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Black teen shot after ringing wrong doorbell is a gifted chemistry student and a 'gentle soul,' former teacher says

Ralph Yarl, 16, is recovering with two bullet wounds in Kansas City, Missouri.

Ralph Paul Yarl, the 16-year-old boy who was shot after he rang the wrong doorbell to pick up his brothers, is a “gentle soul” and gifted student who wants to study chemical engineering in college, a former teacher said. 

Ralph was shot Thursday evening after his parents asked him to pick up his 11-year-old twin brothers and he mistakenly went to a home in the 1100 block of Northeast 115th Street instead of Northeast 115th Terrace in Kansas City, Missouri, police said. 

A Good Samaritan who ran to Yarl's aid said, "He didn't deserve to get shot."

He was stable in a hospital with life-threatening injuries, police said. He was released Saturday and is recovering at home, said attorney Lee Merritt, who has been retained by the family.

Megan Lilien, who taught Ralph at the Missouri Scholars Academy, a three-week residential program for academically gifted students, said he was a "highly intelligent" and observant student, curious about the world.

He was among 330 rising high school juniors chosen last summer to attend the prestigious program, which requires a nomination, at the University of Missouri’s Columbia campus.

Ralph Yarl works in the chemistry lab at the Missouri Scholars Academy.
Ralph Yarl works in the chemistry lab at the Missouri Scholars Academy.Megan Lilien

“He was curious, intelligent. He’s quiet, but he’s literally taking in the world. You just notice. He’s just observing everything,” Lilien said.

She taught a college-level chemistry-based science class and spent about three hours in the lab with Ralph and about 17 other students every day of the program.

“He has this sweet face. He wasn’t the one who was talking all the time or answering all the questions, but you knew he was learning at all times. He was kind. He was definitely respected by everyone in the group,” Lilien said.

“He was still working, still trying to figure out the problem, when we had to wrap up,” she added.

She said the news of the shooting “has me feeling nauseous.”

“It’s devastating. There are no words. I just don’t know how something like this happens. It’s unimaginable. This is a kid who doesn’t deserve to be experiencing this in his life at all,” Lilien said. “I just have to think about the positive and that he’s going to be able to pursue his dream.”

On the last night of the summer program, as part of a tradition, the students light a candle and share a memory of a time at the camp that made a difference to them.

Lilien said Ralph’s memory touched her, but she did not want to share what he said. “I want to keep that sacred,” she said.

Ralph is also a clarinetist who recently earned Missouri All-State Band recognition with an honorable mention. 

Brad Hudson, the Missouri All-State Band coordinator, said that 1,500 students auditioned in December to be part of the Missouri All-State Band and that Ralph was recognized in the Honorable Mention Band for bass clarinet. Musicians in that category do not perform but are recognized in the program, he said.

Ralph, a junior at Staley High School in Kansas City, is an excellent student and a talented musician, the superintendent of North Kansas City Schools said in a statement Monday.

"He maintains a stellar GPA while taking mostly college level courses," Dan Clemens said. "While he loves science and hopes to pursue that career path, his passion is music. Thankfully, we know he is now recovering alongside family."

"I know that many of you share the same anger, frustration, shock and disbelief that I am experiencing now. We must allow time for the investigation to be completed."

A 'funny' friend, passionate about band and being with his family

Faith Spoonmore, Ralph’s aunt, said that he is "healing" and that the family is taking it "one day at a time."

“It’s day by day, minute by minute. He has his good times where we’ll remind Ralph, ‘You’re alive buddy,’ and then he has times where he’s like: ‘Why? I did nothing wrong. Why?’” she said.  

She described Ralph as a shy person with a dry sense of humor who loves music and engineering. He is also protective of his brothers and cousins, she said.

He wants to go to Texas A&M for chemical engineering, “because they have the most competitive program” and “he likes the competition,” Spoonmore said.  

Ralph’s classmate Aiden Brady, also a junior at Staley, described him as quiet in public but “very funny” among friends.

“When Ralph says anything, it has to be important,” he said. “Some even joke saying, ‘Shh, Ralph is talking.’”

Aiden, who met Ralph in middle school when they joined band together, called him a strong leader in their “band family.”

“Ralph knows so much, and when you ask him for help what he suggests always seems to be right,” he said. 

Another classmate, Elianna Brannlund, described Ralph as a “very kind and caring person” and "the smartest person I know.”

Elianna recalled Ralph’s staying with her a few months ago during all-district orchestra auditions, after his own auditions ended, as she waited for her later callback time.

“Ralph stayed with me all five hours to talk about music, school and life,” she said. “Even when he had the choice to go home.”

The shooting

Just before the shooting Thursday night, Ralph rang the doorbell of the home and waited for a response. When the door opened, he was confronted by a man who said, “Don’t come back around here,” and opened fire, shooting him in the head, said Merritt, one of the family’s attorneys, citing Ralph's account to police.

Ralph fell to the ground, and the homeowner fired a second time, hitting him in the arm, Merritt said.

Ralph mustered the strength to run, stopping at three homes for help. At the third house, a person inside gave him instructions to raise his arms and lie on the ground. Ralph lost consciousness, and police were called.

The shooting cast a spotlight on Missouri’s "stand your ground" law and sparked outrage on social media. It also prompted a weekend protest and calls for the shooter's arrest.

Monday evening, two felony counts were announced against a white man in his 80s: first-degree assault and armed criminal action, Clay County Prosecuting Attorney Zachary Thompson said Monday.

A warrant was issued for Andrew Lester, who is not in custody, Thompson said, adding that he did not know where Lester was.

Police Chief Stacey Graves said at a news conference Sunday that the shooter in the residence was taken into custody and held for 24 hours, the maximum time a felony suspect can be held until charges are filed. A firearm was also taken as evidence. 

Graves said the vast majority of felony suspects are released after 24 hours but are re-arrested later when enough evidence has been gathered for charges. Graves said that detectives are working “expeditiously” and that results will be sent to the Clay County prosecutor as soon as the investigation is completed.