By JORDAN MICHAEL SMITH
On a summer day in 1980, 19-year-old Andre Davis stepped off a train 125 miles south of his native Chicago. He expected his visit would last the summer. Little did he know he wouldn't return home for more than 30 years.
Andre had just graduated from high school and traveled to the central Illinois town of Rantoul, population 20,000, to learn his father's business. Richard Davis — known as "Crazy Legs" for his brilliant moves on the dance floor — was a disc jockey serving nearby Chanute Air Force Base.
Andre had grown up on Chicago's south side, where he lived with his mother, Emma, who owned a beauty salon. Emma and Richard had divorced when Andre was two, and though Andre didn't see much of his father, he had an extended family to rely on. Andre's grandfather had moved to Chicago from the south in the 1920s, part of the initial Great Migration of African-Americans. He started a corner store and was later successful in real estate. In decades of difficulty for so many blacks, members of the Davis family attended college and went on to lucrative careers. They were, as several of them proudly put it, pillars of the community — lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs, teachers, and scholars.
Andre's mother recalls that her son was a good student but also a "typical teenager." "He always did very well in school, but was bored by it," she says. She believes that boredom, perhaps accentuated by the sporadic presence of his father, led to Andre acting out. In his early teens, Andre started breaking curfew and running away from home for short periods. A few years later, he faced an auto-theft charge for what he calls "a joy ride" that left him in the hospital. "He was hanging out with the bad boys on the block," Emma Davis says, "and they were a bad influence on him."
Some time spent in Rantoul, his family thought, would be good for him.
Rantoul was a far cry from Chicago. Historically, the town has averaged less than a murder per year. Blacks accounted for just 10 percent of the population. Former police chief Eldon Quick says that gangs have always been nonexistent and race relations in the town "were not a big deal." Still, the small African-American population felt it was necessary to stick together. Andre's father had a big network — most of the parties he DJed were thrown on the base, where Crazy Legs was the man to know. And so Andre instantly had a network, too.
When Andre arrived at the train station, he was greeted by Crazy Legs and his friend Donald "Don Juan" Douroux. Andre quickly took to Don, who had enlisted in the Air Force several years prior, was discharged in 1979, and decided to stick around Rantoul with a girlfriend while attending nearby Parkland College. It was also through his father that Andre met Lutellis "Sonny" Tucker. Sonny had five kids, was divorced, and lived two blocks from Crazy Legs. Sonny's kids came and stayed with him occasionally, but mostly they lived with their mother in Gary, Indiana, Sonny's hometown. Sonny's brother, Maurice, who was around Andre's age, had recently moved into Sonny's house.
Sonny, a cook at Chanute, had been convicted in April of 1978 of felony theft and placed on two years' conditional discharge. On one occasion, Don would later claim, he overheard one of the Tucker brothers thanking a police officer from Gary for beating him up instead of taking him to jail after he was caught stealing a car.
The crew would often drink together and get into wrestling matches. Andre was only 5'7" and 130 pounds, but he was muscular enough to hold his own with Maurice Tucker, who was six inches taller and 50 pounds heavier. Neither of the two had found work, so they'd get together and lift weights, drink beer, smoke weed, and hang around the NCO club on base. When Sonny's kids weren't staying with them on the weekends, the Tucker brothers often threw parties at their house on Eastview Avenue "for all the brothers," as Don put it.
Friday, August 8, 1980, was steaming. Andre headed over to the Tuckers' at around 10 AM to waste the day away with Maurice while Sonny was in and out of the house. They took out weights from the utility room, where Maurice slept, and lifted barbells in the backyard under the blazing sun. They played records. Most ambitiously, they climbed the generous fruit trees that leaned from a neighbor's house into the yard and picked apples and pears. But mostly they sat on the stoop drinking beer and cheap Wild Irish Rose wine and listening to breaks.
Andre would later recall that when he left the house, sometime after 6 PM, he saw a little girl playing outside. He remembered telling her to stay out of the garbage can she was getting into.
The girl, Brianna Stickel, was adorably blonde and had recently turned three. Earlier that day her stepfather, Rand Spragg, who was stationed at Chanute, had worked until noon before taking Brianna's mother, Becky Spragg, to apply for a job at the local Holiday Inn Jr. The couple then picked up Brianna and her 18-month-old brother, Simon, from their nursery and returned home. The kids hadn't napped yet, so the family lay down to rest together, as they often did.
The children woke first, around 6 PM. When Rand got up, he noticed that Brianna and Simon had gotten into the fridge; Brianna had spilled some juice. Becky took Simon for a bath, and Brianna was told to go play outside. The heat was so intense that the little girl was clad only in yellow underwear. Rand went to the window and saw her sitting beneath the large shade tree, biting her nails.
After wiping up the spilled juice, Rand squeezed the liquid out of the mop and turned again to the window. Brianna was gone. He went outside and circled the house. No Brianna. He went inside and asked Becky if the little girl was with her. She wasn't.
At around 6:30 PM, Rand began knocking on doors. He went to the Tuckers' house and heard a stereo playing on low volume. He knocked but got no answer, figuring that somebody had left the stereo on. He then got in his car to continue the hunt. The Spraggs didn't own a phone, so Becky flagged down a passing police car and told the officer that Brianna was missing. Officer Ronald McLemore began checking around the neighborhood.
Shortly before 8 PM, as the officer was conducting his search, "a black man come up there in a car — I don't remember the car — and he knocked on the [Tuckers'] door," Becky later recalled. It was Don Douroux. He was carrying a glass of Kool-Aid and wearing a T-shirt with the words master blaster emblazoned on the front and don juan on the back. A short while later, Rand and Becky saw Don walk out the back door of the house and lock it up. Becky walked up and asked if they could look for Brianna inside. Perhaps she had wandered over? At first Don demurred—it wasn't his house, he said. But he relented and they searched the house while he supervised. No sign of Brianna. Rand did notice a wet red stain on the twin bed in the messy utility room where Maurice slept. He passed his finger across the stain, but chalked it up to "a single man living there and having girlfriends, you know," he later said. The room had clothes strewn everywhere. Don saw the Spraggs to the front door, and went to lock up the back.
As Rand and Becky stood in front of the Tucker house debating what to do next, Don emerged. He was shaking and crying, borderline hysterical, and dropped the glass of Kool-Aid he was drinking on the front porch. Becky thought he was having an epileptic seizure. He was silent for a bit and then said there was something on the bed in the back room under a pile of clothes. "I can't look," he said. Rand went in with Simon and pulled back the sheets on the bed in Maurice's room. There was Brianna, lying on her stomach, her head turned to one side. Rand rolled her over. She wasn't breathing, and she had no pulse. Her lips were purple. He began CPR, and saw some vomit. He didn't want Simon to continue to see the disturbing scene and took the baby out of the room. As Simon whimpered, Rand went back to resume CPR on Brianna. He got no response.
At 8:15 PM, Officer McLemore received an ambulance call directing him to the Tuckers' house. He raced over and found a crowd standing around the home. Becky was outside crying. Rand escorted McLemore to the utility room, where Brianna lay limp and naked, with bloodstains on her genitals. The blankets were all in a ball at the end of the bed, wet with blood. The officer performed CPR on Brianna for two minutes. It was futile. Don told the officer that "the person that done this is at 1056 Eastview" — Don's own house, the next block over.
- (09/04/2013) Part 2: Exonerated, 32 Years Later