ST. LOUIS • A 17-year-old St. Louis man has been charged with first-degree murder and armed criminal action in the bludgeoning death of a Bosnian immigrant.
Robert Joseph Mitchell, 17,... was charged with first-degree murder and armed criminal action.
Police say Mitchell along with two other teens attacked 32-year-old Zemir Begic with hammers early Sunday. He was pronounced dead at a hospital.
Mitchell and one of the juveniles are black and the other teen is Hispanic, according to police. It was unclear whether two other suspects in custody, juveniles 15 and 16, will be charged as adults.
Police said they know the identity of a fourth participant, who is sought.
According to court documents, members of the group yelled at Begic, his fiancée and two others as they walked to Begic’s car. As the vehicle drove away, one teen jumped on the back and began beating on it. Begic stopped and got out, and one of the men taunted him to fight before all four attacked — and continued to beat him after he fell to the ground.
“We think it was wrong place, wrong time,” police spokeswoman Schron Jackson said.
Detectives do not believe the attackers took anything but Begic’s life. He died at St. Louis University Hospital, suffering injuries to his head, abdomen, face and mouth.
Jackson said there was nothing in the suspects’ criminal backgrounds to suggest they would do something of this magnitude.
“There is no evidence that this was a crime occasioned by the race or ethnicity of the victim,” Mayor Francis Slay declared in a formal statement. He added, “Speculation that this attack had anything to do with the Ferguson protests is absolutely unfounded.”
Slay wrote: “I don’t know what happened to them or to their families to lead these young people to commit such a horrific crime. It’s disturbing. We do not know their past. Their futures, though, will be as grim as the judicial system can make it.”
About 300 people gathered Monday afternoon for a two-hour vigil near the scene in the Bevo Mill neighborhood — about three times as many as had gathered Sunday night. Many were worried that racial tension had fueled the killing.
Some demanded more police attention, which Chief Sam Dotson promised Sunday.
Alderman Carol Howard said the community has experienced an uptick in crime since the summer. “I don’t know why,” she said. “This has been a safe, stable neighborhood; we want to keep it that way.”
Lewis Reed, president of the Board of Aldermen, wrote a letter Monday to the Board of Estimate and Apportionment, asking the budget director to research ways to pay for more police.
Reed wrote: “From what we have seen during the past week, there is no indication that the protests and demonstrations are going to be slowing down any time in the near future. We should not ask the members of our police department to continue to work 12-hour shifts indefinitely. This could lead to morale problems as well as diminishing returns with respect to effective law enforcement.”
Some who gathered at the scene Monday talked of surviving war in their home country and coming to America for a better life, only to be met with a crime like this.
“We need to stop crazy people in the street,” said Dan Movc, a Bosnian who came to St. Louis a decade ago.
The crowd chanted, “Bosnian lives matter!” taking a cue from Ferguson protesters who often rally with the call, “Black lives matter!”
St. Louis Bosnians outraged about a deadly hammer attack in the city’s Bevo Mill neighborhood spilled into the streets Sunday night to voice frustrations over violence touching their community.
“We’re just angry because we’re trying to protect our community,” said Mirza Nukic, 29, of St. Louis. “We’re just trying to be peaceful.”
Nukic was among at least 50 people, mostly, if not all Bosnians, who briefly blocked Gravois Avenue at Itaska Street on Sunday night to protest the killing. The intersection was near where Zemir Begic, a Bosnian man who moved to St. Louis this year, was attacked by at least three teens with hammers early Sunday.
Police said Begic was in his vehicle about 1:15 a.m. in the 4200 block of Itaska when several juveniles approached and began damaging his car. Police said Begic got out to confront the juveniles, who began yelling at him and hitting him with hammers.
Begic, 32, who lived in the 4200 block of Miami Street, suffered injuries to his head, abdomen, face and mouth. He died at St. Louis University Hospital.
Some of the demonstrators recalled other recent Bosnian victims of violence, including Haris Gogic, 19, who was fatally shot in May 2013 by a robber in his family’s Bevo Mill convenience store.
St. Louis police Chief Sam Dotson spoke with residents at the street protest Sunday night. He said he was sorry about what happened and sought to reassure people the killing did not appear motivated by race or ethnicity.
“There is no indication that the gentleman last night was targeted because he was Bosnian,” Dotson said. “There’s no indication that they knew each other.”
Dotson said Sunday evening that police have two male juveniles, ages 15 and 16, in custody. A third male, 17, was taken into custody late Sunday night.
Dotson also promised to increase day and night foot patrols in the area.
“The whole idea of standing out in the street is to get our attention,” Dotson told residents. “You got my attention. You absolutely did.”
Suad Nuranjkovic, 49, who attended Sunday night’s protest, said he and Begic were heading home from a bar on Gravois Avenue. Begic was driving and Nuranjkovic was in the passenger seat when a group of at least five teens started banging on the car. Nuranjkovic said he got out of the car and hid in a parking lot across the street during the attack.
“I was afraid that if one of them had a gun, they were going to shoot me, so I didn’t know what to do,” he said.
Nuranjkovic said the attack has made him fearful to live in his own neighborhood.
“The picture is in my head, what I saw,” he said. “I don’t know why this is happening to Bosnians. We could go around and shoot people, too, but we just want peace.”
Seldin Dzananovic, 24, said the teens with the hammers approached him farther north on Gravois about an hour before the attack on Begic. He said he was able to fight them off, suffering only cuts to his hands and neck.
“I’m just lucky,” he said. “God is on my side.”
Begic and his family came to the United States from Bosnia in 1996, moving first to Utica, N.Y., before settling in Waterloo, Iowa, said his sister, Denisa Begic.
She said he moved to Phoenix, where he worked as a moving truck driver before returning briefly to Iowa. He moved to St. Louis several months ago and was engaged to a woman, Arijana, whose family lives in St. Louis.
Singing was one of his passions, and he often performed in public.
“He loved America,” said Denisa Begic, 23, of Sioux Falls, S.D.
“We come from Bosnia because we were getting killed and our homes and families were getting destroyed. Never in my life did I think he would get murdered.”
She said she knows some Bosnians are upset over her brother’s death because they believe the suspects, who are black and Hispanic, targeted Begic because he was Bosnian. She said she wants people to know her brother would not have judged them because of their race; he had friends of many racial and ethnic backgrounds.
“He loved everybody,” she said. “I don’t know what to think of it. It’s so wrong what they did. They didn’t just hurt Zemir’s family. They also hurt their own family because I’m pretty sure their moms will never see them again.”
Denisa Begic said her brother’s funeral would be in Iowa, and that a fundraising site has been set up to help with funeral expenses.
“I hope justice is served for my brother because he didn’t deserve this at all,” she said.