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A Controversial Religion Claiming Supernatural Powers? St. Louis Magicians Cry Fraud

Categories: Longform

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Courtesy of Joe Mason
A meditative miracle, or something else?
The first step of the demonstration requires two fuzzy pads the size of coasters, which the nine-year-old girl holds in place over her eyes. Enveloped in a floor-length gown of purple and gold, she seems to shimmer against the drab brick wall of the library's meeting room. A gold chain and pendant hangs against her forehead.

Behind her, the girl's mother, Mahant Ma Shivajnana, readies a blindfold. To her right, a cardboard cutout of a guru smiles beatifically toward the audience of 50.

Shivajnana, a stern-faced Indian woman dressed in a yellow sari, picks up a red scarf from a nearby table.

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At Wash. U. and Webster, a Fight to Unionize Adjunct Professors -- With Different Results

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Photo by Kelly Glueck
Elizabeth Sausele

"I have to work at Trader Joe's to afford to teach at Webster," says Elizabeth Sausele. Sausele, 50, has a master's in divinity and a doctorate in education with an emphasis in intercultural studies. She worked on her dissertation in Rwanda, studying adolescent trauma in the wake of war and genocide. For the last six years, she's taught at Webster University's Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies, part of the College of Arts and Sciences at the private, non-profit university in Webster Groves. Currently, she teaches two classes a semester. It doesn't pay the bills. "Trader Joe's pays me more to stock bananas than Webster pays me to teach," she muses.

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How a Bungled Police Investigation Led to a Possible Rape Victim's Shaming

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Photo Courtesy of Flickr/KOMU News
Brittany Burke called Jefferson City Police Department because she feared she'd been assaulted. Things only got worse from there.

One sexual-assault kit. Clothing — underwear, dress pants, sport jacket, white shirt and shoes. Four vials of blood. One container of urine. Photos of bruises and abrasions on the woman's body. Dried secretions, soil and debris, suspected semen and saliva. Matted hair cuttings. The Jefferson City Police Department gathered all these things from a young woman named Brittany Burke after she called them to report a possible sexual assault on April 9.

She had been in a blackout, and wasn't sure what had happened, but a three-hour invasive exam by a sexual-assault nurse examiner found vaginal abrasions consistent with assault. The nurse also noted on her report that suspected semen was present.

Under Missouri law, because the victim was blacked out, she was unable to consent. Under Missouri law, it seemed likely that a crime had occurred.

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Missouri Voters Approved Amendment 5 -- But It Took Jeffry Smith to Test Its Limits

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Photo by Theo Welling
Jeffry Smith: armed, but, he says, not at all dangerous.

It's just another day at the Saint Louis Zoo, a Saturday in June, and the air is thick with humidity, sweat and sunscreen. Children drag parents along winding pathways to see the new polar bear, to get another soda, to find a bathroom, to have their faces painted like tigers. But something is amiss outside the zoo's south entrance.

There, five police officers stand guard near the turnstiles. Just down the sidewalk a dozen people — nearly all women — wave signs reading "Animals not Ammo" and "Gun-Free Zone." The protesters stare daggers toward Jeffry Smith, a towering, pot-bellied bear of a man stuffed into a pink polo shirt and white shorts. He wears a maroon visor cap stenciled with the name of a Florida country club. He also wears a pistol holster on his waist, but it's empty. It looks like a chunky cell-phone case sold at a mall kiosk.

Smith, 56, has stationed himself in a patch of shade beneath a pedestrian bridge near the entrance, a slightly more comfortable spot to field questions from the gaggle of reporters on scene. He's surrounded by cameras and microphones.

"So, it's my understanding that you're from Cincinnati," begins a FOX 2 reporter. "Why come all the way here to Missouri to make this statement?"

Smith, who at six-foot-nine looms over the man, grumbles back, "I didn't."

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When It's 4 a.m., Go to Eat-Rite Diner for a Slinger -- or a Reason to Love St. Louis Again

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Photo Courtesy of Flickr/Phil Roussin
The Eat-Rite Diner at 622 Chouteau

In the right rear corner of the Eat-Rite Diner, up by the security camera, there's a cluster of holes in the porcelain tile. A robber blasted those into the wall with a shotgun in the 1980s. He came in one night trying to hold up the place, but the cooks were too busy to notice — at first. So he fired off a round. That got everyone's attention.

What happened next — how much he stole, whether he truly pistol-whipped someone, whether he got caught — depends on which staffer you ask. Eat-Rite lore is like that. Details get added or elided over time. But it's a decent yarn, and a decent yarn can pull you through the night shift.

Last week, Riverfront Times sat through three consecutive night shifts at the Eat-Rite Diner at Chouteau Avenue and Seventh Street. It's fair to wonder why. The menu hasn't changed much in 45 years. The building is just a 516-square-foot dive a few blocks south of Busch Stadium. Only thirteen customers can eat at the counter at a time. It grosses maybe a few hundred bucks on an average night.

Yet Eat-Rite is unique in our city's nocturnal ecosystem. It's the sole kitchen within a three-mile radius of the Arch that stays open all night and lets you dine in — making it a sort of bottleneck, a place through which the peckish must pass to get their after-hours pancakes or omelets.

- See also: St. Louis' Most Hangover-Friendly Diners

It attracts St. Louisans of all moods: the drunks and demons, clowns and curmudgeons, philosophers and philanthropists. At Eat-Rite, you chow down next to folks who didn't attend your high school and don't care about your career. Black, white, 99 percent or 1 percent — sometimes the only trait you share is a craving for the slinger, that hot wreckage of breakfast foods that the owners, the Powers family, claim they developed three decades ago.


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How Magic Smoking Monkey Is Taking on Its Biggest Target Yet: Game of Thrones

Categories: Arts, Longform

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I. Watch the Throne

Game of Thrones, like many figures in the entertainment biz, had to change its name before it really became successful. It began life as A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin's trilogy-cum-septology of high-fantasy novels. Martin is often praised for bringing realism to the genre, a compliment that should probably be taken as tongue-in-cheek, considering his realistic world includes dragons, icicle zombies, giants and a 700-foot-high wall of ice that spans most of a continent. (So, you know, just like Green Bay.)

The books were solid sellers that spread mostly by word of mouth, eventually growing into a cult classic that crept into the gyre of mainstream readers by the time the fourth volume, A Feast of Crows, was published in 2005.

But when David Benioff and D.B. Weiss adapted the books into a serial drama for HBO, Martin's baby hit the big time. The fantasy-reading cognoscenti who lauded ASOIAF, as it's often short-handed in online forums, suddenly discovered that hipsters, housewives, chick-lit lovers and young-adult readers were ready to play in Martin's big back yard. All it took was a weekly TV series with massive production values, a beautiful cast and more blood and tits than your average grandmother could tolerate in one hour and et voilaGame of Thrones became a pop-culture juggernaut.

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St. Louis Police Have Used StingRay Technology for Years -- They Just Won't Talk About It

Categories: Longform, Police

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Illustration by Noah MacMillan

There were some very bad vibes in downtown St. Louis on the night of October 28, 2013. The Cardinals had just lost Game 5 in the World Series, and the Rams had a pathetic showing against the Seahawks at Edward Jones Stadium. The streets were jammed bumper to bumper with disgruntled fans trying to make it home, and so Brandon Pavelich and Julia Fischer — two college friends on a kinda-sorta first date — decided to walk around a bit before attempting to leave the area.

Then they heard fast footsteps, and the next thing they knew, two men had guns pointed at their heads. They demanded money and cell phones.

Pavelich paused.

"Show him we're serious and shoot him," he remembers one of the men saying.

Instead, a gun smashed into Pavelich's face, opening a gash in his forehead and chin, and chipping a tooth. One of the men reached into Pavelich's pockets as he was reeling, and grabbed his iPhone and cash. They took Fischer's iPhone as well, and ran.

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Police Insisted Cornell McKay Was to Blame for a Robbery -- It Cost Him Nearly Three Years

Categories: Crime, Longform

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Illustration by Kelly Glueck

Cornell McKay has just been found guilty by a jury of his peers, so even though he has not yet been sentenced, the guards at the St. Louis City Justice Center are taking every precaution. The wiry 22-year-old is wearing an orange jumpsuit; his hands are cuffed behind his back.

"It's a lot of humiliation, to live in this place," McKay says. He squirms in his chair, trying to find a more comfortable position in the too-tight handcuffs. "You gotta get strip searched, you gotta be around these rapists and these murderers."

McKay's trial, a hotly contested four-day affair, centered on an armed mugging in the Central West End, a relatively simple robbery that initially didn't even make the local news. It quickly became much more than that, though, embroiling a high-profile murder case, another possible culprit and a series of questionable decisions by a St. Louis judge and prosecutors.

McKay's lawyers, who would fight for years to free him from prison, say police identified the wrong man -- and then refused to look at a mountain of evidence that would clear their client.

They dug their heels in, McKay's lawyers say, to cover up their own ineptitude. If police had pursued the case aggressively from the beginning, they argue, they could have arrested the right man, the real robber. And if they'd done that, they could have saved the life of a young woman murdered in the Central West End.

Cornell McKay, they believe, was simply collateral damage.

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A Youth Minister's Downfall Is Tearing First Christian Church of Florissant Apart

Categories: Longform

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Illustration by Jeremy Wilson

As he waits to face his victims, the former youth minister can do nothing but stare at his manacled hands. His piercing blue eyes barely move as St. Louis County Circuit Judge Robert Cohen adjudicates some half-dozen criminal cases — heroin possession, burglary, probation violations. An hour passes before Brandon Milburn's name is called.

Milburn's case is left for last. From the back of the courtroom, nineteen pairs of eyes turn to prosecutor Michael Hayes as he begins his argument for the stiffest possible sentence.

The date is March 30, 2015: two months since Milburn pleaded guilty to molesting two eleven-year-old boys; fourteen months since Milburn's arrest; ten years since Milburn first set foot in St. Louis.

"Your Honor," Hayes begins, "Mr. Milburn has plead guilty to the seven counts of statutory sodomy, first degree. These seven counts represent a pattern of abuse that took place over a period of years, from the summer of 2007 till the spring of 2009. The defendant had ingratiated himself with the victims' families and with the church that they all participated in."

And Milburn's pattern of abuse began even before that.

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Thanks to the People's Joy Parade, Cherokee Street's Cinco de Mayo Will Never Be Normal

Categories: Longform

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Micah Usher
Marchers on Cherokee Street.

People's Joy Parade
[ pē-pəlz-ˈjoi-pə-rād ]
noun

1) An improvised locomotive streetshow of art, music, dance, vehicles and costumes, hundreds of creatures deep;

2) That procession which has intersected the Cinco de Mayo festival on Cherokee Street each year since 2009, powered by love-feels and not by corporate sponsorship;

3) Any annual St. Louis parade organized by mostly white artists in a mostly black neighborhood during a Mexican festival on a street named after Native Americans

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