What we know about the shooting of Black teen who went to wrong house: ‘Ringing a doorbell is not a crime’

A Black teenager went to pick up his younger brothers from a friend’s house, accidentally rang the doorbell at the wrong address and was shot twice by a white homeowner. Now, protesters, celebrities and civil rights figures are demanding justice. Rachel Sharp reports

Thursday 20 April 2023 13:30 BST
Ralph Yarl was shot twice when he got the wrong house while trying to pick his younger brothers up
Ralph Yarl was shot twice when he got the wrong house while trying to pick his younger brothers up (Ben Crump Law via AP)

Last week, Ralph Yarl found himself lying in a hospital bed with gunshot wounds to his left forehead and right arm.

Harrowing photos showed the Black teenager with tubes coming out of him and his head and arm wrapped up in bandages.

He is alive but his family says he has a long road to recovery ahead – a recovery that threatens to derail his dreams of going off to college to pursue a career in engineering.

So how did he end up here?

He went to pick up his younger brothers from a friend’s house, accidentally rang the doorbell at the wrong address and was shot twice by the 84-year-old white homeowner, Andrew Lester.

It’s a horror case that has led protesters to take to the streets, civil rights attorneys to rally behind the 16-year-old’s family, and Hollywood celebrities use their platform to amplify the case – all demanding justice for the Black teenager and for the white homeowner to face charges.

Here’s what we know so far about the case:

The shooting

The 16-year-old high school junior had gone to collect his siblings from a friend’s house on 115th Terrace in Kansas City, Missouri, on the evening of 13 April, according to Kansas City Police.

Police said that the teenager got muddled up with the address and went to a home on 115th Street by mistake.

Ralph allegedly rang the doorbell and the homeowner opened fire on him through a glass screen door using a .32 caliber revolver.

The aspiring Texas A&M University student was shot twice – once in the head and once in the arm.

Prosecutors said that there is no indication Ralph and the homeowner exchanged any words with each other before the shooting unfolded and there is no footage of the encounter.

According to a probable cause statement, Mr Lester told police he was in bed when he heard the doorbell ring and so he grabbed a handgun.

The 16-year-old high school junior had gone to collect his siblings from a friend’s house on 13 April when he got the wrong home and was shot (Ben Crump Law via AP)

When he saw Ralph, he claimed he was “scared to death” at the boy’s size and feared he was unable to defend himself given his elderly age.

He claimed he thought the boy was trying to break in and so shot twice through his exterior glass door, the documents state.

However, Ralph told police from his bed at Children’s Mercy Hospital that he only pressed the doorbell and did not try to enter the home.

He said he was waiting at the door when the man opened it and immediately shot him. He fell to the ground and was shot a second time, he said.

After being shot, he said he heard the shooter warn him: “Don’t come around here.”

Prosecutors also said that the investigation also found no evidence to suggest Ralph was trying to enter the property.

Following the shooting, Ralph managed to stumble away to some other homes in the neighbourhood to get help.

“Unfortunately, he had to run to 3 different homes before someone finally agreed to help him after he was told to lie on the ground with his hands up,” the family said in a GoFundme campaign.

Kansas City Police were called to reports of a shooting and arrived to find the teenager outside with gunshot wounds.

According to a probable cause statement, Mr Lester told police he was in bed when he heard the doorbell ring and so he grabbed a handgun.

When he saw Ralph, he claimed he was “scared to death” at the boy’s size and feared he was unable to defend himself given his elderly age.

He claimed he thought the boy was trying to break in and so shot twice through his exterior glass door, the documents state.

However, Ralph told police from his bed at Children’s Mercy Hospital that he did not pull the door – but only pressed the doorbell.

Police officer walks past the house where the shooting took place (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

He said he was waiting at the door when the man opened it and immediately shot him.

He fell to the ground and was shot a second time, he said.

After being shot, he said he heard the shooter warn him: “Don’t come around here.”

Investigators also said that Ralph did not enter the home.

The homeowner

White homeowner Andrew Lester, an 84-year-old retired aircraft mechanic, is now facing the rest of his life in prison for shooting the Black teenager.

His family broke its silence for the first time to condemn the shooting.

Mr Lester’s grandson Daniel Ludwig told The Daily Beast that the violent encounter “never should have happened.”

“It’s just crazy. I wish it didn’t happen,” he said.

Mr Ludwig, who said he is “very close” to Mr Lester, revealed he understands how easy it was for Ralph to get lost on the streets.

“I’d go to visit my grandpa, and I would get lost on those streets,” he said.

“It’s easy to do. They all look the same and everything.”

Other people who knew the 84-year-old have described a penchant for anger and conspiracy theories.

Another grandson Klint Ludwig said that he was estranged from his grandfather because of the 84-year-old’s right-wing views.

He claimed that, during the Covid-19 pandemic, Mr Lester had shared a “crazy” conspiracy theory about Dr Anthony Fauci.

He said his grandfather also used to make disparaging comments about Black people, gay people, and immigrants – and kept a large number of guns in his home.

Another relative, who did not want to be named, said Mr Lester spent “considerable time at home in a living room chair, watching conservative news programs at high volume”.

Andrew Lester appears in court to answer charges of first-degree assault and armed criminal action on Wednesday (AP)

Mr Lester’s ex-wife Mary Clayton has also spokem out to reveal why she isn’t surprised by the shooting.

Ms Clayton, who was married to Mr Lester when she was young and had three children with him, told The New York Times she “was always scared of” her former husband.

During their 14-year marriage, she said he had anger issues and would smash up items around their home.

She called the police at least once over his rages but she said that nothing was done about it and she was told Mr Lester could do what he wanted in his home.

“I was always scared of him,” she said, adding of the shooting: “It doesn’t surprise me, what happened.”

Following the shooting, Mr Lester was initially taken into custody on Thursday and placed on a 24-hour hold.

However, under Missouri state law, a person can only be held for 24 hours on suspicion of a felony before officials must either charge or release them.

Attorneys for Ralph – and jail officials – said that the suspect was actually released after less than two hours.

Kansas City Police Chief Stacey Graves said at a press conference on Sunday that – due to Ralph’s injuries – police had been unable to get a formal statement from him. This was also contradicted by Ralph’s attorneys who said that the teenager gave an interview from his hospital bed on Friday.

On Monday morning, before charges were announced, Ben Crump and Lee Merritt – the prominent civil rights attorneys now representing the victim and his family – condemned the release of the “armed and dangerous suspect”.

“There is no excuse for the release of this armed and dangerous suspect after admitting to shooting an unarmed, non-threatening, and defenseless teenager that rang his doorbell,” the attorneys said. “We demand swift action from Clay County prosecutors and law enforcement to identify, arrest, and prosecute to the full extent of the law the man responsible for this horrendous and unjustifiable shooting.”

Police booking photo of Andrew Lester, charged with shooting Ralph Yarl (Kansas City Police)

The motive

Initially, officials denied any “racial” element to the shooting and offered no motive for the gunman opening fire on the teen.

Speaking on Sunday, the police chief said that there was no evidence to indicate that the shooting was racially motivated.

But, on Monday, when charges were announced, the prosecutor said he believed “there was a racial component to the case”.

He did not give details as to what led officials to that conclusion and nothing to that end was outlined in the probable cause document.

Mr Merritt, who is representing Ralph and his family, said that they were meeting with the prosecutor on Tuesday where they hoped to learn what “racial element” investigators had found.

He told CBS Mornings that the suspect’s claim that he felt threatened by a Black boy ringing his doorbell “sounds awfully familiar”.

“Being Black has been seen as a threat often in this country. It is unjustifiable for him to use deadly force against this so-called threat. Again, Blackness is not a threat,” he said.

Lee Merritt, lawyer for the family of Ralph Yarl, arrives for the initial court appearance of Andrew Lester (Getty Images)

He added that the investigation itself shows bias in the treatment of the Black teen and the white shooter.

“We saw law enforcement respond by essentially criminalising the boy,” he said of Mr Lester’s lack of arrest.

“[Mr Lester] went home and slept in his bed that night,” he said.

Mr Crump told CNN that he believes things would have been different if the races of the suspect and victim were reversed.

“Nobody can tell us if the roles were reversed, and you had a Black man shoot a white, 16-year-old teenager for merely ringing his doorbell that he would not be arrested,” he said.

“I mean, this citizen went home and slept in his bed at night after shooting that young Black kid in the head.”

The charges

On Monday afternoon, Clay County prosecutor Zachary Thompson finally announced that Mr Lester had been charged with two felonies: assault in the first degree, which carries a punishment of 10 to 30 years or life imprisonment, and armed criminal action, which carries a punishment of 3 to 15 years.

However, more than 20 hours passed before Mr Lester was taken into custody.

He surrendered to authorities on Tuesday before being released again less than two hours later after posting $200,000 bond.

Under the conditions of his release, he is not allowed to possess weapons of any type or have any contact with Ralph or his family.

Mr Lester appeared in court for the first time on Wednesday for his arraignment.

He pleaded not guilty to the two felonies and was released on bond. His next court appearance is scheduled for 1 June.

The 84-year-old is facing life in prison on the charges but is also said to be under investigation for a possible hate crime.

Andrew Lester in mugshot after he surrendered to authorities on 18 April (Clay County Jail)

Mr Merritt told reporters outside Clay County Court on Wednesday that the Justice Department is looking into the case.

“Before I even made it to Kansas City, we reached out to the Department of Justice, myself and my co-counsel Ben Crump, we have some longstanding relationships there,” Mr Merritt said.

“We thought that this was something the DOJ should be looking into. They are (looking into it). It’s under investigation, they’ve received our complaint and now they’re looking into it.”

On Monday, when asked if Mr Lester could be charged with a hate crime by the state, the prosecutor said that it would not be possible under Missouri law.

In Missouri, a hate crime is a lower level of felony and to add the charge would amount to double jeopardy, he said.

Ralph’s attorneys have also questioned why the suspect has not been charged with attempted murder.

While Mr Merritt said the family is happy that two felony charges have been brought, he has questions as to why Mr Lester has not been charged with attempted murder.

He told CBS Mornings on Tuesday that, while Mr Lester’s age may be a factor in the case, the “current and former president of the United States is about that age”. “He made a conscious decision to shoot a 16-year-old boy,” he said.

“Ralph Yarl was shot because he was armed with nothing but other than his Black skin,” he said.

Ralph released from hospital

Ralph was rushed to hospital after the shooting where he was listed in critical condition.

Two days later, Ralph was released from hospital to continue his recovery at home.

The 16-year-old’s mother Cleo Nagbe spoke out to CBS Mornings’ Gayle King on Tuesday about the horror injuries that her son suffered in the shooting, revealing that he had a bullet lodged in his head for a staggering 12 hours.

“Ralph was shot on the top of his left eye – his frontal lobe and the top of his right arm,” she said.

“He had the bullet up here [in his head] for about 12 hours before it was taken out, so that injury is extensive.”

Ralph Yarl lies in hospital bed (Shaun King)

Ms Nagbe said that the “extensive” injuries mean that he has a long road ahead to recovery.

“The residual effect of that injury is going to stay with him for quite a while,” she said.

Ms Nagbe said that his return home needs to be “put [...] into perspective” as it was possible due to many family members being medical professionals.

“He’s home but I want to remind everybody that Ralph is home because he is surrounded by a team of medical professionals,” she said.

Now, her son is now left replaying Thursday’s attack “over and over again”, she said,

“You can see that he is just replaying the situation over and over again. And that just doesn’t stop my tears either, because when you see your kid just sits there and constantly he just – tears are just rolling from both sides of his eyes, there’s nothing you can say to him,” she said.

She said that her son is able to communicate “when he feels like it” but he mostly “just sits there and stares and the buckets of tears just rolls down his eyes”.

On Wednesday, Mr Merritt shared the first photo of the Black teenager recovering at home.

“Ralph Yarl is home and recovering! How the bullet in his head did not cause more extensive damage is truly a miracle. To God be the glory!” wrote Mr Merritt.

‘Ringing a doorbell is not a crime’

The shooting – which marks the latest in a constantly-growing number of shootings of Black people in America – sparked protests in the city demanding justice for Ralph and questioning the treatment of the shooter.

Hundreds of residents first took to the streets of Kansas City on Sunday to march through the Northlands area where the teenager was shot.

Many carried placards reading “Black Lives Matter”, “Ringing a doorbell is not a crime” and “Justice for Ralph”, reported KSHB.

A pregnant family friend of Ralph Yarl’s parents told The Kansas City Star that she fears for her unborn child.

“How do you protect a Black kid?” said Patience Gaye.

“What are we supposed to do now? We left our countries because we don’t want to be killed. That’s why we left. They came to America for a better life. How is this a better life?”

On Tuesday, over a thousand students at Ralph’s school Staley High School staged a walkout – or “unity walk” – in solidarity with their classmate.

They were joined by school staff, civil rights leaders and politicians in a huge rally in downtown Kansas City where they chanted “Justice for Ralph” and “We love you Ralph”.

“I was out here to support my friend Ralph through this time he is going through today,” one of the boy’s friends told KSHB.

The student said he wasn’t surprised by the number of people who had come out to support Ralph because everyone is “willing to support a friend at our school”.

GoFundMe donations

A GoFundMe launched to support the Black teenager has soared past $3.35m in donations.

Donations have been flooding in on a GoFundMe campaign, set up to help pay for the boy’s recovery.

As of around 9am ET Thursday – just three days after its launch – a staggering $3.35m had been raised.

Among the donors was comedian Ellyn Daniels who gave $15,000, Madonna’s manager Guy Oseary who gave $5,000 and TV star Julianne Hough, who donated $1,000.

On the fundraising page, Ralph’s aunt described the teenager as a “fantastic kid” who had dreams of doing to Texas A&M University to major in chemical Engineering.

“At school, he is a member of the Technology Student Association and Science Olympia Team. Jazz and competition band. He is a section leader in the marching band; a scholar and one of the top base clarinet players in Missouri. He recently earned Missouri All-State Band recognition with an honorable mention. He plays multiple instruments in the metropolitan youth orchestra. He is a 2022 Missouri scholar academy alumni. Ralph can often be found with a musical instrument. He loves them all,” the page reads.

“Last summer, Ralph attended Missouri Scholar’s Academy, where he got a full college life experience. His goal is to attend Texas A&M to major in chemical Engineering.

Ralph Yarl GoFundMe tops $3m (GoFundMe)

“When asked how he plans to get into this university, he said, “Well, if they have a scholarship for music or academics, I know I can get it.” Ralph’s teacher and friends describe him as “ a kind soul,” “quiet,” “friendly,” “well-mannered,” “always willing to help,” “super smart,” and a “musical genius.” Ralph was looking forward to graduating high school and finally getting the opportunity to visit West Africa before starting college.

“Life looks a lot different right now. Even though he is doing well physically, he has a long road ahead mentally and emotionally. The trauma that he has to endure and survive is unimaginable. He is our miracle. We have heard these types of stories many times, and unfortunately, most black boys are not alive to get another chance.

“Ralph deserves to have the future that he has dreams about. He deserves to be the light that shows the world that LOVE wins and that humanity is still Good. However, he will need a lot of help to get there. Funds from this account will be used for his medical bills and therapy. Any additional funds will be use for college expenses at Texas A&M, a trip to West Africa, and other expenses.”

In an update on Tuesday, the family thanked people for their support and donations for the teenager and confirmed that he is now recovering from his injuries at home.

“Ralph is currently at home with the family. He can ambulate and communicate. A true miracle considering what he survived.Each day is different. He has a long road ahead,” the GoFundMe read.

“However, we are very thankful that he is still here with us. I’ve been taking the time to read the emails and comments to Ralph. It warms our hearts to see him smile at all the kind words. Thank you so much for loving Ralph.”

On Monday it was announced that Ralph had been discharged from hospital.

Celebrities share outrage

Several celebrities have also spoken out to condemn the shooting, with actor Halle Berry – writing before charges were announced – urging her Twitter followers to contact the local prosecutor to bring charges against the homeowner.

“His name is #RalphYarl and I’m sick and tired of this feeling…my heart completely broke when I learned this precious 16-year-old, who accidentally rang the door of the wrong address in an attempt to pick up his siblings, was shot in the head by a man who didn’t want him on his property. This innocent child is now fighting for his life,” she wrote.

“This could be your child. This should NOT happen. Please do something today! Join me and please contact Prosecutor Zachary Thompson and demand an immediate arrest and bring the appropriate charges: Building: James S. Rooney Justice Center Address: 11 South Water Street, Liberty, Missouri 64068 Phone: 816-736-8300 Fax: 816-736- 8301 Email: prosecutor@claycopa.com”

Fellow Black actor Viola Davis also took to Instagram to demand action.

“ALL HANDS ON DECK!!” she wrote, directing people to the posts of civil rights attorneys Ben Crump and Lee Merritt.

Actor Gwyneth Paltrow wrote on Instagram: “#RalphYarl accidentally rang the doorbell of the wrong house in KCMO. He was trying to pick his younger siblings. The white owner of the hours shot this Black child in the head. He shot him again as Ralph bled out. The shooter is free. No charges. This is America.”

Kim Kardashian also used her platform to condemn the shooting, sharing an infographic of what happened to the teenage boy.

Supermodel Naomi Campbell, actor Amy Schumer, model and TV personality Chrissy Teigen and actor Justin Timberlake also shared social media posts about the case as they all rallied behind the family of the 16-year-old boy now fighting his injuries.

Joe Biden welcomes victim to White House

President Joe Biden has also spoken with the teenager and his family and invited them to the White House.

The president called the 16-year-old on Monday afternoon after Ralph had returned home from hospital.

On Tuesday, he shared a photo of himself on the phone to the teenager, writing: “Last night, I had a chance to call Ralph Yarl and his family. No parent should have to worry that their kid will be shot after ringing the wrong doorbell. We’ve got to keep up the fight against gun violence. And Ralph, we’ll see you in the Oval once you feel better.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre also condemned the shooting in a press conference on Tuesday, calling it “devastating” and the latest in an “epidemic” of gun violence in America.

“It feels like every week, at least once a week, I come to the podium and I talk about this gun violence epidemic that we’re seeing across the country, and how our communities and families across America, yet again, have been devastated by tragic acts of gun violence,” she said.

“And it is not just devastating for me, I’m sure it’s devastating for all of you and your families. It’s devastating for this president, it’s devastating for our administration ... to have to continue to do that over and over again.”

Neighbours speak out

Neighbours have now spoken out about the shooting including one man – James Lynch, 42 – who said he ran to the boy’s aid.

Mr Lynch, who lives on Northeast 115 Street, told NBC News that he heard loud screams and someone shouting “help, help, I’ve been shot!”at around 10pm on Thursday night and went to see what the commotion was.

At first, he said he thought Ralph was dead and noticed what looked like a hole in his head near his eye socket.

“I thought he was dead,” he said.

“No one deserves to lay there like that. He hasn’t even begun to live his life yet. He didn’t deserve to get shot.”

He said he told the teen “I’m going to grab your hand really tight” and then launched into his Eagle Scout training, keeping Ralph awake until EMTs arrived.

“I didn’t do anything but hold a kid’s hand so he wouldn’t feel alone,” Mr Lynch said.

“He had just gotten shot twice; he had a hole in the side of his head.”

He added: “That kid is tougher than I am.”

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