace page called “12th Street” contains links to half a dozen young men with pictures of her or references to her on their own pages. Someone has been updating a MySpace profile labeled “Lady Binladen.” Henderson’s photo appears on the page, and one of Lady Binladen’s MySpace “friends” has posted a song on his profile that includes a rap by someone who sounds like Henderson.
She says she’s not a rapper. “I mean, people sit outside, and when they have nothing to do, they just rap,” she says. “But I ain’t never been no rapper type.”
She’s not a lesbian. “People do say that about me, but no. I never let it bother me. But I could never do that — I love men too much. And I never really even got along with women.”
She says she feels bad about the television footage, aired repeatedly, of her being transported from police headquarters to the detention center, when she put on a cocky show for the cameras. She says she smiled because she didn’t want to look mean. She couldn’t move her hands because they were chained to her waist, so all she could do was wave them weakly. “They made it look like I was laughing and all that, but I was just trying to say, ‘I’m innocent.’ I came around the corner, and it was like, whoa, 20 people standing there. And on the news, they’d been running really ugly mug shots all the time. I didn’t want to give the camera a mean look.”
She says she didn’t realize that the police associated her with gang activity. “I don’t understand how they got me on gang file,” she says, referring to the way in which police monitor known gang members. “A person would know if they were in gang file. Anytime you’re pulled over and your information comes up on the police computer, they’ll start asking you stuff like, ‘You still gang-bangin’?’ I’ve never even talked to a gang unit.”
Henderson believed the police would shoot her if given the opportunity.
“Your mind just comes up with so many things,” she says. “I kept thinking, How can I call them and tell them that I want to surrender when they’ll just find a reason to shoot me? From day one, they was telling my family they’d open fire if they see me first. So I’m thinking the whole time that if they find me, they’ll find a reason to shoot and they’ll get away with it. I see how it happens on the news.”
During the months when Henderson was a fugitive, police tailed the cars of her family members and showed up to question them at all hours of the night, says Michelle Henderson, one of her aunts.
“The police told us that if they saw Shauntay and one hair on her head moved, they’d shoot her,” she says.
Police labeled Henderson’s family uncooperative, but Michelle says that when she and other family members told police they didn’t know where Henderson was hiding, they were telling the truth. Because of all the police disruptions, Michelle moved from Kansas City, Missouri, to a house in Grandview.
Henderson’s other aunt, Betty, still lives on Van Brunt Boulevard, in a house with two plaster fawns on the front lawn. That’s where Henderson’s grandmother Doretta lives now.
Doretta now suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. A hired nurse visits her in the daytime. The family has tried to shield her from news regarding her notorious granddaughter.
“We don’t let her know. If she [Doretta] was in her right mind, she wouldn’t have let this go on,” Michelle says, referring to the portrayal of Doretta’s granddaughter by police and the media.
She used to be real hard on us about school,” Henderson says of her mother, who died of cancer when Shauntay was 10. “A teacher couldn’t even call the house about me or I’d be on punishment. All she really wanted was for us to finish school and go to college.” Her mother was religious, too — Catholic, she thinks.
Henderson was born on October 19, 1982. Her parents, both schoolteachers, met in college in Jefferson City. When they later divorced, Henderson moved with her mother to St. Louis, where they lived until 1993 — the year Henderson’s mother died and the girl moved back to Kansas City to live in Charlie Parker Square with Doretta.
Alvin Brooks remembers Doretta as an energetic activist who did her community organizing out of an office at 12th Street and Michigan. Brooks says he joined her for marches and demonstrations. “She’s been a good strategist and a very intelligent woman,” Brooks says.
Steve Baston, a pastor at the New Visions Baptist Church at 4334 Troost, knew Doretta in the ’60s and ’70s. He and Doretta were partners in neighborhood-beautification projects; he describes her as “an advocate for justice” who was involved in “a lot of positive activities.”
Later, he would see the teenage Henderson on the street with her friends. “When she passed me by with the group of women she was with, they were very cordial young women, very respectful young women,” he says.
“I seen old pictures of her from when she had a big Afro,” Henderson says of Doretta. “Mainly I would overhear people thanking her for something she did for them, telling her she was a good woman. I know she helped raise a lot of kids, a lot of grandkids.”
Doretta’s best friend was Juanita Smith. The two women lived next door to each other at Charlie Parker Square from the time the complex was built in the 1970s, and their grandchildren — including Shauntay and a boy named Josh Hudspeth — grew up as if they were all one family.
“It was close to where it was like, she could walk into my grandmother’s house unannounced, and I could do the same with her grandma,” Hudspeth tells The Pitch in a phone interview. “It was that kind of relationship.”
Henderson hung out mostly with boys — her brothers, a cousin and Hudspeth. (One brother, Rodney, did not return calls for this story.) Henderson remembers visiting elderly neighbors in the projects who would sell kids little candy bars, Laffy Taffys, soda pop. Hudspeth remembers sharing a mattress with Henderson for naps, playing in the streets in the summer, aiming fireworks at each other in July, having water fights and walking to the nearby Gregg/Klice Community Center to shoot hoops.
Henderson remembers that all the kids in the projects had to go to church. “We had to go to bed early on Saturday nights, and in the morning everyone would put on their suits and dresses. I never liked wearing dresses, not to this day.”
As hard as Doretta and her neighbors might have tried to make Charlie Parker Square a safe place for her grandchildren, they couldn’t prevent the street elements from finding them. The neighborhood has been immortalized on YouTube, where a filmmaker named Aquis Bryant has posted his 2005 series, Hood 2 Hood: the Blockumentary, a five-hour road trip through the worst ghettos in America. Bryant visited crime-ridden blocks and housing projects in 27 cities, encouraging his subjects to brandish arsenals of automatic weapons, bricks of drugs and thousands of dollars in cash for the camera while talking up their neighborhoods. The Kansas City segment was clearly filmed in Charlie Parker Square.
In it, a tall kid wearing a white T-shirt, a black hoodie and a tan hat introduces himself to Bryant’s camera as “Tay Diggs.” He says, “Missouri. Twelfth Street. Twelve hundred. The real mob right here, me and my goon squad.”
Hudspeth is visible behind him, wearing a puffy black jacket with “Chicago” written across the front, a striped shirt and a blue-brimmed cap labeled “12.” Hudspeth takes the hat off, points to the number and says, “Twelve hundred, all day.”
Diggs pulls a plastic bag of white powder from one hoodie pocket and a black Glock 9 pistol from the other and spreads his arms wide like he’s embracing all of 12th Street. In a later shot, he emerges out of a doorway wearing a vest strapped to his chest with Velcro. “Man, you know, that protection,” he says.
Henderson says she knows Diggs, that they grew up together. “He was cool to me growing up. He played basketball.”
Hudspeth says Henderson was a good kid, but she had a “turning point” if someone threatened her or her family.
“I’m not going to sit here and sugarcoat a lot,” Hudspeth says. If someone confronted her, he says, Henderson wasn’t afraid to stand up for herself or her family and neighbors. “Some people would let it go. She wasn’t the type of person to let anything go…. She’ll fight a boy or a girl, no matter how big you are.”
Henderson admits as much, but adds, “Down there, we could fight and be back to friends the next day — or our parents would make us talk it out ’cause they were friends.”
She knows that not finishing school at Southeast High School would have been disappointing to her mother. She says she has asked about taking GED classes while awaiting trial, but her case manager says it’s not possible.
Her father, her aunts and Hudspeth keep her up-to-date on family news.
Henderson doesn’t want to think that her grandmother is as sick as her family says she is. “They don’t think she can live by herself anymore,” she says with a sigh.
If Henderson weren’t in jail right now — if none of this had ever happened — she says she probably wouldn’t try to go back to her old job at Encore, a bill-collection agency in Olathe. It was too hard to get to work, she says, all the way out in the suburbs without a car. She always had to bother her family for rides.
And anyway, there’s something else on her mind. She says she can feel herself getting older. If she weren’t in jail, she says, “I’d probably be trying to make me a baby. A son. I don’t want no girls. I like baby boys better than baby girls. The only thing is, boys cry too much.”
Pressed about why she prefers boys, she grows thoughtful. “Men got it easy on some things. People will try to test a girl before they’ll test a man.”
She’s optimistic that she’ll beat her charges but admits that she’s anxious about the trial. “I don’t think I’d even be normal if I wasn’t nervous.”
When a guard opens the heavily bolted door to the hallway to inform Henderson that her time is up, a playful look crosses her face. “Oh, I’m blessed with you, huh?” she says to the guard who will escort her back to her little cell.
“C’mon,” the guard says with mock roughness. “You think we care how high-powered a lawyer you got?”
“What you know about him?” Henderson shoots back, and then she’s gone.