Teenage defendant speaks out publicly for first time since being charged with hate crime

Friday, September 14, 2012
Mercedes Ayers talks to media Thursday at Washington Park in Cape Girardeau. (ADAM VOGLER)

Mercedes Ayers spent 29 days behind bars this summer, but on Thursday -- three weeks after her release -- she says in many ways it's as if she was never allowed to leave her cell.

The 17-year-old may no longer be incarcerated, but she hasn't been allowed to live at home with her parents and siblings. She is back in school at the Alternative Education Center, but she's kept segregated from other classmates. She loves her job working in the kitchen at Chateau Girardeau, but it wasn't permitted under the conditions of her release.

"I can't go anywhere," Ayers said Thursday. "I can't go to the mall. I can't see my friends. I can't believe this is happening. I feel like I was set up. People are calling me a LGB. Me? Really?"

Those three seemingly innocuous letters represent what prosecutors say got Ayers in this predicament in the first place -- little gay basher.

Ayers was in a Jackson courtroom Thursday for a scheduled preliminary hearing to face felony charges of burglary and assault that have been tagged as a hate crime. Ayers is accused of being one of a group of juveniles who, on July 24, attacked a 41-year-old woman who lived across the street, allegedly because the woman is gay. That woman, Jeana Terry, claims that Ayers pulled her from her home where she was stomped, kicked and beaten as she was called anti-gay slurs. The altercation has left Terry with a fracture on her face and a fearful disposition, she said.

On Aug. 14, Ayers was certified as an adult as a newly turned 17-year-old, charged with the two counts and transferred from a juvenile detention center to the Cape Girardeau County Jail.

On Thursday, Ayers' lawyer, Jennifer Slone, waived the hearing and Judge Gary Kamp bound the defendant over to circuit court and set her next court date for 9 a.m. Sept. 24 in front of Judge Benjamin Lewis.

The proceeding got off to a bumpy start when Ayers was not in the courtroom at 10 a.m. when Kamp called out her name. Near the end of the proceeding, Slone asked the judge if he would be willing to modify Ayers' bond conditions to allow her to go back to work.

Kamp, clearly irritated, didn't seem interested.

"Job? She can't even show up in court on time," Kamp said. "She was close to going to jail. You're facing charges of 15 years on one count and four years on another and you don't even care enough to show up until you're 15 minutes late?"

Afterward, and against Slone's advice, Ayers and her mother and father agreed to a sit-down at a small park near downtown Cape Girardeau. Ayers' remarks during the sometimes tearful, hourlong interview were the first Ayers has made publicly about the incident.

"It was exaggerated -- we're not them type of people," she said. "The things people have been saying hurt me. What they have been saying ain't true."

Terry and her partner, Lisa Lange, have maintained that Ayers pulled her from her home and into the street with the intent to beat her up because she is gay. Terry, Lange and other residents on the 600 block of Park Avenue in Cape Girardeau say that Ayers and her siblings terrorized the neighborhood for months before the incident with a constant barrage of homophobic slurs, harassment and suggestive lingo.

Ayers suggested it is ridiculous to think that she has a prejudice against gay people. All but one of her friends, she said, is homosexual. Her favorite aunt is also a lesbian.

Ayers' parents, Calvin Ayers and Nancy Harris, say their children weren't perfect -- they played pranks, had fun and spent a good deal of time outside. But Terry and Lange would chastise their children for putting sticks in the street, running around outside and once suggested they were selling drugs. Underneath it all, Ayers and her parents say, were racist overtones and a deliberate effort to eject them from the neighborhood.

As for the altercation, Ayers acknowledges she got into a fight with Terry. But she denies ever pulling Ayers from her home. Ayers said the couple put their hands on her first after hearing her use the word "gay" while talking to a gay friend. She told her brother and he went to Terry's home, knocked on the door and told her he was going to beat her up.

Ayers suggested that while Terry has played the victim afterward, that afternoon Terry came out ready to fight. Ayers described the altercation as a one-on-one fight and not the group beat-down that Terry has described. She only fought Terry, she said, because her mother -- whom she called her role model -- always taught her to stand up for herself.

Terry on Thursday called Ayers' version of events a complete lie.

"She knew what she was doing," Terry said. "The whole time in between hits, they were calling me a dike and laughing. ... They were just laughing."

Ayers says now she just looks forward to the day when it's all over. She'd like to fight the charges all the way to trial, but she admits the possibility of being in prison until she's 31 terrifies her. She concedes, she said, she probably did assault Terry and Terry assaulted her. But no hate crime was committed, she said.

As for now, her family has already relocated from that street and Ayers hopes to be allowed to move from her aunt's home back in with her parents soon. With tears rolling down her cheeks, she says she still wants to go to college. Still wants to be like her mother and not the villain she's been made out to be.

Ayers said she's trying to be thankful for these hard times.

"I may cry myself to sleep," she said. "But I think all of this is just going to make me try harder."

smoyers@semissourian.com

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Pertinent address:

100 Court St., Jackson, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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