The fatal shooting of a Black man in a trailer park is rocking a rural community in Missouri as neighbors who say they witnessed the killing dispute the police narrative of events.
Justin King, a 28-year-old Black and Filipino man, was shot Nov. 3 at 11:45 a.m. in the small town of Bourbon, located about 73 miles southwest of St. Louis.
Police say he was shot by the owner of a home he was trying to break into, but witnesses and family members say he was shot in “cold blood” by a man he called his friend.
King succumbed to his wounds at the scene. The 42-year-old white neighbor who shot him was taken into custody and later released.
The Crawford County Sheriff’s Department said King was shot “after forcing entry into a neighboring residence where an altercation took place.” The homeowner “feared for his life” and shot King, the department said in a news release.
The department said evidence, video surveillance and statements “preliminarily corroborate the homeowner’s account of the events.”
But family members of King and five people who live in the trailer park told NBC News they doubt that narrative.
Three neighbors told NBC News the shooter was a man who had expressed a desire to kill someone, has a history of violence and was known to use racial epithets. Several neighbors said King and the shooter were friends.
Nimrod Chapel Jr., the president of the Missouri NAACP, who is representing the King family, said Justin King was shot outside the neighbor’s home and had not entered it, contrary to the sheriff’s account.
“The only person that says it’s a home invasion is the guy that shot my son,” King’s father, John King, told NBC News. “And all the neighbors are saying, ‘No, you shot him in cold blood outside.'”
“He had no shirt on, only pajama bottoms. So how was he a threat?” John King said. “Justin was shot in cold blood outside in broad daylight.”
Under Missouri’s “castle doctrine” law, individuals are allowed to use deadly force against intruders without the duty to retreat, based on the notion that their home is “their castle.”
The shooter, whose name has not been made public and who is not facing charges, did not reply to NBC News’ request for comment.
What happened on Nov. 3
Neighbors described King as a happy-go-lucky man who always offered a helping hand. He had moved to Bourbon from St. Louis recently to be close to his 9-year-old daughter, Harlee.
Lesa Stiller, the manager of the trailer park, said she saw King outside heading toward the neighbor’s trailer moments before the shooting. All of a sudden, she heard a “pop, pop, pop.”
“And right at that last pop, I saw Justin slowly stagger backwards real slow with his hands up in the air,” near the outdoor front steps of the shooter’s trailer, Stiller recalled. She noted that she didn’t see King enter the trailer itself and that King and the shooter lived across from each other.
“I heard him say, ‘I thought we were friends.’ And [the neighbor] said, ‘We were!’ and he just slowly walked back,” she said.
Another neighbor, Katie Bosek, described King as “a gentle man who helped everybody.” She said he helped her search for her dogs that went missing the same day as the shooting. Later that day, King and the neighbor who shot him worked together to fix her car, she said.
“They both got under the hood together. They’re just cutting it up laughing as they’re doing it,” she said.
She claimed she saw King and the neighbor walk off together. She said she heard three gunshots about 15 minutes later and rushed to the window to see King lying on the ground.
Trina Willson, who lives several trailers behind the shooter, said: “He knew Justin. You would think that if your friend was coming into your house, you’d be like, ‘Hey, man, what are you doing?’ Why do you automatically resort to pulling out a gun and shooting him? How can this even possibly go down as self-defense?”
Chapel noted that the neighbor and King had cameras at their homes. Police have not released any video footage from the incident to the public or the family but said they have “viewed all videos at our disposal.” The Crawford County Sheriff’s Department said it intends to share the footage “upon the final case review by the county prosecutor.”
King’s death has torn apart the close-knit community in the small town of Bourbon, home to 1,600 residents.
“It’s been crazy here since that. We’ve never had nothing like that in this little small town since I’ve been here in 20 years,” Earl McCoy, another neighbor, said. “We take care of each other in here. It’s been eerily quiet here. It was like a ghost town.”
A history of threatening violence and racist language
Three people who live in the park said the neighbor who shot King had threatened violence before.
Stiller said the neighbor was known to show off his gun — including once at a party she threw on Oct. 30.
“He never went anywhere without that .32 in his belt,” she said.
Bosek recalled that King told her months before the shooting that the neighbor had threatened to shoot him.
“Justin came over about two months prior to all this happening. He was like, ‘You know he threatened to shoot me? Yeah, that dude threatened to shoot me,'” she said. “Justin was such a good guy. He would always forgive people and keep going back.”
McCoy said the shooter “had guns all over his house.”
“The last time I talked to [the neighbor] was at a party on Halloween when he showed everybody his little pistol,” McCoy said. “He said, ‘I don’t fight no more; I shoot motherf——.'”
King’s father believes the shooting was an act of “racially motivated hate” and said his son was the only Black person in that trailer community.
Two neighbors also said the shooter was known to use racial slurs.
“He was always open with the N-word. He never said ‘Black man,'” Stiller said.
“He would blurt [racial epithets] out. He wouldn’t call it to Justin if he was standing around me and Justin because he knows I’d knock his a– off,” McCoy said.
The neighbor who shot King has a criminal record involving violence. He was arrested in June 2017 and charged with second-degree assault and unlawful use of a weapon while intoxicated, both felonies, according to court records.
Court records do not show if those charges were dismissed. The Crawford County court clerk declined to comment, and the Crawford County prosecutor’s office did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment on those charges.
Federal law generally prohibits people from possessing firearms if they have been convicted of a felony, according to Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Further, Missouri also prohibits possession of a firearm by any person convicted of a felony under Missouri law.
Outrage over the handling of the case
John King said he was outraged to see sheriff’s deputies escorting the shooter back to his trailer the day after his son’s death.
The family, along with local activists, are calling out the sheriff’s department and demanding a thorough investigation.
“I feel, like, betrayed by all the police,” King’s mother, Eva Bruns, said. “They’re not being fair. I don’t know if it’s because of color or because of the way the killer is.”
“In the investigation, nothing has been done,” she said. “Twenty-four hours later and he’s out of jail. I don’t know what kind of justice that is.”
Crawford County Sheriff Darin Layman said in a statement that all the information shared thus far in the case is “accurate in relation to our investigation and findings.”
“Our office has not uncovered any evidence to support the idea that this was a racially motivated incident,” he said. “We have contacted the FBI regarding this investigation and requested their assistance in processing a portion of the evidence collected.”
The FBI in Missouri declined to comment on the case.
Now the family is focusing on getting answers on what happened in the build-up to King’s death.
“The family wants to make sure that whoever is responsible for the death of their son is held accountable,” Chapel, the King family’s lawyer, said. “But right now we just settle for the disclosure of the truth.”
So far, no lawsuit has been filed in the case, but Chapel said, “I wouldn’t rule anything out at this point.”
A statewide issue of failing to investigate the deaths of Black men
Chapel said the lack of action in King’s case is part of a statewide problem when it comes to investigating the deaths of African Americans, pointing to the cases of Tory Sanders and Derontae Martin.
Sanders, 28, a Black inmate at a rural jail, died in May 2017 under similar circumstances to George Floyd, after a white law enforcement officer pressed his knee on his neck, according to a wrongful death suit filed by his family. Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt declined to file charges in his death.
Martin, 19, was found dead from a gunshot wound to the head on April 25 at the home of a white man who had posted racist memes on social media. Authorities concluded that he died by suicide, but in July, a jury of six people ruled during a coroner’s inquest hearing that Martin was killed by violence.
“That’s Jim Crow justice,” Chapel said. “This is a statewide issue. In Justin’s case, they allege that there’s an investigation, but then they produce the results of the investigation before the investigation is complete. What kind of police work is that?”
Missouri’s NAACP chapter issued a travel advisory in 2017 that remains in effect today warning people to travel with caution in the state because “race, gender and color-based crimes have a long history in Missouri.”
“What Missouri needs is to have some federal oversight to ensure that law enforcement is trying to treat people in the way that the Constitution demands, whether you’re the alleged perpetrator of a crime or victim of a crime — that you have the same rights regardless of skin color,” Chapel said.
On Nov. 16, the Crawford County Sheriff’s Department said the investigation into King’s death is still open and evidence is being processed and sent off for lab analysis. The department also said an informal case review was conducted with the Crawford County prosecutor’s office, and there will be follow-ups with witnesses and evidence collection.