A man is gunned down at a St. Paul bar. Commence the messiness of American justice.

Illustration by Emily Utne

Illustration by Emily Utne

I. One shot, two suspects

Shortly before midnight on a hot Sunday in June, 28-year-old Carlos Rogers walks up to Born’s Bar on St. Paul’s Rice Street.

He’s scarred and tattooed, his hair in cornrows tied back in a low ponytail. Narrowly built, he stands no taller than the three women accompanying him—his girlfriend and two others.

Just released from a four-year stint in St. Cloud state prison for leading cops on a car chase with 51 grams of cocaine in his possession, Rogers is making the most of his summer. He’d barbecued and taken his kids to a water park earlier in the day. Now he’ll have drinks with friends in the final hours of the weekend.

Before the night is through, Rogers will be dead.

His murderer is one of two men who arrive in a cherry Monte Carlo at about 1:30 a.m. There’s Charles Frye, a skinny 37-year-old with shoulder-length dreadlocks, wearing a white shirt and matching baseball cap. His friend is 29-year-old Justin Reynolds, tall with a baby face on broad shoulders, wearing longer dreads and a bright red jersey. He’s accompanied by his girlfriend. The three have just come from Hoggsbreath, another Rice Street bar. Now, just a half-hour to bar close, the bouncer has locked Born’s doors. People who step out to smoke aren’t allowed back in. A crowd forms on the sidewalk. Conflicts flare.

Charles Eugene Frye (left), and Justin Darrell Reynolds

Charles Eugene Frye (left), and Justin Darrell Reynolds Ramsey County Jail

Rogers is drunk on Hennessey and causing a small scene near the front door. The bouncer won’t let his girlfriend, who is wobbling on her feet, re-enter.

He’s just put Rogers out as well, knocking the beer out of his hands. Rogers jabs a finger and, according to the bouncer, threatens to kill him.

Suddenly, one of Rogers’ friends, Denise White, picks a fight with a female bystander, whom she imagines to have reached out and hit Rogers. (Security footage shows no such thing.) White flails her purse. The other woman fights back. They wrestle each other down the sidewalk.

Men pull the two apart. Then Frye, who has been hanging back, smoking a cigarette, steps in and begins to argue with Rogers. They scuffle. Punches are thrown.

Rogers dashes into the street. Frye gives chase, his friend Reynolds close behind. As Rogers turns to face the two, separated by a car parked curbside, Frye lunges across its hood.

A gunshot rings out. A woman screams. Rogers falls to the ground, shot through the left cheek. People duck and scatter.

Cameras catch Frye making off alone in the Monte Carlo, pulling a U-turn in the street in front of Born’s, then whizzing past Reynolds’ girlfriend as she throws out her hands to get his attention. Reynolds bolts down the sidewalk, frantically calls the mother of his child about a dozen times without answer, and is finally scooped up by a friend.

II. Conflicting eyewitnesses and a six-year grudge

Calls flood 911 as St. Paul police converge.

They find Carlos Rogers bleeding in the street, Denise White kneeling at his side. Officers conduct CPR and cordon the scene from growing clusters of onlookers screaming profanities and hurling glass bottles. The cops attempt to interview witnesses. Most tell them to “fuck off.”

In the quiet of the bar’s back office, an officer plays footage from a camera stationed above the front door. He watches the assorted arguments and fights erupting along the sidewalk, culminating in a fraction of a second in which a tell-tale muzzle flash blooms in the dark, and the victim falls back. Then he rewinds, and rewinds again.

The video is primitive, grainy and soft. Objects appear as smudges—Rorschach blots open to interpretation. An awning cuts through the top half of the camera’s view, obscuring the triggerman. It’s difficult to track individuals in movement throughout the muddy tableau, much less locate the gun and place it in a hand.

The officer makes a judgment call. He thinks the shooter is most likely the man with shoulder-length dreads, white baseball cap, and white T-shirt—the man later identified as Charles Frye.

Soon the first witness, a woman living in an apartment across the street, calls 911 to support that conclusion.

She’d been looking out her window, just in time to see a shooter in white fire. He then walked quickly down the sidewalk, cut across the street, and climbed into a red Chevy Monte Carlo with a sunroof. She gives a partial license plate: 685.

Two eyewitnesses identified two different murderers. The more accurate one refused to testify.

Two eyewitnesses identified two different murderers. The more accurate one refused to testify.

Detectives will eventually verify her details, with the exception that the plate numbers were arranged in a slightly different order. About the same time, an officer on the street overhears people screaming, “red Monte Carlo.” But the case is not as straightforward as it initially appears.

Police round up potential witnesses for interviews at headquarters. Among them are the three women in Rogers’ crew.

His girlfriend saw nothing. She says she’d been trying to pull Rogers out of the fray when he shoved her aside, upending her purse. She was gathering her things as the shot rang out. Then she ran from the sound.

Another woman says she’d gone around the block to fetch their car. She’s of no help either.

But Denise White, who’d been sparring with a stranger moments before the shooting, claims to have witnessed everything. She recalls that as Frye swung at Rogers, he fell toward the car in between them and shouted, “Get that n---!”

Reynolds then raised a gun and pulled the trigger, she tells police.

White also has a theory. She believes Frye and Rogers have a history that runs deeper than an ordinary bar fight.

In 2011, one of Rogers’ closest friends, suspected E-Block gang member Dekota Galtney, was shot dead in the street. A 22-year-old was convicted for it, but a rumor persists that Frye ordered the gunman to shoot. (Police established no such connection, and Frye was never charged.)

That same year, Rogers allegedly stabbed Frye at a house party in retribution.

White believes that Rogers’ murder mirrors Galtney’s, with Frye as mastermind, his friend as enforcer.

She doesn’t know Reynolds’ name, but she recalls him arriving at Born’s in a black T-shirt and blue shorts with bleach stains. After the shooting, he, his girlfriend, and Frye had gotten away in a black truck with tinted windows.

Rice Street’s cameras will prove each of her statements wrong.

Yet White is willing to testify. The 911 caller, by contrast, adamantly refuses to identify herself for fear of retaliation. Her words will never enter a courtroom.

A man is dead. His extensive network of family and friends want justice. What’s more, they all seem to believe the killing is but the latest reaction in a chain of retaliatory violence—history repeating itself.

III. Trial by social media

As police identify the suspects, a picture emerges of who they are in the eyes of the law. Like the victim Rogers, Justin Reynolds and Charles Frye are well acquainted with the system.

Reynolds has racked up felonies for assault, terroristic threats, and domestic assault. Frye has three cocaine convictions and one for terroristic threats.

He’d also been charged with murder once before. In 2006, a woman accused him of groping her outside another Rice Street bar, Diva’s, then shooting her brother in the chest when he tried to intervene.

Police would find insufficient evidence. The charges were dismissed.

Social media, however, was far more interested in the men’s alleged gang ties.

Frye’s Facebook page shows him and Reynolds posing with a gaggle of friends around a pool table, holding up “L” signs—presumably for the Lawson Boys gang of north central St. Paul. In the photo, they look like mostly older men past their prime.

Still, it makes for speculation. Facebook theories of unknown origin fixate on a fabled blood feud between Lawson and E-Block.

Many speculate that the Born’s bouncer who’d nearly come to blows with Carlos Rogers provided the gun.

Then there’s the rumor—later debunked—that Frye’s girlfriend is the woman who’d fought with Denise White, as if to divert attention from the assassination to come.

Either way, word spreads that Reynolds, the baby-faced “enforcer,” is wanted by police.

The whispers reach Stillwater prison inmate Glen Acon, who’s serving time for killing an 18-year-old in a gang dispute at Indian Mounds Regional Park in 2016.

Acon and Rogers had been as close as brothers, going so far as to get tattoos of each other’s faces. (Rogers took bullets for him during a shootout, Acon once told a gang investigator.) He is livid to hear the news.

In a phone call intercepted by prison staff, the inmate initially thinks Rogers has been murdered by the East Side Boys or Selby Siders. When a friend tells him Lawson is at fault, Acon accepts the idea without question, as if it’s all the same.

“I want one of these n---s,” Acon says during the call. “I fixing to slit one of these motherfucker’s throats.... On my mama. Motherfucker gonna show you all what the Block really do.”

Two days after the shooting, on June 13, the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office confirms popular suspicions. It charges Reynolds and Frye with second-degree murder while aiding and abetting each other.

Though most of her initial statement to police has already been proved wrong, the criminal complaint leans almost exclusively on Denise White, whose words are the basis for probable cause in each subsequent search warrant.

The manhunt is on. Authorities stake out Frye and Reynolds’ girlfriends. They get warrants to trace their phones.

Frye is arrested in Faribault, where he’s living in a garage with takeout containers and plastic bags holding human feces. Friends who’d picked him up from St. Paul say they knew he was in some kind of trouble, but didn’t press for details. He immediately requests an attorney.

Reynolds is arrested in Chicago, where he sits down with St. Paul police. He claims he took the Megabus to see his father, knows no one named Charles Frye, and has no idea why he’s been arrested.

Murder, police inform him. Reynolds stops talking.

IV. A murder within a murder

In late October, after Justin Reynolds and Charles Frye spend four months in the Ramsey County Jail, the prosecution abruptly loses its key witness.

Denise White has been implicated in a murder of her own.

The complaint says 38-year-old Dawahn Littles had been hosting an after-bar party at his home in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood when White fought with several women trying to leave in a car. She allegedly smashed out a window, pulled out a handgun, and fired into a crowd. Littles was struck in the chest. He died at the hospital.

White fled to an acquaintance’s house, say police, where she was admitted by a man who recognized her as a family friend. The man tells detectives that White sat on his couch, crying and repeating, “I shot him, I shot him,” while trying to wipe down a gun in her hand with a baby blanket.

(She eventually pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 12 years in Shakopee.)

White’s arrest means she can no longer testify in the Born’s case, lest defense lawyers use her own murder charge to sully her words.

Charges against Frye are dismissed, since White is the only person claiming to have heard him yell, “Get that n---!”

But prosecutors are determined not to let Reynolds off the hook.

St. Paul Sgt. Shawn Shanley and Ramsey County prosecutor Dawn Bakst re-interview several people who were at Born’s the night of Carlos Rogers’ murder. They remain of little help. They weren’t watching when the gun went off. They hadn’t seen it in anyone’s hand. They have no idea where it could have ended up.

Eventually, Shanley and Bakst call Rogers’ girlfriend, Shaneka Mayberry. On the night of the shooting, she told police she’d been on the ground, picking up the contents of her purse when the gun went off. She’d seen nothing.

But four months later, Mayberry has a much different story to tell. She now recalls seeing “the bigger guy” with long dreads holding a gun.

V. “The whole world is full of lies”

Justin Reynolds’ defense is basic: Police have the wrong guy.

Faced with up to 40 years behind bars, he finally breaks his silence, telling prosecutors that Charles Frye was the real gunman.

Reynolds says he fled after the shooting, finding his way to the home of the girlfriend who’d accompanied him to Born’s. At one point, Frye dropped by her home to tell him not to snitch.

Reynolds’ lawyers hope to prove he lacked the motive for murder. Frye and Rogers are the ones with the poisoned history.

Yet Judge Judith Tilsen declines to allow evidence involving gangs, previous shootings, beefs, or the victim’s own criminal past.

Until the day before the trial, prosecutors also refuse to release the phone number of the anonymous 911 caller, though she’d proven to be the most accurate witness on the night of the shooting. Reynolds’ attorney, Michael Padden, cannot convince her to testify on short notice.

Judge Tilsen won’t permit the jury to hear a recording of her 911 call, deeming it hearsay.

Yet the judge will grant prosecutors an important advantage.

Six days before the shooting, police were called to the apartment of Reynolds’ ex-girlfriend. She accused him of breaking in with two other men and pointing a gun at her new boyfriend’s head. Responding officers questioned her credibility, and Reynolds was never charged.

Prosecutor Bakst wants to present the incident as evidence, believing the details echo the Born’s shooting. A handgun is involved. It takes place in the same area of St. Paul. Judge Tilsen rules this thesis permissible.

Shaneka Mayberry, Rogers’ girlfriend, testifies with a newfound clarity, now saying she saw Reynolds not only holding the gun, but tucking it away in his pants. She claims trauma cleansed her memory the night of the shooting, but can’t explain why she never called police when her memories returned.

Born’s low-quality security video is a free-for-all between the lawyers. Neither side calls a forensic video analyst, choosing instead to project their own theories onto it. Bakst claims the lack of gunpowder residue on the victim’s face means he’d been shot from a distance by Reynolds, who is shown standing behind Frye.

Defense attorney Padden counters that the muzzle flash can’t come from Reynolds. From where he’s standing, it would require an impossibly long reach.

The jury seems at a loss, asking to review the video time and again with a magnifying glass.

The murder weapon is never recovered.

The tale of Reynolds’ gun-brandishing at his ex-girlfriend’s apartment also falls apart. Reynolds did show up at her apartment with two other men, the woman says. But she can’t recall if it was day or night—or who pointed the gun. He may have just come to pick up their son. She can’t be sure.

She’d also told a responding officer, “The whole world is made up of lies.” When Padden presses her about possibly lying to that cop, she answers insouciantly, “I probably did.”

Reynolds doesn’t testify. To do so would allow prosecutors to grill him about past convictions.

Defense attorney Padden asks Judge Tilsen to remove the “aiding and abetting” portion of the second-degree murder charge. He argues that it’s implausible for Reynolds to be accused of both shooting Rogers and abetting himself.

Tilsen refuses.

In her closing statement, prosecutor Bakst insists Reynolds has to be the triggerman, while leaving herself an opening.

“Even if you do believe Mr. Padden’s theory of the events, the defendant would still be guilty of aiding and abetting murder. He was there.... He arrived with Charles Frye. He was part of the argument with Charles Frye. He stood right there with Charles Frye when the shot was fired.”

The jury doesn’t take long to convict Reynolds on the single charge of aiding and abetting murder in the second degree.

He is eventually sentenced to 32 years.

His case is now on appeal. Reynolds asserts that Judge Tilsen handcuffed him from proving Frye had the greater motive to shoot, and that Shaneka Mayberry provided false testimony.

The Ramsey County Attorney’s Office hasn’t officially responded. It would only say in a prepared statement: “We vigorously dispute the characterization of the facts by the defense attorney.”

The investigation into Charles Frye is ongoing.