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A Cop Targeted Women for 'Neanderthalling.' Wesley Bell Tried to Protect Him

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Wesley Bell was elected on a progressive platform to St. Louis County prosecuting attorney. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • Wesley Bell was elected on a progressive platform to St. Louis County prosecuting attorney.

On November 29, 2017, Jordan and Holland received Wesley Bell's offer of a deferred prosecution agreement. Taking the deal would require them to sign away their rights to file any legal complaints while allowing Riverview to refile the charges at any time. On the last page, Bell had left a yellow Post-it note with his number. He had signed it "Wesley" and underlined it with a squiggle.

The arrests had sent the couple's lives "into a spiral," Jordan says; for the first time in her life, she had failed a background check, losing out on a job because her name was linked to a pending charge for "assaulting a law enforcement officer." Out of work, they left the cramped apartment in Riverview and separately moved in with family members as they tried to make ends meet. They eventually broke up, but they remain close friends.

The two considered their options. They had a chance to move on.

Facing the decision "was devastating," Jordan says. When she imagined letting Groves and Lakebrink off the hook, she couldn't help but think of Michael Brown in Ferguson, whose shooting death in 2014 started in very much the same way as her ordeal had begun in 2016. An officer yelling through a car window and demanding compliance. A senseless confrontation. Escalation. She knew how these incidents could play out, how easily they seemed to end in death.

"Signing it, it would be like letting other people down that didn't get to survive," she says.

Holland felt the same way. "That wouldn't be justice. That's like slapping us in the face, like it's whatever, 'Just two Black girls.' We could have ended up dead that night. Anything could have happened to us."

They left Bell's forms blank, choosing instead to fight the charges. It was a challenge that their attorney, Thomas SanFilippo, was already prepared to tackle, as he had obtained key surveillance footage of the arrests and had Groves' bold testimony about "Neanderthalling" as additional evidence that the initial stop lacked the legally required "probable cause."

But the surveillance camera facing the apartment complex had captured more than just a scene of three cops throwing Jordan and Holland around on the street. More than an hour later, video footage viewed by the Riverfront Times shows Groves returning to the apartment complex — with Holland, supposedly "released" from custody, following him inside.

That's a substantial step more than is suggested in the incident report, which describes only that "Sgt. Groves transported Holland back to her residence."

Confronted with the surveillance footage during the 2017 deposition, Groves admitted that he had entered the apartment building to search for Jordan's phone — because, in his telling, it would support the charges against the two women.

"Oh absolutely, we would love to have that phone," he testified, "because that phone showed the type of demeanor that they had."

Groves offered his own version of what happened upon his return to the apartment: While acknowledging that he did not have a warrant and that he had not asked Holland to sign a consent form to search, he claimed that he never actually entered their apartment itself. Groves claimed that, at the time, he believed the phone Jordan used to make the recordings actually belonged to Holland. (Why he would believe this is not clear.)

In any case, he said that when he learned from Holland that the phone wasn't hers — a moment that apparently took place after they entered the building — he told her he could not conduct the search and left.

The cracks were already showing in Groves' story, but he would have another opportunity to make his case. Called to the witness stand during the December 2019 trial of Jordan and Holland, he faced cross-examination.

It would be the first time Holland and Jordan would hear the word "Neanderthalling," a term defined by Groves as the suspicious activity of "walking around back and forth" near the known drug corner in Riverview.

Attorney Nicholas Brown pressed Groves on his reason for stopping Jordan and Holland that night. "You've never seen a Neanderthal, have you, because they've been extinct for 40,000 years."

"No," Groves replied, he had never seen a Neanderthal and was "not well versed in the background of Neanderthals." Still, under steady questioning from Brown, Groves acknowledged that the term is associated with being "primitive," "brutish" and "ape-like."

Jordan and Holland say his testimony hurt to hear.

"We both broke out into tears," Jordan says. "That was the first time hearing how he really felt. It surprised me that he said those kinds of things about us and our character."

Holland couldn't help but wonder what the jury thought of them. Would they buy Groves' explanations?

"It was the first time, like, in a courtroom, being in trouble, so it's a lot of pressure," she says. "We didn't know how people are viewing us. We were going up against the police, two Black women."

After three days of trial, it took the jury less than two hours to return with a verdict. Jordan and Holland were acquitted on all counts.

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