In the spring of 2011, Marian Jolliff, an arborist for the forestry division of St. Louis' parks department, was at home after work when she got a call from the man who put her son in prison for 28 years.
Shelton Buchanan was calling to say how sorry he was. Just a few years prior, when Jolliff's son, Felix Key, was in high school, Buchanan had been his enemy, once going so far as to beat him unconscious. But that's not what Buchanan was calling about. In April 2009, he had been shot in south St. Louis, and he told everyone who would listen that Key was the gunman. Key was arrested, tried and found guilty of armed criminal action for the shooting, thanks almost entirely to his rival's testimony.
By the time of Buchanan's phone call, Key was already a few months into a 28-year sentence. Now, Buchanan was telling Jolliff he'd lied on the stand. He felt bad about it. He hadn't known her son would get locked up for so long.
"Basically he was explaining it wasn't supposed to go this far," Jolliff says.
According to the mother, Buchanan told her, "I didn't think they would give him so much time. I'm sorry. I don't know what to do. Your son and I always had our differences. We were, you know, at each other, but I don't want to see him spend the rest of his life behind bars."
Jolliff says that, "as a mother," she really didn't know what to think about the call. As far as she was concerned, Buchanan had tried to kill her son twice: first out on the street with his fists, then in the courtroom with his false testimony.
"My son is doing twenty years, and you've called me talking about being sorry," she says. "I just, I don't know ...."
I didn't know what to think either when Key's wife, Latasha Kates, first contacted me about this story. Would a person really send an innocent man to prison because they were "at each other," even if doing so meant letting the person who had actually tried to kill him go free? I had my doubts. Then I saw the video.
Taken by a private investigator and made public for the first time by the Riverfront Times, the video shows Shelton Buchanan seated calmly at a table in a private residence.
The private investigator doesn't waste any time.
"On April 15, 2009: Do you know who shot you?"
Later, the investigator asks, "Were you coerced or forced to come to the trial to testify against [Key]?"
"Yes, I was trying to stop, I didn't want to have nothing to do with it anymore, but they told me they were going to subpoena me and make me go."
About halfway through the four-minute-long deposition, the investigator gets to the heart of the matter. "Did Felix Key shoot you?"
The Dead End of Oregon
By the time Felix Key was seventeen, he'd already been shot multiple times, a fact that he says was partially his fault given that as a kid he had a love for fighting.
"I wanted to be a boxer," he wrote to me in a letter. "But it got me in a lot of trouble."
He went to Roosevelt High School in Tower Grove East, though he says that it was less of a school than "a meeting place" where kids who hadn't gone to class in years would sneak drugs and weapons in through side doors to evade the police officer patrolling the halls.
He lived with his mom at his grandmother's house in Gravois Park, near "the dead end of Oregon," a block where Oregon Avenue abruptly stops at a chain link fence and graffitied wall. A single set of stairs lets pedestrians through, but cars need to find a different route. The lack of traffic made it a good spot to hang out. Key was a big kid. His friends called him "fats." But he was also quicker than most of them, and his combination of size and speed made him a formidable athlete. Throughout the early '00s, the dead end of Oregon kids feuded with the "Cave" kids from Compton Avenue up the road. One of those Cave kids was Shelton Buchanan.
In the deposition, the investigator asked Buchanan about his relationship with Key.
"We knew each other through rival gangs."
Key wrote to me about Buchanan: "My friend probably had an incident with one of his friends and vice-versa. To prove to your friend that you're a loyal person you're going to be right in that situation with your friend. The word loyal can get to a point where you're at fault trying to be so loyal."
On July 2, 2007, Key, who had turned seventeen that spring, was walking in his neighborhood when, he says, Buchanan and six other Cave kids rolled up on him, chased him up a flight of stairs and beat his head with a brick. Someone stabbed him with a bottle. He was found unconscious alongside Miami Street and taken to the hospital where he lay in a coma for four days.
When Key got out of the hospital, his mother says she made him go down to the police station and file charges.
The police picked up Buchanan, charging him with assault. The charges were dropped before trial, but he spent six months in jail because he couldn't make bond. He blamed Key for the time spent locked up, claiming the teen had ratted him out to the cops.
Key recovered from the attack, but he was leery of returning to school. The next time he went to Roosevelt, afraid of getting jumped again, he brought a gun with him. A police officer at the high school caught him with the firearm. While out on bond for that gun charge, he got in trouble again for shooting a gun wildly into the air.
Key, who was still seventeen, was convicted of unlawful use of a weapon and served an eighteen-month sentence, the first portion at St. Louis' Juvenile Detention Center before transferring to the city's Justice Center.
In all of Key's letters to me he goes out of his way to say that he's not perfect. One of the first things he wrote to me was to not believe what his wife and mother say about him, because they see him through rose-colored glasses. His mother talks about her son's humor, his unrelenting positive attitude, the years he spent as a kid accruing badge after badge in the Boy Scouts. All that is true, but Key also talks about the mistakes he made as a young person.
"I'm not against me having to open my eyes while being locked up," he says about the eighteen- month sentence. "I really needed it."