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Unprovoked attacks at heart of 'Knockout King'

By Jim Salter

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Dec. 24 2011 9:26 a.m. MST

In this Dec. 15, 2011 photo, Matt Quain poses for a portrait in St. Louis. Quain still struggles to piece together what happened after a recent trip to the grocery store nearly turned deadly when he was the victim of a brutal attack generally known as "Knockout King" or simply "Knock Out," a so-called game of unprovoked violence that targets random victims.

Jeff Roberson, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

ST. LOUIS — Matthew Quain still struggles to piece together what happened after a trip to the grocery store nearly turned deadly. He remembers a group of loitering young people, a dimly lit street — then nothing. The next thing he knew he was waking up with blood pouring out of his head.

The 51-year-old pizza kitchen worker's surreal experience happened just before midnight earlier this year, when he became another victim of what is generally known as "Knockout King" or simply "Knock Out," a so-called game of unprovoked violence that targets random victims.

Scattered reports of the game have come from around the country including Massachusetts, New Jersey and Chicago. In St. Louis, the game has become almost contagious, with tragic consequences. An elderly immigrant from Vietnam died in an attack last spring.

The rules of the game are as simple as they are brutal. A group — usually young men or even boys as young as 12, and teenage girls in some cases — chooses a lead attacker, then seeks out a victim. Unlike typical gang violence or other street crime, the goal is not revenge, nor is it robbery. The victim is chosen at random, often a person unlikely to put up a fight. Many of the victims have been elderly. Most were alone.

The attacker charges at the victim and begins punching. If the victim goes down, the group usually scatters. If not, others join in, punching and kicking the person, often until he or she is unconscious or at least badly hurt. Sometimes the attacks are captured on cellphone video that is posted on websites.

"These individuals have absolutely no respect for human life," St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said.

Slay knows firsthand. He was on his way home from a theater around 11:30 p.m. on Oct. 21 when he saw perhaps a dozen young people casually crossing a street. He looked to the curb and saw Quain sprawled on the pavement.

Slay told his driver to pull over. They found Quain unconscious, blood pouring from his head and mouth.

Quain was hospitalized for two days with a broken jaw, a cracked skull and nasal cavity injuries. He still has headaches and memory problems but was finally able to return to work earlier this month. Hundreds gathered in November for a fundraiser at the restaurant where he works, Joanie's Pizza, but he still doesn't know how he'll pay the medical bills.

"I don't remember much of what happened," Quain said. "I was hanging out with a friend, celebrating the Cardinals in the World Series. I went to the store and saw a group of kids who looked out of place, suspicious, but I shrugged it off. I got around to the library, and the next thing I remember is waking up on the corner with the mayor standing next to me. I tried to say 'hi' but my jaw was broken."

It isn't clear how long Knockout King has been around, nor is the exact number of attacks known. The FBI doesn't track it separately, but Slay said he has heard from several mayors about similar attacks and criminologists agree versions of the game are going on in many places.

St. Louis Police Chief Dan Isom said the city has had about 10 Knockout King attacks over the past 15 months.

Experts say it is a grab for attention.

"We know that juveniles don't think out consequences clearly," said Beth Huebner, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "They see something on YouTube and say, 'I want to get that sort of attention, too.' They don't think about the person they're attacking maybe hitting their head."

Scott Decker, a criminologist at Arizona State, said the attacks are a modern extension of gang-like behavior — instead of painting over another gang's graffiti as a show of toughness, they beat someone up and post a video on social media sites. The postings spur copycat crimes.

"It's adolescent and early adults, largely male, showing how tough they are. It's done to show off," Decker said.

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