Police investigation into weekend clashes confounded by lack of cooperation

Monday, March 10, 2008 | 7:20 p.m. CDT; updated 9:42 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

COLUMBIA — Groups of Columbia residents clashed with “St. Louis boys” over the weekend in disturbances that reportedly involved handguns, baseball bats, bottles and scores of onlookers, according to police, but they cited a lack of cooperative witnesses, no suspects and no victims.

Columbia police Capt. Steven Monticelli said the fights began at 1:11 a.m. Saturday after the two groups left Pepper’s Night Club, at 4515 N. Missouri 763, and made their way to Midwest Petroleum Co. at 1412 Range Line St.

“The calls came after (the fighters) went over to (the convenience store),” Monticelli said. “They all left (Pepper’s Night Club), and then they go to the first place that is open to buy more booze or to do whatever they need to do, and that’s when the problems arise.”

Monticelli said there were about 20 onlookers, but only a handful talked to police. Witnesses said the fighters threw bottles at one another and cars left the convenience store parking lot with broken windows.

Police recovered a baseball bat and a T-shirt “with a little bit of blood on it” at the scene, Monticelli said.

“In these kinds of disturbances the victims are usually tied up into the disturbance themselves,” Monticelli said. “They think, ‘If I tell the police what I did, then (others) are going to tell the police what I did.’”

Monticelli said he thinks the fights carried over into a Saturday afternoon disturbance at the 500 block of Noble Court. Witnesses told police that “individuals were walking around lifting up their shirts showing that they had weapons with them.”

When officers arrived shortly before 3 p.m., Monticelli said, there was no one in the area.

Then, at 6:03 p.m. Sunday, police responded to a call of shots fired in the 200 block of Bryant Street.

Police observed 75 to 100 people fleeing the Columbia Housing Authority walkway. At least one witness reported hearing a gunshot, but Monticelli said that was the sound of a baseball bat hitting the “guttering on a house.”

“We’re hearing about the same thing,” Monticelli said of the recurring episodes. “Nobody is telling us or knows what stirred (the fights) up other than these two groups that were feuding.”

Boone County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Knight said the lack of cooperating witnesses doesn’t surprise him.

“It happens quite often with alarming frequency that witnesses don’t come forward,” Knight said, adding that such silence often results in charges against people suspected of violent crimes being dropped.

Knight said he’s seen a disturbing trend of witnesses being afraid “that they are going to be killed.”

“The criminal element has grown in Boone County,” Knight said.

Given Columbia’s population growth, he said, “it’s something that is a natural thing (and) is to be expected.”

Knight said that even if a witness gives a statement to a police officer or provides information through CrimeStoppers, what that witness said might not be admissible in court. That witness would have to testify. And the prosecutor’s office can only protect witnesses under extreme circumstances after applying for special funds from the Missouri Office of Prosecution Services.

“This is nothing like the federal witness protection program,” he said of incidences where he’s helped place witnesses to a murder in an apartment or motel.

“It’s a reality that we have to deal with all the time,” he said.

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