Christopher Thomas Gaston heard three explosions in succession.
Bam! Bam! Bam!
It wasn’t an entirely unfamiliar sound. The son of an Army veteran, Gaston moved around a lot as a kid, living on military bases where the sound of ordnance wasn’t unusual.
It was early June, the same night the 7-Eleven at the corner of 17th and Pine streets burned amid looting and rioting in downtown St. Louis, following protests about the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Gaston, who is white, was worried about his family and his property. He lived in a condo across the street from the 7-Eleven. There was gunfire and fireworks all around. Gaston didn’t know it, but four police officers had been shot at a block away.
He was married in December. His wife’s new car was parked in a lot behind the 7-Eleven. Gaston’s car was on the street in front of the condo.
“He felt like he needed to do something to protect his wife and his neighbors,” says Bret Rich, who is Gaston’s attorney.
The 40-year-old St. Louis man is in jail, facing a federal charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm. The day after the burning of the convenience store across the street, and the killing of 77-year-old retired St. Louis police Capt. David Dorn north of there, FBI agents and police officers swarmed the neighborhood, seeking evidence of who fired at police officers.
Gaston didn’t fire the shotgun he was holding at anybody. But a neighbor or a video spotted him holding it, so FBI agents questioned him and searched his condo. They found guns. He’s not allowed to have any.
Rich thought about his client Sunday night as he saw the images of two fellow lawyers, Mark and Patricia McCloskey, waving weapons at peaceful protesters who were marching by the McCloskeys’ Portland Place mansion in the city’s Central West End. In photos and videos captured by journalists, the two pointed a handgun and a rifle at the protesters, who were headed to Mayor Lyda Krewson’s house nearby.
Rich wasn’t the only one thinking of Gaston. That night, Rich received a text from a relative of Gaston’s, noting that it was unlikely the wealthy white couple living in the home once owned by the Busch family would be visited by FBI agents the next day. (Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner has announced she is investigating the incident.)
The criminal justice world too often has different rules for those with money, and those without.
“It’s very difficult in our society once you end up with any kind of criminal record to put that in your past,” Rich says.
Gaston was 17 when Rich met him, just a kid who got in trouble with drugs. One thing led to another. Gaston’s record is long. Mostly drugs, but also a gun charge. He’s spent his fair share of time in prison.
Lately, Rich thought Gaston was turning things around. Gaston had what he described as his best job in years, working as a forklift operator for a big company that was providing health insurance and a 401K. He had just been married. His daughter is nearing college graduation.
Then, in a moment where the instinct to protect his family took over, everything he was building collapsed.
“His motives were to protect his loved ones, and the little bit of property he has in this world,” Rich says. “They really were scared.”
So were the McCloskeys, apparently, as protesters marched by their home, on a street built to keep people like them out, where some of the city’s wealthiest residents rebuild their historic homes with tax credits from the state that take money away from local schools, because in St. Louis, and Missouri, income inequality is built into the fabric of society.
Gaston has pleaded not guilty to the federal charge that has him behind bars. Rich is still waiting for documents from the U.S. attorney’s office to know what kind of case his client faces. In the meantime, Gaston is in the City Justice Center, considered such a danger to society that he is being held with no bond.
He’s the yin to the McCloskeys’ yang. They are free.
Gaston is still being punished for the sins of a past he cannot escape.