Thursday, March 15, 2012

St. Louis, MO: Family had warned slain Vashon student about boyfriend

ST. LOUIS • Family warned Sarah Billingsley-Walker to stay away from her sometimes boyfriend, Leonard Johnson, and thought she had.
So Johnson was not their first thought when Billingsley-Walker called her sister, Lavonda Walker, on Monday morning to say she was at some friend’s house on 21st Street and that he was acting strangely and would not let her leave. Walker said she was not immediately alarmed because her sister did not sound scared.
Walker was filing a missing-person report with a police officer that night when she got a call that Billingsley-Walker was found dead — in Johnson’s home in the 3700 block of North 21st Street. There were no visible injuries, and the death was considered a mystery.
On Tuesday, an autopsy revealed that she had been strangled.
Late Wednesday, Johnson, 17, was charged with first-degree murder.
Billingsley-Walker, 18, was the co-valedictorian and homecoming queen at Vashon High School. Relatives told a reporter Wednesday they had warned her to stay away from Johnson because of past violent encounters.
They said that as fast as Billingsley-Walker was rising, Johnson was falling. The two dated for about a year. She helped him with his chemistry homework.
Her mother and stepfather didn’t approve of the relationship — especially after he once kicked in the door of their home and yelled at her: "Are you cheating on me?"
"At first I thought he could be a nice boy, but after a while, I saw a sadness in my daughter’s eyes," said her mother, Lavaughn Walker. "I told her to leave him alone and that, ‘He will pull you down.’ I told her some smiles are wolves’ smiles."
About six months passed since anyone in the family heard Billingsley-Walker speak of Johnson, her sister said. That’s why she didn’t think of Johnson after Monday’s call.
"If I would have known she was there, I would have called the police right away," Lavonda Walker said.
With Billingsley-Walker not answering her cell phone, her mother deduced she might be at Johnson’s home. Lavonda Walker said she went to the two-family flat. When she asked Johnson if he had seen her sister, she said, Johnson replied, "No, but I did talk to her this morning. She was telling me about her new boyfriend and that made me kind of mad."
Walker explained, "I tried looking for scratches or signs that he was nervous, and he was just calm. He walked me to my car and gave me his phone number telling me to call him if I heard from her."
Increasingly worried, she called police Monday night, and an officer arrived to take a missing-person report just as news of the murder arrived.
Police have not explained the circumstances under which the body was found, at about 9:45 p.m.. Johnson was questioned and eventually charged. According to court documents, someone told police that Johnson admitted choking the victim.
Billingsley-Walker was one of Lavaughn Walker’s five children. Certificates and medals from her academic and extra-curricular achievements cover a living room wall in the Wellston home where she sometimes lived with her mother.
"She was my star," her mother said.
The family had been living on North 21st Street when Billingsley-Walker began attending Vashon. That’s where she met Johnson.
When the family moved to Wellston, Billingsley-Walker refused to transfer from Vashon, where she was in the National Honor Society and on the dance team, her mother said.
She was accepted to four colleges and was leaning toward a major in political science and history at Philander Smith College, in Little Rock, Ark., which offered her a full scholarship, her mother said.
"She wanted to be a lawyer," she said.
Neighbors in Wellston said they often saw Billingsley-Walker sitting on the front porch, doing homework. Yvonne Petty, 51, said she was an inspiration to young people.
"Its very seldom when you get a child in the community who is an A student and valedictorian," she said. "That’s the type of life she lived."
Billingsley-Walker had worked as an intern with the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis since January, processing paperwork for more than 20,000 people seeking assistance with utilities, said Brenda Wrench, the chief operating officer.
"We are all grieving. This was a kid that was literally 10 feet from all or our doors all day long," Wrench said.
"We would love for the whole community to know the investment she was making in her own strength," Wrench added. "She was really remarkable. This was a child worth knowing, a girl who could’ve been swayed by negative influences that children face today. She really kept coming back and investing in the positive."
On Monday, Billingsley-Walker had told her mother she was exhausted after spending the weekend in Chicago at a Top Ladies of Distinction leadership conference, and asked if she could skip school. It was a rarity for a girl with high grades, so her mother gave permission. Her family isn't sure how she ended up at Johnson's home.
Vashon officials held an assembly Tuesday to tell students of the murder, and made grief counselors available.
LaVaughn Walker said she plans to attend Vashon’s graduation ceremony, and add her daughter’s diploma to that wall of honor in the living room.
"I want Sarah’s story to be told because, if you are in an abusive relationship, you shouldn’t hide it from your parents because they are the ones that really love you," her mother said. "If you feel you can’t talk to them, then go to your counselors at school. Don’t think it’s going to get better because it’s not. If she would have listened to me, she’d be here today."

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