By Margaret Stafford and Jim Salter
An 84-year-old white man in Kansas City, Missouri, was charged Monday with first-degree assault for shooting a Black teen who mistakenly went to the man's home to pick up his younger brothers.
Prosecuting Attorney Zachary Thompson said at a news conference that there was a “racial component” Thursday night when Andrew Lester twice shot 16-year-old Ralph Yarl, who is recovering at home after being released from the hospital. But nothing in the charging documents says the shooting was racially motivated, Thompson clarified.
“We understand how frustrating this has been but I can assure you the criminal justice system is working and will continue to work,” Thompson said.
The shooting outraged many in Kansas City and across the country. Civic and political leaders — including President Joe Biden — demanded justice. Some, including lawyers for Yarl, pressed the racial dimension of the case.
Yarl, an honor student and all-state band member, was supposed to pick up his two younger brothers when he approached the wrong house at roughly 10 p.m. Lester came to the door and shot Yarl in the forehead — then shot him again, in the right forearm.
No words were exchanged before the shooting, the probable cause statement said. But afterward, as Yarl got up to run, he heard Lester yell, “Don’t come around here,” the statement said.
Yarl ran to “multiple” homes asking for help before finding someone who would call the police, the statement said.
Rev. Vernon Howard, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City, called the shooting a “heinous and hate-filled crime.” Vice President Kamala Harris wrote on Twitter that "No child should ever live in fear of being shot for ringing the wrong doorbell.” The Missouri Senate held a moment of silence for Yarl on Monday.
The civil rights attorneys for Yarl’s family, Ben Crump and Lee Merritt, said in a statement that Biden called Yarl’s family and offered “prayers for Ralph’s health and for justice.”
“Gun violence against unarmed Black individuals must stop,” the lawyers’ statement read. “Our children should feel safe, not as though they are being hunted.”
Yarl’s supporters plan to hold a rally Tuesday evening in Kansas City.
The assault charge carries a penalty of up to life in prison. Lester also was charged with armed criminal action, which has a penalty range of three to 15 years in prison. Lester was not charged with a hate crime. Thompson said Missouri’s statute is considered a lesser felony than first-degree assault, and carries a less severe penalty.
Missouri is among roughly 30 states with “Stand Your Ground” laws, which allow for the use of deadly force in self-defense, but the prosecutor determined the shooting was not in self defense.
An arrest warrant was issued but Lester was not yet in custody, Thompson said.
Lester told police that he lives alone and had just gone to bed when he heard his doorbell, according to the probable cause statement. He said he picked up his gun and went to the door, where he saw a Black male pulling on the exterior storm door handle and thought someone was breaking in.
A number for Lester was not in service on Monday evening and it was not immediately clear whether he had an attorney to speak on his behalf.
The shooting happened in a middle class neighborhood in north Kansas City. Yarl didn't have a phone with him and went to the wrong block, his aunt, Faith Spoonmore, wrote on a GoFundMe page set up to help pay medical bills. By Monday afternoon, $1.4 million had been raised.
Police Chief Stacey Graves said that Yarl's parents asked him to pick up his brothers at a home on 115th Terrace, but he mistakenly went to 115th Street, the Kansas City Star reported.
Yarl is a bass clarinetist who earned Missouri All-State Band honorable mention and who plays several instruments in the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra of Kansas City, Spoonmore wrote. A statement from the North Kansas City School District described Yarl as “an excellent student and talented musician.”
Spoonmore said Yarl is “doing well physically” but has a lot of trauma to overcome emotionally.
By Monday afternoon, the home where the shooting happened had been vandalized. Black spray-paint on the side of the house showed a heart with “16” in the middle. Eggs splattered the front windows and the door.
A message seeking comment from Republican Gov. Mike Parson, a staunch gun rights supporter, wasn’t immediately returned.
Crump, who has represented families in several high-profile cases of Black people being shot, including those of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, questioned why the shooter wasn't arrested and charged immediately.
“We all believe that if the roles were reversed and this was a Black citizen who shot a 16-year-old for merely ringing his doorbell, they would have arrested him, and he wouldn’t have slept in his bed that night,” Crump said.
Two days after Yarl was shot, a 20-year-old woman was killed by a homeowner in Upstate New York Saturday after the car she was in drove to the wrong address. Washington County Sheriff Jeffrey Murphy said Kaylin Gillis was in a car with three others looking for a friend’s house.
As the car was turning around, Kevin Monahan came out and fired two shots, one of which struck Gillis. Monahan was charged with second-degree murder.
Salter reported from O'Fallon, Missouri. Nick Ingram in Kansas City and Summer Ballentine in Columbia, Missouri, contributed to this report.