I am a Killer: Robert Shafer

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“Bad things are going to happen when you lead a criminal lifestyle and you have a loaded gun.”

-Robert Shafer, Missouri Department of Corrections inmate #990101

He claims he chose the two men to rob because they were, in his own words, ‘easy targets’. Aged just 19 years old, Robert Shafer and his friend David Steinmeyer decided to rob a couple of guys they figured wouldn’t put up much of a fight. At least that’s what they later said their reasons for selecting Jerry Parker and Donny Young were. The reality, though, belies no small amount of malice and hatred…

The murders of Parker and Young weren’t personal, though. Shafer didn’t know them from Adam. They were just a couple of dudes hanging out together. It was more where they were hanging out that made them a target for the two delinquents teens with guns. The area was renowned as a hotspot for the local gay community. Shafer and Steinmeyer had followed and watched the two men for some time. They knew they were homosexual and, in their minds, far less likely to pose a threat when robbed.

The kids were wrong.

It was the evening of April 29th 1990 and the two youngsters were looking for someone to rob after a day of drinking and getting high. They headed to St. Charles County’s known gay hangout and quickly found their targets. After drinking a beer with them, the men agreed to drive Shafer and Steinmeyer into town to a party in St. Peters. As they turned west off the I-70, Schafer loaded his six-shooter with bullets. They drove further into town, as Shafer waited for the perfect place to stop. Spring Road, with its dead end, seemed ideal. Young pulled over and all four men exited the car. Immediately Shafer struck Parker, but Parker fought back. The gun was waved and the new plan was to get back in the vehicle, calm down and drive elsewhere.

The fighting continued inside the car. With David now at the wheel, eventually they had to pull over. The fight instantly spilling outside. The young men were not faring well in the four-man brawl. So Shafer used his equaliser. Five bullets later, Jerry Parker and Donny Young were face down dead.

It seems bad things really do happen when you lead a criminal lifestyle and you have a loaded gun.

The manhunt was hardly dramatic. The teenagers slept that night and in the morning decided to hand themselves in and confess. They spent the day telling friends and family their plan and at 10pm on the 30th April, they gave themselves up, with detectives from St. Charles County arresting them with no bother.

The plan was for Shafer to cop to one of the killings and Steinmeyer the other. And that’s just what they did. The only trouble being… It was Robert Shafer who shot and killed both men. Yet 16 year-old Steinmeyer went along with the ruse. Why? Well, as Shafer reminded him - they were ‘partners’. The reality? Shafer thought he could reduce his sentence by admitting responsibility for just one of the murders.

The other part of the plan was to claim self-defence and accuse Parker and Young of making unwanted and aggressive sexual advances towards them.

It seems bad things really do happen when you lead a criminal lifestyle and you have a loaded gun.

The truth will out, as they say. And it did, albeit only fully after Shafer decided to confess properly years later. The self-defence angle was dismissed by authorities from the start. While it’s undeniable that David Steinmeyer was involved in the crimes, he didn’t fire the weapon, nor was he to know that his accomplice would. This isn’t Texas,the Law of Parties ruling doesn’t apply here. Steinmeyer effectively served eleven years for a murder he didn’t commit. So much for honour among thieves, eh?

Robert, the sixth of eleven children and sixth of sixth boys quickly hatched a plan. He thought it cunning. He would plead guilty, refuse an attorney and seek the death penalty. At only 19 years of age (but looking no older than around twelve), his plan was to elicit sympathy and get a reduced sentence. It took the jury less than two hours to sentence him. To death. His plan had backfired. Instantly he hired an attorney and appealed. Luckily for him, his sentence was later commuted to life in prison with no chance of parole.

Shafer and Steinmeyer’s story is something of a pity, but sadly it’s not a hugely unusual one. Poverty and a lack of love and affection growing up drove two kids to become miscreants and eventually criminals. The ante was upped and upped until the ultimate law was broken. Lives were taken and many more were shattered into a thousand shards.

But why? Well, the world rarely offers up complete and full explanations about anything. If you’re looking for an answer for why people kill, the closest anyone can get is to look at their psychology. Investigate what happened to make them the way they are. With Robert Andrew Schafer there is a time in his adolescence which could hold the key.

Growing up in such a large household was tough; as the youngest of eleven siblings, it’s tricky not to be the runt of the litter. When Robert’s father died he began to detach himself slowly from the family unit - or what was left of it. The street became his new home. Unfortunately where there are vulnerable children, there are so often child molestors keen to exploit them.

Robert Shafer, along with scores of other children in the neighbourhood at the time were approached by a man who would pay good money to let him abuse them. Eventually he introduced other abusers and it became something of a local racket. The children would ‘earn’ upwards of fifty or a hundred dollars during these rapes, but Shafer always seemed to leave the van with more money than the other kids. Sometimes he would be in there for hours. Often he would come out blank-faced and beaten up.

Ask anyone who knows or knew Shafer and they’ll quickly tell you why Jerry Parker and Donny Young died on April 29th 1990. Years of abuse at the hands of twisted child molesters had instilled into him a hatred of gay people. His inner rage blinding him to the truth about just how misguided and plain wrong he was. When Robert Shafer shot Parker and Young he wasn’t shooting a couple of guys making out in their car on night. He was shooting all the men that raped and abused him as a younger teenager.

Bad things are going to happen when you’re a child with a scrambled mind and you have a loaded gun.

Listen to the producers discuss the making of the series in the officialpodcast.

Watch the UK premiere of I am a Killer season two only on Crime+Investigation this October.