“You might want to point your cameras in this direction,” Albert Watkins told a handful of people shooting a press conference he had announced, and then Watkins walked in the direction he told them to point their cameras.
It was nearing the appointed hour on July 11 when Watkins had announced that St. Louis police would take into evidence a pistol that belongs to Mark McCloskey and Patricia McCloskey. On the fateful night of June 28, Patricia McCloskey had held her finger on the trigger of this pistol as she pointed it at peaceful protestors passing in front of their home on a private street in St. Louis’ Central West End.
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner was investigating the McCloskeys for the incident. It’s against the law to point a weapon in a threatening manner at someone who is passing in front of your home (the fact that the protestors were trespassing on a private street will be crucial to the defense). The St. Louis police were taking into evidence the guns that the McCloskeys had pointed at protestors. That’s why they were coming for this pistol, which the McCloskeys had given to their (now former) attorney, Watkins.
It surprised me to see two St. Louis police detectives walking up at the appointed hour directly towards a small gaggle of reporters with cameras congregated around Watkins. For one, it’s unusual to have the execution of a search warrant announced to the media and filmed. Once Watkins — a notorious media hound — called a press conference around his appointment with the police, I expected them to reschedule with Watkins or tell him to bring the gun down to the station. But here they came, right on time, walking toward the cameras now being pointed at them.
There was another major concern that I thought might have kept them away from the cameras. I had been told just that morning — by a very reliable source in a good position to know — that the prosecutor Gardner and the police officers serving search warrants on the McCloskeys had received death threats. The search warrants had been reported the night before by a problematic local journalist with excellent police sources; she has earned a reputation for reporting stories the police want from perspectives favorable to the police. My assumption is that she was told about the search warrant by a cop who thought it was ridiculous and unfair — the McCloskeys were emerging as icons of embattled white citizens standing their ground against the anti-police mob — but it had backfired in death threats against their own police brothers.
I had my news story reported by that point and did not need to see or hear Watkins hand the pistol over to the police, but I did get close enough to get the cops’ names so I could ask the police department if their lives, in fact, had been threatened. Only one officer had a name displayed: Burgdorf. I emailed a police spokesperson to ask whether Detective Burgdorf or anyone else in the department had been threatened with death for working on the McCloskey case. It took them a day, but they told me no.
By then, I had quietly reported that court filings on the McCloskeys had been placed under seal because the prosecutor had reportedly received death threats. Kimberly Gardner is the first Black prosecutor in St. Louis and a woman. As such, she has attracted a lot of vitriol and anger, mostly from white men — including, unbelievably enough, the president of the United States, the governor of Missouri, a U.S. senator from Missouri, and the state’s attorney general. I did not blaze the death threat in headlines out of respect for my source and based on my experience that loudly reporting death threats tends to attract more death threats.
A few days later, on July 15, Gardner talked on the record with the Washington Post about the death threats made to her. (The newspaper that I work for, The St. Louis American, was not credited for having previously reported the death threat — maybe I had reported it too quietly; maybe local Black newspapers are not accorded full professional respect by major metropolitan newspapers.) It would surprise me if my source, who was in a good position to know, were correct about Gardner being death-threatened but mistaken about Burgdorf and his partner receiving threats. I figured that either the police spokesman had not told me the truth or Burgdorf had not told her the truth — and that Burgdorf thought he could take care of himself. Certainly his physical presence, sensed in passing, was poised, calm and confident. And most cops in 2020 would say that every day is a death threat (as surely as every cop looks like a walking death threat to many people).
A handful of days after that Washington Post report, Gardner did file charges against the McCloskeys (both for unlawful use of a deadly weapon, in the subcategory of “exhibiting” or flourishing, a Class E felony). The probable cause statement was written by Curtis Burgdorf.
Burgdorf makes no mention of two crucial elements of the McCloskeys’ defense, which Mark McCloskey had been making on national television shows that had caught the attention of the president, the governor, a U.S. senator, and the Missouri attorney general. Burgdorf does not mention that the McCloskeys live on a private street or that they claim the pistol wielded by Patricia McCloskey, which I had seen Burgdorf take into evidence, was inoperable. The prosecution clearly intends to proceed as if the privacy of the McCloskey’s street (Portland Place) and the alleged inoperability of the pistol are not obstacles to proving their guilt. But all of the angry white men all over the nation hurling insults at this Black woman prosecutor are overlooking the fact that a white man — a white male officer — signed a statement asserting probable cause that they are guilty of the crimes for which Gardner charged them.
Burgdorf also contradicts a claim made by the McCloskeys’ (now former) attorney just before Burgdorf showed up to take the pistol into evidence. Watkins claimed that he was given the pistol because of the way Patricia McCloskey had wielded it — pointing it right at protestors with her finger on the trigger — made it possible that she would be charged with a crime. Images of her pointing the pistol at people with her finger on the trigger were widely available, as Burgdorf noted in his statement. In the photos and video I have seen, Mark McCloskey does not have his finger on the trigger and is not pointing it at anyone (except, possibly, his wife, but that is another story). Watkins claimed the assault rifle wielded by Mark McCloskey had remained in their possession because they did not think he would be charged. Burgdorf had taken the rifle into evidence the night before while executing the search warrant that generated the news report that resulted in the death threats to Kimberly Gardner — and, I believe, to Curtis Burgdorf.
But Burgdorf, clearly, has a witness who contradicts Mark McCloskey’s claim. Burgdorf writes quite plainly in his probable cause statement for the charges against Mark McCloskey that the defendant “lowered his semi-automatic rifle and pointed it towards the group of protestors walking through the gate and onto Portland Place,” the privacy of which is not mentioned as being irrelevant — one must assume — to the guilt or innocence of the accused.
“I, Curtis Burgdorf,” his probable cause statement begins, “knowing that false statements on this form are punishable by law, state that the facts contained herein are true.” That means that the president, governor, U.S. senator, and Missouri attorney general rising to the defense of the McCloskeys to attack Kimberly Gardner think this police officer, Curtis Burgdorf, is a sworn liar who should be punished by law.
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