ST. LOUIS — On the night in 2016 that sealed her path to becoming St. Louis’ first Black circuit attorney, Kimberly M. Gardner had a message for her supporters: “I’m a people’s champ.”
Gardner won a decisive victory that night — without the endorsement of incumbent Jennifer Joyce, who had decided not to seek reelection, or the city’s powerful police union.
Instead, Gardner was swept into office by voters on the strength of her promise to deliver criminal justice reform, including holding police accountable. Coming two years after the Ferguson protests, her victory, she told supporters, was a chance to finally “heal our city.”
But more than six years after taking office and wounded by years of scandal, Gardner is instead stepping down, hoping to stave off an effort by the Legislature to strip her of most of her power.
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Since she announced Thursday she will resign, the Post-Dispatch interviewed 12 former and current staff members along with Gardner supporters and defense attorneys about where it went wrong for the once-promising reformer.
Those interviews reveal how Gardner’s vision to reshape criminal justice faltered in the face of powerful enemies and self-inflicted wounds caused by her failures as a manager: her inability to hire and keep qualified staff, avoid ethics violations or land the explosive prosecutions she took on.
Her critics, including Republicans and moderate Democrats, cite her downfall as a failure of her reform agenda. Gardner instead places blame on St. Louis judges, police and others who resisted her policy goals.
“Ever since I’ve been in this office I’ve been criminalized,” she said in a tearful live-streamed meeting with supporters the day after announcing her decision to step down. She continued: “It’s just sad how every side is against me.”
Prosecutors who spent time inside her office argue most staff who left were supportive of efforts to reduce the jail population, ease punishments on low-level crimes and increase diversion.
“I don’t think any of her issues have had to do with her policies. Yes, the police department opposed her, but tension with the police is just the nature of the work,” said Aaron Levinson, a former assistant circuit attorney who prosecuted violent crimes in the first 18 months of Gardner’s tenure.
Levinson said he decided to speak out now after watching Gardner expose his former colleagues to legal jeopardy and unfair conditions over the last six months. “All of her issues stem from the fact she was just a bad manager.”
The way up
Gardner’s path to leadership was never traditional: She grew up living above her family’s north St. Louis funeral home. She became a registered nurse before she got her law degree at St. Louis University Law School and took a job in the circuit attorney’s office assigned to the property crimes unit from 2005 through 2010.
In 2012, she was elected to the Missouri House, where she represented a north St. Louis district. Four years later, Gardner was one of four candidates to run for circuit attorney after Joyce, a 16-year veteran, announced she would not seek reelection.
Gardner had a key ally in then-U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, and also about $67,000 in funding from a political action committee, supported by megadonor George Soros, that helped support a wave of progressive prosecutors elected across the country that year. Gardner won with 47% of the vote.
Jennifer Lorentz, an assistant prosecutor in the office at the time, said she was all-in on Gardner’s vision in the early days.
“Her swearing-in was just really moving,” Lorentz said. “I’d say most of us in that office were excited about the change. There might be people who supported other candidates, but most of us were young and ready for what she campaigned on. Her agenda was really our agenda.”
Gardner came into an office with about 60 attorneys. Just one year after Gardner took over, Lorentz became the 32nd staff member to leave.
“I’m devastated what she did to that office,” Lorentz, now a criminal justice professor, said. “We were on her team and it felt right away she didn’t want us. When someone would leave, it was an attitude like — you’re all replaceable. I don’t think she knew how hard that would actually be.”
That rapid draining of experience and people to cover the duties of the office was a blow from which the office never fully recovered, staff interviewed by the Post-Dispatch said.
Staff clear out
Current and former attorneys who worked for Gardner described her as deeply suspicious at times of her staff, poor at communicating hierarchies and duties and reluctant to delegate.
Chris Faerber, who prosecuted gun-related felonies during Gardner’s first year, said early concerns were Gardner’s lack of experience prosecuting the most serious cases like homicides.
“I was hesitant about her experience, but we were optimistic she would be able to bring on a competent staff and advisers,” he said.
Staffers said Gardner soon fired Joyce’s executive staff — which was not a surprise — then began firing and reassigning leadership among units without making it clear who would replace them.
“I liken it to an Old West movie where a posse rides into town and burns it all down,” Faerber, now a defense attorney, said. “Everything was torn down and it didn’t seem like there was anything being built to replace it. A lot of people didn’t know who their boss was or what other people in the office were doing.”
Levinson, who prosecuted violent crimes, stayed until June 2018 when he resigned to relocate with his wife. By then, the majority of the staff in place when Gardner took office had left.
Levinson said there was widespread fear about getting fired, but attorneys were also raising ethical concerns, reporting that Gardner would push to continue prosecuting cases despite weak evidence.
“A lot of people had the sense to get out of there when they could,” Levinson said. “When you start getting ethical complaints there was no way to insulate yourself. Your name gets dragged through the mud.”
A Post-Dispatch analysis of staff lists showed that leaders were never able to hire enough people to replace the experienced prosecutors they’d lost, and by 2020 a waning team of people was assigned to the violent crimes unit.
Natalia Ogurkiewicz joined the office in 2020. She said trial backlogs from the COVID-19 pandemic and a new docketing system created a logistical problem that could not be solved with so few people and without concerted leadership. Cases languished. The city experienced a record year for homicides.
A long-running complaint over years of prosecutors interviewed by the Post-Dispatch was Gardner’s policy that she had to personally approve recommendations for plea deals and sentences, causing consistent delays and backlogs because of the volume of cases she would need to be consulted on.
Ogurkiewicz said, at one point, she approached Gardner about dismissing a robbery case after she learned the defendant had an airtight alibi for the time of the crime. Gardner promised to look into it, but eventually said no.
Ogurkiewicz took her file to the office’s chief trial assistant at the time, Marvin Teer, and told him she’d quit before she prosecuted a person she believed was innocent.
The file was eventually dismissed.
But Ogurkiewicz said she couldn’t square Gardner’s reticence to dismiss bad cases or her pattern of rejecting plea offers with her progressive platform. For example, she said, Gardner would reject plea offers giving some first-time offenders chances at rehabilitation in favor of a harsher penalty.
“She refused to give any of us any deference,” Ogurkiewicz said. “You ran on a progressive platform, but you’re literally making it impossible for us to do that.”
Samuel Hotchkiss was hired for the office in 2021. He worked in the warrant office on the court’s first floor, meeting with police and charging cases. He said he enjoyed the work and liked his colleagues, but the ongoing shortages were startling.
He said it reminded him a lot of his work as a rural public defender.
“It made it very difficult to keep everything afloat and to process cases, to do the basic functions,” he said. “It was a mirror image.”
Ultimately, Hotchkiss said, he left the office in March for a job in private practice where he could make more money.
In her livestream with supporters on Friday, Gardner said the staff drain was one of her biggest barriers to success.
“I inherited a really messed up office,” she said. “I kept it going with a shoestring budget — a bubblegum budget actually.”
Gardner argued people were set against working for her.
“You have to want to work for the person and unfortunately there’s people who just didn’t want to work for this office because I was circuit attorney, because I was a certain way. You have a certain philosophy looking at public safety and some people were more mass incarceration.”
Gardner added that when people left, the low pay of the job meant she didn’t have “a large pool of people knocking at our door.”
The salary for an entry-level attorney in the office rose from $40,000 to $60,000 during her time in office to stay competitive, she said.
Gardner also said people in positions of power began to spread warnings to law school grads.
“Judges were telling people you don’t want to work for her,” she said. She added that one potential hire told her: “I just can’t take the attacks.”
Faerber disputed Gardner’s characterization of the staff drain.
“If she actually believes that, she’s delusional,” he said, adding that low pay was always a sacrifice the longest-tenured people in the office were willing to make. “That is my opinion 100%. If she doesn’t believe it, she’s using it as an excuse.”
Patrick Hamacher, who lost to Gardner in the 2016 primary, but continued to work for her as an assistant prosecutor in her first year, also disagreed with Gardner on why people quit. Hamacher points out that for years attorneys hired by Gardner herself left and others went to work for other prosecutors’ offices across the region, including St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell, a Black prosecutor who also supports a reform agenda.
“If it was just ideology, that wouldn’t make sense,” he said.
The Rev. Darryl Gray, a Gardner supporter who rallied against efforts to remove her, said any understanding of Gardner’s tenure isn’t complete without recognizing the animosity and political pressure she faced from her opposition — with the St. Louis police union topping the list.
“The police union is one of the most powerful groups in St. Louis,” Gray said. “And they wanted her out.”
Gardner ran with promises of police accountability, but animosity intensified when in August 2018 it was leaked that Gardner’s office had created a list of city officers that her office would no longer accept as the primary investigators on cases.
Police Chief John Hayden called the list “unnecessary overreach.” Gardner argued “a police officer’s word, and the complete veracity of that word, is fundamentally necessary to doing the job.”
The police union regularly blasted Gardner’s charging decisions, pointing to bungled cases and by 2019 was publicly calling for her to step down over social media posts criticizing officers.
Ed Clark, union president at the time, said she was “sending messages to our officers and the community that she will always side with the criminal, whether he is an armed drug dealer terrorizing a neighborhood or a desperate criminal willing to kill a police officer to avoid returning to prison.”
Gray argues the exclusion list and criticism of police was Gardner doing exactly what she ran on —holding police responsible.
“St. Louis wasn’t ready for that,” Gray said. “They are used to the conservative, Midwest tough-on-crime prosecutor. They weren’t ready for what Gardner was trying to do to actually change the system.”
Gardner also attracted political enemies from outside the city with a series of high-profile prosecutions.
She stunned the state in February 2018 by announcing the indictment of sitting Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens on a felony invasion of privacy charge for allegedly taking and transmitting a non-consensual photo of a partly nude woman as part of an extramarital affair. It was soon revealed her investigators were never able to find any record of the photo central to the case.
The case fell apart during jury selection when Greitens’ defense team accused an outside investigator Gardner hired, William Don Tisaby, of failing to disclose witness statements favorable to Greitens and making false statements under oath. Gardner dropped the charge after a judge ordered she would be required to testify about Tisaby’s actions.
Greitens resigned as governor after Gardner agreed to drop a separate criminal case. Investigations into Gardner’s handling of the case lasted years ending with a reprimand and fine from the Missouri Supreme Court for Gardner and Tisaby pleading guilty to a misdemeanor evidence tampering charge.
In July 2020, Gardner was launched into national politics, facing a barrage of criticism from Republican politicians, the National Rifle Association, and President Donald Trump, over her decision to charge a Central West End couple, Mark and Patricia McCloskey, for brandishing guns at racial justice protesters. A judge dismissed Gardner’s office from the case after she mentioned the prosecution in fundraising emails. The couple pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges but were pardoned by Republican Missouri Gov. Mike Parson who had railed against Gardner’s decision to charge the couple.
Eventually, Gardner was forced to resign as the Republican-led Legislature threatened to appoint a special prosecutor to bypass her office and handle violent felonies. At the same time, she faced a suit to remove her from Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey, a Republican.
“No other office is the subject of such scrutiny, and any staff that experienced this, no matter their leader, would feel demoralized and broken,” her office said in a statement when Bailey’s suit was filed. “That is — of course — the attorney general’s goal — to break down the office until people quit, even if it means cases cannot be prosecuted.”
After six years of dysfunction, only about 20 attorneys remain in the circuit attorney’s office. Some cried when Gardner announced her resignation Thursday, but not everyone who remains is a supporter. Two attorneys said afterward they were planning to quit if Gardner didn’t resign.
Gardner said she plans to leave on June 1. Her replacement, who will be named by Parson, will serve through 2024.
“It’s going to be years to bring back what’s been lost,” said Jeff Ernst, a former assistant prosecutor who left Gardner’s office after about five months. “We all care about that office. Hopefully, some people will come back. It’s going to be a Herculean task to rebuild.”
Lorentz, one of Gardner’s former prosecutors, said she was hopeful the office could rebuild.
“We all cared so much about that office and the victims,” she said. “I think the right person could get some of them back. People have been watching the chaos and want to help.”
Taylor Tiamoyo Harris of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.
Kim Gardner photos through the years