The unspeakable horrors they found inside spawned nationwide reports, with some outlets calling the scene a “torture chamber” and others including The St. Louis Post Dispactch describing it as a “human slaughter chamber”.
Two homeless men, Dennis “DJ” Iagulli (41) and James Pierson (36) were living at the warehouse. They befriended Zachary Irvin (22) and lured him to the site where he was bound, sadistically tortured and raped for several days. Irvin had just arrived in St. Louis from tiny St. Elmo Illinois, 90 miles east of the city, in search of a better life.
For years I’ve explored the mighty ruins of East St. Louis with my friend Kenneth. The area began emptying out in the late 1950’s and exploring it can be a post-apocalyptic experience. We’ve climbed through old hospitals, most of the substantial downtown buildings where you can still find letters dated 1959, and have made multiple trips to the massive crumbling meat packing plants. We ‘d even walked past 650 N. Front Street once after exploring the rail yards between East St. Louis and Venice, but didn’t bother checking it out because it was just a nondescript metal building.
I feel a strange affinity for East St. Louis, and when I heard about the murder I felt compelled to visit the site. Kenneth had always been down for an east side adventure, including in the middle of the night, but he took a pass on this one. Understandably most of my regular crew did.
My friend Rodney agreed to come and we headed across the Mississippi. Sure enough the door was unlocked and we immediately saw signs of human habitation. Dirty blankets, clothing and trash. Most of the building was too dark to explore and our flashlight failed, but in a room with a window we found a tiled floor covered in dried blood. It’s the landlords’ responsibility to clean up these kinds of messes, so if the building is abandoned it’s nobody’s job.
The sensational headlines faded fast but tragic story stuck with me, and then nine months later I got a lead that brought me to a male to female transsexual who had dated a close friend of the men charged, and had even done their laundry. To protect her privacy I’ll call her Ronda.
Ronda is friendly and warm, living her life as a woman and working as a nursing assistant. She had only been dating her boyfriend Grant for a few months when she began to learn about the shady underworld he was involved with. He made his living stealing copper with DJ and Pierson who lived in the warehouse with several other homeless people, including a young woman.
DJ was the feared ring leader. Pierson, as they called him, was the sidekick and always followed DJ’s lead. “Were they a couple?” I asked. “No, No, DJ was openly gay but I don’t know what Pierson was” she replied. “Pierson was afraid of him, and so was Grant. It was like he had some kind of mind control over people”.
One evening Grant & Ronda were relaxing at home when Grant got a call from Pierson. “Man DJ’s gone off the deep end!” Pierson began. “He lured some guy back to the warehouse from St. Patrick’s Center and has got him tied up. He’s been raping him and doing some crazy shit!”
Grant was on parole in Missouri and wasn’t allowed to be in Illinois. He wanted no part of whatever was going on and decided to stay away from the warehouse until things calmed down. “I didn’t know if it was some sort of sick joke or what” Ronda said. “I take care of people for a living and kept wondering what I could do. Grant wouldn’t talk to the police because that would mean going back to prison and I couldn’t call them and be like ‘there’s some guy tied up in an abandoned building in East St. Louis!” she said. “I’d never even been there and didn’t know where it was”.
Grant picked Ronda up from work at the nursing home on day two and Ronda immediately asked for an update. “Pierson keeps texting me and I’ve been deleting [the messages] before I even look at ‘em. I don’t want to know nothin’ about that shit!” Grant replied.
That evening Pierson called and Grant put him on speakerphone. DJ had left Pierson alone with Irvin for hours that day. “NEXT TIME HE DOES THAT LET HIM GO!” Ronda pleaded. “GO GET A COP! GET HELP!” she said.
“I knew it was serious. You know how you can sense a certain level of fear and anxiety. I could tell he [Pierson] wasn’t thinking straight” she said. “He just kept saying DJ would come after him if he crossed him. He was afraid of DJ”.
She tried to convince Grant to drop her off near the warehouse so she could call 911, but he refused. “He knew they had guns over there” she said. “I reminded Grant that he’s got tools over there with his fingerprints all over them”.
Another day passed and Pierson called again. Ronda pleaded for him to intervene “You’ll be the hero! You’ll be the one who sets him free” she said.
The final call from Pierson was just after DJ shot Irvin. “Is he dead?” Ronda asked. “Yes, he’s dead” Grant replied.
It didn’t quite seem real until she saw it on television while at work. “I bet that’s the dude DJ kidnapped!” she exclaimed to a coworker. She had heard Irvin was bound and raped, but during questioning the police told her the full extent of the torture and mutilation. She couldn’t comprehend how anyone could do that to somebody. Investigators wanted to tie Grant to the murder, and they grilled her about why she didn’t call the police. Filled with regret Ronda fell into a debilitating depression which resulted in her losing her job at the nursing home. She also broke up with Grant.
“I learned Grant had a problem with the truth” she said. “He came over to my house driving an RV he said his mom gave to him, and wanted me to run away with him. Somewhere down south. I walked out to look at it and saw that he had to start it with a screwdriver!” “I told him I don’t want a homeless life. I want a real home with running water. Not where I have to run to go get water!” she said in her folksy way.
Grant drove the RV to the warehouse to look for his tools and was arrested by investigators who were staking out the property. He’s written Ronda two letters from prison but she hasn’t responded. “The way I cope with this” she began “is that even if I called the outcome would have still been the same. It wouldn’t have changed what happened” she said, elaborating that the police would not have searched all the abandoned buildings in East St. Louis because of her call.
Police haven’t ruled out other victims, and Ronda worries that the young woman that lived there may be one of them. “One day they just said she got money for a bus ticket and went home. Her family in Hannibal was like come home and you can live with us and won’t have to be homeless anymore” she recalled. “I don’t know. That just sounds like a fairy tale to me.”
After I left that space I often thought about returning to wash away Irvin’s blood, like part of him was trapped in that miserable abandoned warehouse. I would want someone to do that for me, and I feel like I owe him something.
Many of us feel like cities are the answer. They’re places of opportunity where we can be ourselves and find a community. Zachary Irvin, a friendly and free spirited young man of meager means came to the city looking for this better life. He came looking for us.
He found Dennis “DJ” Iagulli.
BY: CHRIS ANDOE