I'm sorry, but this story made me laugh.


EAST ST. LOUIS — Everyone at the funeral thought Junior was dead. The casket was open after all.

His estranged wife wept as she placed a photo in the casket. Junior's 9-year-old son cried after he saw the body. Then, Grandpa says, the boy ran and climbed onto his lap.

More than 100 of Frederick McWherter Jr.'s family and friends attended House of Prayer to All Nations Church to pay their respects Wednesday to the 41-year-old man everyone still calls Junior. At least they thought they did.

In a case of mistaken identity, Junior was, in fact, not dead. He was in a downtown St. Louis drug rehab center about 7 miles from his own funeral. That wasn't Junior in the casket.

"Everybody there mourned Junior's death," his father, Frederick McWherter Sr., told the Post-Dispatch Sunday from his East St. Louis home. "If anyone thought that was someone different, no one said anything. I buried my son, I thought. That's what everyone thought."

McWherter Sr. was the one who identified the man as Junior in the first place. The similarity between the two men was uncanny, he said. And under the circumstances, he feels, it was a regrettable mistake any grieving father could make.

After all, Junior had a habit of disappearing, said McWherter Sr., 67, a retired journeyman mechanic. He and his wife, Gloria McWherter, were always on edge wondering whether the next telephone call would be bad news.

So when local TV stations ran an East St. Louis murder story on the morning of Feb. 15, Gloria McWherter was quick to turn off the TV, fearing the worst.

But a friend who regularly monitors a police scanner called to say the body of a man had been found on Wilford Avenue, the same street where McWherter Sr. owns a rental property. While out on an errand, he said, he decided to swing by.

"When I got there, I saw six cop cars, a hearse, yellow crime tape and a dead body," McWherter Sr. said. "A policeman came up and said, 'That body looks just like you.'"

McWherter Sr. said a policeman asked him to see whether he recognized the body. A coroner handed his camera to McWherter Sr. It showed a picture of a man who had been shot three times in the head.

"He looked just like my son," McWherter Sr. recalled. "He had two missing front teeth like my son. He had a beard like my son. The coroner asked if I needed to see another picture. I told him, 'I don't need another picture.' You'd think they were Siamese twins."

Investigators took fingerprints of the victim, but after McWherter Sr.'s identification, they didn't check them for a positive match, police said. While that's standard procedure, the department likely will now change its policy, East St. Louis police Detective Michael D. Floore said Friday.

McWherter Sr. said the events were so traumatic, he wasn't able to leave the scene on his own. "I'm still shaken up. I am not myself."

McWherter Sr. eventually called the House of Prayer to All Nations Church in Washington Park and asked the reverend whether they could hold a Wednesday funeral there. The place was packed, the father said. One by one, visitors passed by the open casket. No one said they doubted that was Junior.

But the next day, Junior's wife, Michelle McWherter, got an unexpected call. It was Junior himself, and he was alive in St. Louis at a rehab center to kick a crack habit, his dad said.

Michelle McWherter, who didn't return calls for comment, informed East St. Louis police that Junior was alive. Officials then ran the original fingerprints they had taken at the scene. The Illinois State Police database turned up the name Kenny Stainback, age 37.

On Thursday, the Post-Dispatch called McWherter Sr. about the mix-up, but he said he hadn't heard of any mistaken identity. Police later confirmed that his son was still alive. But McWherter Sr. still hasn't heard from Junior.

"I feel anguish," the father said Sunday. "I feel hurt. I'm still distraught. I feel relieved, but I'm frustrated I still haven't talked to him."

While police don't suspect McWherter Sr. was trying to deceive anyone, he has heard about talk around town that the family was trying to cash in on a $5,000 life insurance policy. But that would barely have paid for the funeral, the father said.

"I mean, $5,000?" McWherter Sr. asked. "I spend more on that on spare car parts."

When Gloria McWherter, McWherter Jr.'s stepmother, went to the beauty shop Saturday, she was scared people would ask how they weren't able to recognize Junior.

She and McWherter Sr. say that, despite the gunshot wounds, the victim looked like Junior. And the way Junior had gone missing before, it was almost to be expected.

"It was just a mistake," she said. "A mistake, a mistake, a mistake. Our hearts go out to that man's family. We'd like to express our sincerest condolences."

Kathleen Beecher, the mother of Kenny Stainback, said she would prefer an apology directly from the McWherter family. She's easy to reach, she said.

Meanwhile, she doesn't know when she'll get her son back, and a proper funeral is on hold until then. His body is still buried at Sunset Garden of Memory cemetery in Millstadt.

The cemetery workers tried to get the body out Friday, Beecher said, but the ground was too wet. They'll try again today